OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 12 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       I didn't plan to miss the tears, but frankly, if I want to be--and to feel--emotionally manipulated, I'll go see a Spielberg movie. So, during the mop-up phase of the plaintiffs' case, and while the parents of the victims testified to the depth of their loss, your correspondent was in Australia, racking up obscene long-distance phone charges to read AP dispatches about the trial on the Web. When the phone companies talk, as they're beginning to do, about not getting their fair share of revenues from people surfing the Net, tell them to talk to me.
       Returning just as the defense was beginning its case by recalling Detective Phil Vannatter to the stand, I feel like the only person in the listening room who's still interested. One by one, reporters and legal commentators say things to me like, "I wish I could go home now," or, "Can't you get me a job in show business, even a snuff film?" As a fine rain falls on Santa Monica, Bob Baker is dragging Vannatter over familiar rhetorical coals: the absence of blood in the area where the Rockingham glove was found, the delays in calling criminalists and coroners to the crime scene at Bundy, the tortured logic used to justify going over the wall into the Rockingham property. Vannatter, who says he's "never lied"--a Fuhrmanesque declaration, if I've ever heard one--is matter-of-fact, patient, frustrated at times with his interrogator's aggressiveness. At one point, when Baker, who has musicianlike control of his voice, almost yells a question at him, Vannatter says, "I can hear you very well." Baker, who can't resist either a wisecrack or a comeback, replies, "You're going to hear a lot."
       So, as New Yorkers say to cab drivers, what's the damage? The judge won't allow much questioning on the rationale for going over the wall, so that rich vein produces little gold. Baker does manage to work Mark Fuhrman's name into every third question, so the absent detective hovers over the day like the Goodyear blimp. The attorney gets Vannatter to concede that police never asked for, nor searched the contents of, the Louis Vuitton bag.
       Then, things get wacky. Baker starts a line of questioning about Vannatter's assertion that Simpson's behavior during his interview with police was strange because O.J. never asked for details about the crime.
       "You had been with him at Rockingham, in the automobile going to Parker Center, and you told him nothing about the murders. Isn't that right?"
       "That's correct," the detective deadpans.
       "And he asked you for details about them, didn't he?"
       "No, he never asked me."
       "You went on television--what, seven, eight times--and said that Mr. Simpson never asked you anything about the murders."
       "He didn't."
       "Then we played the tape of his statement in which he very clearly says to you and Detective Lange, 'You guys haven't told me anything.' "
       "That was a statement, not a question."
       "You knew he'd just come in on a flight from Chicago, after a couple of hours' sleep at most? You knew he was tired?"
       "I knew I was tired."
       Despairing of making a dent, Baker then rolls the dice and plays for the jury O.J.'s entire interview with Vannatter and Lange on June 13, 1994. As heard in the listening room, the tape is hissier than a cassette dub of an Edison cylinder. But a few things do stand out from the arduous 35 minutes of listening: Never in the interview does O.J. ask the detectives anything about the murders. The quote Baker attributes to him, "Every time I ask you guys, you say you'll tell me in a bit," only comes when the detectives, after 20 minutes of questioning so gentle it wouldn't irritate a baby's bottom, ask Simpson, "So what happened, O.J.?" Simpson's voice sounds weary, with a few points of high energy, particularly as he's describing the ups and downs of his relationship with Nicole.
       Apropos of Simpson's testimony two weeks ago, he speaks often on the tape of getting "the phone and everything,"--not the phone accessories--out of the Bronco. And, in a moment that jumps out at you only when you play it back mentally, Simpson explains why he doesn't remember exactly how or when he cut his finger in the rush to leave the Rockingham estate for his flight to Chicago: "Anybody who's ever picked me up will tell you, 'O.J.'s a whirlwind.' " I play this back, and imagine a juror doing the same, juxtaposing the sentence with the frequent assertions that Simpson was too arthritic to engage in robust pursuits like double murder, juxtaposing it also with Dr. Werner Spitz's scenario of a crime lasting no more than a furious minute and a half. "O.J.'s a whirlwind." If the jurors are engaging in the same mental tape editing as I am, Baker may yet regret spending this half-hour trying to trip up Vannatter on a relatively trivial point.
       But it gets wackier. Last week, during what I like to think of as the trial's Australia period, Judge Fujisaki instructed the jury to disregard completely the colloquy between Petrocelli and Simpson on the subject of the defendant's failure in a polygraph test (or, in Simpson's construction, of a polygraph test test). Having heard from a good two-thirds of the civilized world (and, more importantly, from all the guests on Rivera Live) that allowing the verboten subject into the trial was the bane of a lower-court judge's existence--a reversible error--Fujisaki retreated, and urged the jurors' minds to retreat with him.
       Now, during this tape, Vannatter brings up the subject of--of course you're way ahead of me, I have jet lag--polygraph testing. In case the jurors were still under the judge's sway and had wiped away the memory of the word "polygraph" the minute they heard the judge's injunction, Baker follows up:
       "You apparently brought up the subject of polygraph testing to Mr. Simpson previous to starting this tape."
       "Me?" Vannatter asks. "No."
       "When you said, quote, 'Did Mr. Weitzman, your lawyer, your attorney, talk to you, anything about this polygraph we brought up before,' were you talking about you brought up a polygraph [sic] to Mr. Weitzman, not Mr. Simpson?"
       "I didn't say that. That was [sic] Detective Lange's words."
       "You were still there? You hadn't left the room yet?"
       "I was still there, yes."
       "And Detective Lange was not at Rockingham, was he?"
       "No."
       "Detective Lange was not in the vehicle when you came from Rockingham to Parker Center, was he?"
       "No.
       "And my question, then, again to you, is: Did, in fact, you bring up a polygraph to Mr. Weitzman in front of Mr. Simpson?"
       "No."
       "And did you want Mr. Simpson to take a polygraph test?"
       "I would have liked for him to, sure."
       "In fact, Mr. Simpson made an offer in writing to you to take a polygraph test, did he not?"
       A welter of objections from Petrocelli and John Q. Kelly follows, and Vannatter is never allowed to answer that question, on the grounds that the "offer" is self-serving hearsay.
       So, has Baker fixed the polygraph situation by (essentially) repeating the assertion he made in his opening statement without corroboration--as yet--from a sworn witness? Or, has he exacerbated it by bringing the forbidden word back to the jury's consciousness, where it might rub up against other forbidden words, like "O.J. failed the test, scoring a minus 22, which indicates extreme deception"? This may be an hour in the courtroom that Baker might want his son, Phil (who is sitting behind the Elmo, taking Dad's orders), to study in order to never emulate.
       The attorney moves to somewhat surer ground, which is not necessarily any more advantageous for his client, though. He needles Vannatter about the obvious incompleteness of the interrogation:
       "You asked all the questions you and your partner thought necessary, correct?"
       Vannatter is uneasy at the assertion that he did his job. "I don't think that's true."
       Baker points out that Lange and Vannatter had O.J. alone in that room--no attorneys present, no time parameters set by Simpson or his attorneys--and that the two detectives, with decades of experience between them, were looking for "any evidence" on Mr. Simpson, "the prime suspect in a high-profile murder case, right?"
       "Yes."
       Left unsaid, of course, are the magic words of this case--preferential treatment for celebrities. Baker intends this sequence to demonstrate nothing more than ineptitude, and the retired detective still clings to the pretense that the Los Angeles Police Department protects and serves all citizens equally. So, like so much of the police behavior depicted during the criminal trial, the soft incompleteness of the detectives' first (and last) crack at the defendant is unexplained and--perhaps to jurors lacking a lifelong suspicion of cops--inexplicable.
       Baker now takes Vannatter through the photographing of Simpson's left hand, primarily to point out that the detective only saw two cuts, that only one was photographed or pointed out to the nurse who drew blood. Then it's into familiar territory, Vannatter's decision to hand-carry Simpson's blood reference sample to Dennis Fung at Rockingham, rather than book it into evidence at Parker Center. Even die-hard partisans of the prosecution and plaintiffs' cases will never quite be able to swallow the detective's tortured explanation for this maneuver. Baker, with one of his "how about answering my question?" demands, gets Vannatter to concede this could well be the only time in his career that he's done such a thing.
       The explanation, reprised here, is that it would have taken a long time to get a "D.R." number from the West Los Angeles police station, and that, man of action that he is, Vannatter preferred to jump into a car, drive halfway across the city during rush-hour traffic, and hope--because he admits he didn't know for sure--that Fung was still at Rockingham. It doesn't make Vannatter, in Cochran's words, a "devil of deception," but it doesn't exactly earn him a place next to Honest Abe, either.
       The power goes out in the listening trailer. Southern California Edison has a habit of succumbing to rain, as if precipitation comes as a total surprise to the power system every year. The courtroom stays up, and the more enterprising of us scurry over to the Doubletree listening room in time to catch Baker's cadenza, in which he makes one more notable slip-up. Warming up to his finale of accusatory questions, the attorney asks Vannatter how many television shows he's been on to denounce Baker's client.
       The detective estimates seven or eight shows, and then, before Baker can stop him, Vannatter continues, damningly: "I believe your client is guilty of murder." Phil, don't do this, either.
       Building to his climax, Baker elicits the fact that Vannatter, Lange, and "two others" will share in a $115,000 book deal--small potatoes in this circuit, another reason why it's better to be a prosecutor than a cop--and then attacks:
       "You are attempting to cooperate as fully as possible with the plaintiffs in this case because you hope that this appearance will help you get more money on your book deal. Isn't that true?"
       "I would give the book deal up not to have to be on this stand today. I'm not happy to be here."
       "You want Mr. Simpson to be held responsible for these killings so that your book deal is better and so you will be vindicated for your inactions [sic] in investigating O.J. Simpson. Isn't that true?"
       "Whatever happens here is out of my control."
       Baker manages to slide in the name of Mark Fuhrman one more time--like him, Vannatter could have refused an out-of-state subpoena, so the detective, despite his displeasure, is here voluntarily--and the questioning ends with a final accusation:
       "You wanted to shade your testimony as much as possible in favor of the plaintiffs in this case. True or untrue?"
       "Untrue."
       Moments later, as I'm leaving the Doubletree, Vannatter's coming in out of the rain. He might be thinking about his testimony. He might be thinking about the wife he told Baker he left alone back in Indiana. But he seems, at this moment, to be thinking like a cop. He asks the host at the closed downstairs restaurant, "Any place around here I can get a cup of coffee?"

Harry Shearer is a writer, actor, and director who has met both Kato Kaelin and Heidi Fleiss.