OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 28 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       Here, as they say in journalism, is the lead: O.J. Simpson told us for two-and-a-half years that he couldn't wait to get on the witness stand to tell his story. He even titled his book from prison I Want to Tell You. When he finally did get on the stand, what he wanted to tell us was--that he didn't know.
       He didn't know how he cut his hand. He didn't know how he broke the glass in the Chicago hotel room. He didn't know how his blood ended up in the Bronco, on his foyer floor, in his driveway, and he didn't know where the gloves he was seen wearing at football games are today. He didn't know his new girlfriend had broken up with him on the morning of the murders.
       On Monday, Simpson goes on the no-adverbs diet. His Friday testimony was littered with absolutelys. That was the confident O.J. He comes back after the weekend very different, Simpson in a subjunctive mood. And the change, perhaps urged on him by his attorneys to avoid too many Fuhrman-like declarations that lack surface credibility and crumble on further inspection, makes him look as if he's retreating under fire. If his first day of adverse direct examination by Daniel Petrocelli was a pretty well-matched (to use a Keith Jacksonism) tussle, the second day begged for a ref to step in and stop the fight. The questioning was so relentless, the pace--not to mention the subject matter--so intense, I needed a good shoulder rub at the end of the day. And the entire spectacle was so riveting that, had it been televised, as it should have been, not a lick of work would have been performed in this country all day. The culture may not owe a debt of gratitude to Judge Fujisaki, but the economy sure does.
       Petrocelli begins Monday, as he did Friday, like a man possessed. I'm told he has cereal for breakfast. If so, it must be one hell of a great cereal. He forces O.J. to spend another awkward hour swatting at the gnat of an issue that won't go away: his insistence that--despite cell-phone records to the contrary, despite statements to the contrary that he made to Dr. Lenore Walker--he never picked up Paula Barbieri's message telling him she was ending the relationship and going out of town. One can only wonder what he's protecting: The man buys more than two hours of grief on the stand for denying something that, if admitted, is far from incriminating. It just keeps getting worse, and Petro, like a dog who's already removed the squeak from a squeaky toy, keeps pawing around to see what else is in there:
       "You told the police [on June 13] that you picked up your messages."
       "Uhhhh ... I believe so."
       "Now, your story, sir, told in your deposition earlier this year, is that, well, you did get a message from Paula, but it was when you called her phone machine and there was a message on there for anybody who would call her machine, right?"
       "Yes."
       "And just like when you call my house and I say, 'We're not home right now, please leave a message,' that sort of message, right?"
       Bob Baker interjects: "He wouldn't call your house."
       "That sort of message."
       "That's correct."
       "You want to tell this jury under oath that, when you called Paula's machine, the number anybody could call, there was a whole long message about you and about golf and about her being unhappy and so forth. Is that the story?"
       "That's--that's incorrect."
       "There was a whole long message on her machine directed to you. Is that the story?"
       "I believe it was directed more to me, but it wasn't about golf, no."
       "But anybody could listen to it, right?"
       "Yes."
       "And it's all about you, right?"
       "No, it was about her being out of town."
       "So when Lenore Walker wrote in her notes, a whole long message about golf, don't--you say it's all false, right?"
       "That's--"
       "False."
       "Yes, it's false, yes."
       Notice how many times during that exchange Petrocelli manages to slide into question form his assertion that what O.J. is offering is "your story." If you don't like what's going on, it's slimy lawyering. If you do, it's skilled advocacy.
       And if the unexamined life is not worth living, O.J.'s life the night of June 12 is worth living repeatedly. Petrocelli leaves no moment unexamined.
       "When you went to Kato's room that night, your state of mind was that you were going to go out [to McDonald's] alone, isn't that right?"
       "Yes."
       "You'd never gone to his room to tell him that you were going out."
       "That's true."
       Of course, Kato invites himself along, and testifies that O.J. "paused" before endorsing the invitation. Is the jury not supposed to conclude that Simpson was going to Kato's room, not to seek companionship on a burger run, but to begin alibi construction? They are indeed.
       Now comes an issue involving Paula Barbieri that makes it all too clear why Simpson must dodge and weave. He told the police that he called her--on his cell phone, from his Bronco, on his way over to her house--at 10:03 p.m. the night of the murders.
       "You told the police you drove to Paula's after the recital, and you made the call to her from your cell phone, true or untrue?"
       "True."
       "It's different now, isn't it?"
       "It's accurate."
       "It's different, sir, isn't it?"
       "Yes."
       O.J. now says he indeed called Paula from the cell phone, but that he had retrieved the cell phone from the Bronco an hour or two earlier. This would be fine, except he also told the detectives that the last thing he did, at 11 p.m., while rushing around to leave for Chicago, was retrieve the cell phone from the Bronco. This is one for the oops! file.
       Petrocelli reads from the statement to the police, then confronts O.J.: "Did you say that, yes or no?"
       "I said that and more."
       "Do you think the transcript of your interview is inaccurate?"
       "I know it is."
       "You're saying the police statement is wrong, because you don't want the cell phone in the Bronco at 11 o'clock. You don't want it to be there because if it was there at 11, it was there at 10, and if it's there at 10, you're in your Bronco and you're not in your home, and it destroys your alibi."
       Baker has to interrupt the flow. "All that is great final argument and great sound bites, Your Honor, but it's not a proper question."
       "No speaking objections, please."
       "I don't take legal advice from any adversaries."
       Fujisaki finally rules: "Sustained."
       Anybody who blames the camera in the courtroom for the antics in the first trial should have been here during Simpson's testimony. As the stakes rise, as the tension level increases, so does the propensity for mud wrestling. It is, in short, becoming just like the good old days.
       Allowed by the judge to frame questions in an ultra-skeptical way, Petrocelli can't resist doing it over and over again:
       "So what's your story now, sir, if you didn't get the cell phone out of the Bronco at 11 o'clock, what did you get?"
       "The phone comes with accessories ..."
       "You got cell phone accessories? ... You specifically remember the phone not being in the Bronco at 10:03, correct?"
       "That's correct."
       This is tar you'd need an 18-wheeler to pull you out of. The most muscular vehicle in Simpson's fleet, as we all know, is a Bronco.
       "And you told the police, 'I was rushing to get my phone and put a little thing on it,' right?"
       "Correct."
       "And earlier you said the last thing you did when you were talking to the police was you got your phone out of the Bronco, right?"
       "That's what I said, yes."
       "You were calling Paula, driving in your Bronco to Bundy, calling Paula 'cause you were desperate and you were alone that night, true?"
       "Untrue."
       "Argumentative, Your Honor," Baker objects.
       "Overruled," the judge sighs. Two things are happenings here. The witness is forgetting what his lawyers have told him, what they tell any witness, which is to wait to answer the question until you're sure we don't have an objection. When Simpson answers first, he makes the point virtually moot. Also, you might think Baker is objecting late. That gets worse, too. But Petrocelli isn't through with this train of thought, and O.J. is tied to the tracks.
       "You'd have no other reason for calling Paula at 10:03 p.m., you called her all day, true?"
       "Argumentative," Baker says.
       "Did you not call Paula all day long starting about 2:12, with your phone records there [on the screen for everyone to see]."
       "Argumentative, vague, ambiguous, asked and answered."
       "I called--"
       "Overruled."
       "I called Paula a few times that day, yes."
       "And you knew that she was gone?"
       "Not really, no."
       "You told Dr. Lenore Walker she was in Las Vegas or Arizona. I just read in her notes you told her that February 25, 1995."
       "Among other things, yes."
       "So you knew Paula wasn't home."
       "No."
       "You were desperately trying to get in touch with her, weren't you?"
       "I wouldn't have called if I didn't think she might have been around."
       "Your story, now, sir, is you were looking for a ride to the airport."
       "That if she was still in town, that it was still not too late for her to take me to the airport."
       "You knew a limo had been arranged by your secretary, Cathy Randa, to be at your house at 10:45 like clockwork, like always, right?"
       "Yes."
       "So--so now you say that you made the phone call standing from where, sir, on the cellphone?"
       "I was in my front yard near--if you have a picture of my front yard--near where my Bentley was parked."
       "Before I show you the front yard, how many phone calls did you make on your cellular phone all day on June 12, outside of your Bronco?"
       "This would have been the only one."
       Taken on its own, Simpson's version of events isn't totally out of the realm of plausibility. But the way Petrocelli forces it to be extruded, and the fact that it follows a sequence in which Petro has allowed O.J. to contravene Dr. Walker, the police, and the phone records, it plays like farce gone flat.
       What Simpson says he got from his Bronco later was not his cell phone, but the accessories that go with it. Why, Petro demands, didn't O.J. get the accessories package when he supposedly got the phone out of the Bronco much earlier? "It was right there on the passenger seat."
       "I didn't look for it."
       "How could you miss it?
       "I didn't look for it."
       Simpson has previously testified his arthritis was acting up that night, that he was stiff, which explains why he took the Bentley to get a burger: "It was the closest car." Petrocelli now reminds him of that and contrasts it with what might seem to be unnecessary trips out to the Bronco. He elicits the fact that Simpson has "a lot" of phones all around his house, that O.J. could have made the 10:03 call to Paula from any of those, but that apparently he just chose instead to run up a cell-phone bill. "I often don't [use the portable phone in the kitchen]."
       "Who's talking about often? I'm asking about this night."
       Now Petrocelli apparently loosens the noose a little bit. He invites Simpson to narrate his version of the events that transpired next. This seems, on first blush, to be an error, asking an open-ended question that allows O.J., for the first time all morning, to stretch out and tell it his way. It's a narrative full of little details: the specific kind of golf club he was looking for (a sand wedge); all the places he looked for it; looking for a sleeve of new golf balls, finding some scuffed ones, chipping those; hitting the playground equipment on one shot and cringing because he feared the shot might ricochet onto the Bentley, "and I'd just finished getting all the dents out of it"; chasing Chachi over to a neighbor's yard where "she did her business"--where is this going? Here's where: At the end, Petro says, "I bet if I asked you to repeat that story now, you could do it word for word." Simpson rehearsed this tale, the lawyer asserts, brought down from San Francisco a team of lawyers he'd never met before to conduct a mock cross on this story, just to make sure he'd get it right. Because this period of time is the alibi. After a blizzard of objections from Baker is swatted away, on the grounds that practice rounds with lawyers aren't privileged, O.J. answers:
       "I did have some lawyers come down who I paid, they did question me on some things, yes." It's perfectly legal and reasonable to practice being cross-examined. It's something we don't go through in the course of normal day-to-day life, unless we're married. But here's the rub:
       "You didn't tell the police any of these details. Did you tell the police 13 hours after Nicole's death about chipping golf balls, yes or no?"
       "No."
       "Did you tell the police that you took a walk and your dog did its business on the Sheinbaums' lawn?"
       "No."
       "Did you tell the police that you made calls to Paula from your driveway?"
       "No."
       "You told that story in your deposition only after you had seen all the witnesses and all the evidence, correct?"
       "I think my deposition was after all that, yes."
       Baker, who's been interposing objections to no avail all through this exchange, has had enough. "Great sound bite. Horribly argumentative."
       Petro snaps back: "If he has a legal objection, make it. But this stuff about sound bites is showboating."
       Fujisaki seems to be joining the party late. "Excuse me?"
       "This is showboating," Baker complains. "Right there is showboating."
       Incidental fact: Harold Prince's revival of Showboat has just opened in Los Angeles
       But Petrocelli isn't through with this sequence even yet. After the morning break, I actually get to sit in the courtroom--eat your heart out, Miss "Don't Even Think About It"--when O.J. is forced to listen to, not that transcript of the police interview that he contests, but the actual, scratchy, hissy tape. On the tape, Simpson says the last thing he did, rushing to catch a plane, was get his phone out of the Bronco. Vannatter says, "mmm." Simpson says, "Whatever that is." "Whatever that is"--those three words are now O.J.'s lifeline to his alibi. He insists that those words are what's left out of the transcript, and that when he said them, it wasn't verbal filler, but a specific reference to the cell-phone accessories. I'd pay not to be O.J. right about now. Petro points out that in the following exchanges with the cops, O.J. always used the word phone, never the word accessories, and then lets the subject drop, a thoroughly picked-over carcass.
       So now that I'm in, what do I see? Dressed in his usual gray suit, white shirt, and a patterned blue tie, Simpson cocks his head slightly as he listens to the questions, then leans into the microphone to answer them. The jurors, whose faces are unreadable in normal circumstances, are now showing us the tops of their heads. So intent are they on scribbling in their notebooks that they take only furtive peeks at the two combatants. Petrocelli, ramrod straight, stands at the lectern, facing Simpson, then walks to the easel to the defendant's left, asks a question, and stares, not at Simpson, but straight ahead as the witness answers. The room is, of course, packed. I have the feeling that what I'm watching will not only be re-enacted the following night on E!; it will be re-enacted thousands of times, in some tepid theatrical retelling, on Broadway stages and in high-school auditoriums. I feel like a spectator at the Scopes trial. Americans flock to the most mundane brushes with the most dubious celebrities on the grounds that they want to be "part of history." Well, history, here we are.
       Petrocelli tries to make something out of the fact that O.J., supposedly in the shower, hears the bathroom phone ring, knows it's probably the limo driver arriving, but doesn't buzz him in. Simpson says that's what he always does; he always waits for his housekeeper to let limo drivers on the property. Petro keeps saying, "Who's talking about always? We're talking about that night." Of course, that night, the maid had been given dispensation by O.J. to stay late at Knott's Berry Farm, for "Philippine Independence Day or something."
       It's useful to contrast the Baker-Petrocelli relationship with that of, say, Cochran and Darden in Trial 1. The way it looked on TV, Mr. Johnnie could push the buttons of the Sensitive Prosecutor any time he wanted, disrupt his rhythm, distract him into a playground version of the dozens. At the end, Cochran would have a smile on his face as if he ate not only the canary, but the canary's owner. Baker tries to disrupt the jackhammer, staccato rhythm of this examination, but if Petro has buttons, and he surely does, Baker can't find them. At one point, he objects to Petrocelli standing by the easel next to his client:
       "Just a minute, Your Honor, this in-your-face. Maybe Mr. Petrocelli can go back and get at the--get at the podium, since he's not doing anything over there except pointing at my client."
       Petrocelli ignores him. "Mr. Simpson--"
       Baker raises his voice. "Would you direct him to get back to the podium if he's not going to be up around and doing anything with that exhibit around the board?"
       The judge sighs his little sigh. "Overruled. You've done the same thing with other witnesses, Mr. Baker."
       Baker's explosion sputters out like a bum 4th of July sparkler. "Not when I--when I was using the monitor, Your Honor." Petrocelli hasn't moved.

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