OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 25 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       So, how'd he do? That's the question being asked by virtually everyone Friday afternoon and evening, following the first day of sworn testimony before a jury by O.J. Simpson since his ex-wife and a friend were murdered two-and-a-half years ago. It's an unanswerable question, for a couple of reasons. First, thanks to the sudden lack of comity on the part of the people I share a courtroom seat with, I saw none of the first day's testimony, subsisting only on the new-and-improved (i.e., less hum, no buzz) audio feed. Radio listeners to the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, you may recall, thought Nixon won. Second, the implication of that question is, "How'd he do with the jury?" and, as we all ought to have learned by now, jurors are harder to predict than racehorses, or voters.
       The more interesting question, given the O.J. case's status as the 800-pound gorilla of American pop luridness, is: Did the first day of O.J.'s testimony live up to the hype? Hype itself having become such an art form in late-20th-century Western culture that it's only a matter of time before the first Museum of the Press Release opens its doors, we have all become sadly accustomed to a parade of cultural milestones--from the introduction of New Coke to the yearly arrival of the Super Bowl--whose buildup far overwhelms the actual event. There is even a word, among PR practitioners, for this phenomenon: "anticipointment." Somebody had to tell you.
       Judged by this standard, O.J. Day 1, which began 20 minutes after its scheduled 9 a.m. start and ended just as the sun was disappearing behind rain clouds at 4, did a better job of living up to its hype than, let's say, any event with a Roman numeral in its name. The transcontinental planes must have been full of lawyers and television guys Thursday, because the Santa Monica contingent had swelled enormously by the time O.J. took the stand. The squat, one-story television platforms that had defined the skyline of Camp O.J. by the Sea had been joined, overnight, by two-story towers to house the newly expanded network presences. The Doubletree listening room, so recently as empty as a library on Turkish Poetry Day, was SRO. CNN had sent everyone out here except Christiane Amanpour, and the network now had an entire, room-long table full of its reporters and writers. Other media had heavied up, too, and sitting down at the end of one table was none other than Lawrence Schiller, here representing whom? He told one reporter who inquired, "You know I never disclose my employer," but he turns out to have paid his way into the listening room by himself. He is representing Lawrence Schiller, and although he loves to describe himself as a journalist, during every break in the testimony, he is spinning to the adjoining reporters with an intensity that would make George Stephanopoulos sweat.
       The first words O.J. speaks when court finally gets under way are, "I do." The same words that bind you in a marriage vow start a day of testimony in a trial about the wrongful death of your one-time wife. The final words out of the defendant's mouth as questioning ends are, "Absolutely not true," and, "Absolutely incorrect," repeated replies to Daniel Petrocelli's sentence-by-sentence recounting of the plaintiffs' theory that O.J. drove to Nicole's condo, killed her, killed Ron Goldman, hid a glove back at Rockingham, and bled all over the place. In between, it's mano a mano all day long. Petrocelli questions rapidly, sometimes not waiting for O.J. to finish an answer. There's a time limit imposed by two courts on O.J.'s availability, and Petro has not a moment to waste. The questioning is methodical, precise, well prepared, delivered in a flat, unemotional voice that conveys none of Bob Baker's sarcasm or incredulity. It's neither a velvet caress nor a battering ram to the solar plexus, just persistent and unrelenting, like a roof leak in a downpour. O.J. spends much of the day trying to place buckets where it's dripping.
       He's clearly been told to keep the answers short, and the testimony is filled with one-word confirmations and negations; in the afternoon, the adverbs arrive, almost always "absolutely." He keeps his voice low, his pace measured. If these two guys were sleepless last night, it doesn't show.
       Until the final litany of accusations, there is no mention of gloves, cap, shoes. There's little mention of blood. There is one chillingly phrased question about the fact that this man who has everything doesn't have an alibi:
       "Between 9:35 and l0:55 p.m. on the evening of June 12, 1994, there is not a single living human being you can identify to this jury who saw you or spoke to you, correct?"
       "Absolutely true."
       The day is devoted to two themes. On the surface, the subject of the questioning is the nature and quality of O.J.'s relationship with Nicole Brown Simpson and, late in the day, with his subsequent girlfriend, Paula Barbieri. Underlying this line of questioning is the desire to confront O.J. with as many sources as possible that contradict his version of events, and to make him renounce these sources--Nicole's diary, his own statement to police, his deposition, Paula's deposition, and most damagingly, his own cell-phone records--as lies. This pattern is established early, when O.J. is audibly sighing before many of his answers, and drawing out a long, strange, "Yyyyyes" when Petrocelli asks about the date Nicole filed for divorce:
       "During the 17 years you were with Nicole, there were good times and bad times?" Petrocelli asks.
       "Mostly good. A few bad," O.J. answers.
       "There were more than a few bad times, weren't there?"
       "Like most relationships, there's ups and downs."
       "We're not talking about most relationships, Mr. Simpson, we're talking about yours. Did you not tell Los Angeles Police Department detectives that you always had problems in your relationship with Nicole, that it was a problem relationship? Yes or no?"
       "Yes."
       "That it had been a problem relationship, is that what you said, that 'I always had problems with her'?"
       "Yes."
       "When you said that, was that true?"
       "When I said it, yes."
       When he said it, Nicole had been dead for 12 hours.
       The picture Petrocelli is painting of the Brown-Simpson marriage is not the one-sided controller/stalker/killer caricature drawn by the criminal prosecution. It's a picture, rather, of two strong-willed people fighting over control of one of them:
       "It's also true that in the relationship with Nicole, the two of you knew how to push each other's buttons, isn't it?"
       After a long pause, O.J. answers, "Yes."
       We never learn during this day, aside from O.J. saying that she hit him "a few times," how Nicole pushed his buttons--though a bumper crop of stories has sprouted, like desert wildflowers in April, since the crime. Petrocelli is homing in on how O.J. pushed her buttons.
       "You're aware that Nicole told others that you hit her?"
       "Yes."
       "You're aware that her writings describe numerous instances when you hit her?"
       Bob Baker objects. He objects more often during this day than he has in the trial to date. The vast majority of his objections, like this one, is overruled.
       "Yes."
       "Is it your view that all that is false?"
       "Yes."
       Petrocelli has gotten O.J. to call the murder victim a liar before the morning's first break.
       Now, the lawyer takes O.J. back to New Year's Day, 1989. Whether you think O.J. was a habitual wife-batterer or a guy who made a mistake or two, Jan. 1, 1989, was an undeniably abusive occasion. If O.J. could have brought himself to say those words, he might have saved himself a very unpleasant hour.
       Petrocelli: "Did your hand make contact with her face? Yes or no?"
       "I don't know."
       According to people inside the courtroom, the lights are down, and the famous photos of the battered Nicole are on the 32-inch Mitsubishi just to the left of O.J.
       "Tell this jury exactly how you caused these injuries."
       "I don't know exactly how these injuries happened. I do know that I'm responsible for everything that happened."
       And so one of the day's lesser battles is joined, the contest between psychobabble and lawyerspeak:
       "Just tell the jury exactly what you did."
       "I don't know exactly how the injuries took place."
       "You said in your deposition you know exactly what you did."
       "I feel totally responsible for what happened."
       "I'm not asking you how you feel, I'm asking you what you did."
       "I don't know that I caused any injury."
       It gets squirmier. Petrocelli tries to get O.J. to repeat one of his more disturbing versions of the event, that much of what we see on Nicole's face is the result of her "cleaning and picking her face," but O.J. is "not sure" he said that in his own sworn deposition, a document with which he is undoubtedly familiar by now. Then:
       "Do you see the split lip? How did that get there?"
       "I assume that happened once our ... our altercation began. I rassled her out of the room, and I don't know what happened to her after that."
       Petrocelli restrains himself from asking whether her other ex-husband was waiting outside the bedroom door to beat her up. He does ask, "What did you do with your hand or your foot to cause that split lip?"
       "I don't know."
       "What did you do to cause the welt over her right eye?"
       "I don't know."
       O.J. does deny striking, slapping, hitting, or beating his wife, ever. More than one observer pegs this as a Fuhrman moment, an instant where a witness makes an unequivocal statement that no one in the courtroom, apart from blood relatives, can believe.
       It goes on.
       "Did you put your fingers on her throat and leave marks on her throat?" Those marks are clearly visible in the photos.
       "I'm not sure I did."
       "You're aware that she had such marks?"
       "I'm aware she said she did." Ouch. That damn Nicole, making up hand marks on her neck, just to push his buttons.
       O.J. offers to "rassle" Petrocelli to demonstrate how the event transpired. This surely rings an Ito bell in Judge Fujisaki's brain, and he denies the attorney and the witness the opportunity to, as O.J. always puts it, "get physical."
       "One thing you're sure of," Petrocelli says. "These injuries didn't occur from your fist striking her face?"
       "That's correct."
       "You told a very different account of this event to Dr. Lenore Walker, didn't you?"
       "I don't believe so."
       Dr. Walker is a domestic-abuse expert who was on the defense's witness list in the criminal trial, but was never called to testify.
       "You saw Dr. Walker taking notes?"
       "Yes."
       The argument continued when O.J. followed Nicole down to the room of the maid, Michele.
       "At no time did you tell Dr. Walker you punched Nicole or had her in a headlock downstairs?"
       "No. We probably touched, but I wouldn't describe it as physical. ... She pushed the phone at me, and I was trying to make her be still."
       There are a few times during the day when the choice of words forces you to imagine Bob Baker's brain screaming out, "Rewrite!" This is one of them. Trying to make her be still is, after all, what this trial is all about.
       "You heard testimony that Nicole told [police] officers that you punched her and pulled her hair?"
       "Yes."
       "Were those true statements?"
       "No."
       "The next day, she went to St. John's Hospital."
       "Yes."
       A very good emergency hospital, by the way, if you ever clean and pick your face too much on the west side of Los Angeles
       "Are you aware that Nicole told the doctor at the emergency [room] that you hit her face with your fist?"
       "No."
       "Can you tell us how the severe bruise to her right shoulder occurred?"
       "Not exactly, no. I presume that when I was being physical with her, it took place."
       "Feeling responsible," "being physical"--they are the phrases O.J. is committed to in describing this incident, and Petrocelli hangs them around O.J.'s neck like a sack of week-old fish.
       This line of questioning reaches a climax when Petrocelli puts a letter from O.J. to Nicole on the board. "You had your lawyer write up a document that said, if I hit you again, I will tear up the prenuptial agreement, true?"
       "That's right."
       The prenup is worth millions to Nicole. It's a telling moment. But, in a day of taking every opening and driving an 18-wheeler through it, Petrocelli fails to ask this one follow-up question: If you say you never hit her, and your letter promises to never hit her again, what does the "again" refer to? When did you hit her before? With the letter glowing on the screen in the courtroom, the attorney may be paying the jury the compliment of assuming they were asking themselves that question.
       O.J. recovers a little territory when Petro wastes time asking why O.J. went on Roy Firestone's ESPN show and referred to the New Year's Day incident as "no big deal." I know Roy Firestone, and he's an OK guy, but I don't think I'd go on his cable show and discuss my marital problems in detail with him, either.
       God knows why this next stuff is allowed to be asked about, because none of it is in evidence yet, but Petrocelli apparently has witnesses prepared to testify to: "a time you hit Nicole on the side, and she ran to the home of your very good friend Wayne Hughes"; a day in the early 1980s where "you slapped her face in the parking lot (of your vet) and broke her glasses"; a time in Laguna Beach where "you slapped her."
       Those witnesses, if they appear, will be contradicting a string of denials by O.J. Slowly, almost by the numbers, a portrait is being painted of a guy who thinks everybody's got it wrong but him.
       Research pays off. Someone on Petrocelli's staff, probably some $25-an-hour intern, has found a copy of a book published under O.J.'s name in 1969, Educationof a Rich Rookie. Petrocelli reads into the record a chunk of the book where O.J. is talking to a friend. O.J. says he thinks he's a "pretty effective liar." The friend rejoins that O.J. is only believable when he's laughing, that his earnestness is overdone. In perhaps his most believable answer of the day, O.J. denies writing the book, but admits he read it in galleys, and never took legal action against its publication.
       Inevitably, Petrocelli frames some questions incautiously enough to give O.J. an opening, as in this exchange, about the October 1993 incident that provoked Nicole's 911 call:
       "And when you were unable to get through [to her on the phone], you jumped in your car, your Bronco, your white Bronco, and you high-tailed it over to Nicole's; is that right?"
       "My knees were such that I couldn't jump anywhere."
       "OK."
       But the incident is more gold for Petro's strategy. In short order, he has O.J. saying Nicole lied when she told the 911 operator she feared that he would "beat the shit out of me," and lying again on the surreptitious tape made by officers responding to that call that she feared O.J. when he got that "animalistic" look in his eyes.
       "And it's true, sir, that when you did get mad and angry, that you would acquire a very animal-like look, correct?"
       "I can never recall being mad and looking in a mirror."
       But O.J. is adamant that Nicole didn't fear him that night, even though he admits to breaking down "part" of her door. If she feared him, he asks, why did she come back downstairs to a room he was in? The answer, unspoken but obvious to everyone in a one-mile radius around the courtroom, is that there were two police officers in the room when she came back down.
       "I will debate forever that she was not frightened of me that night."
       This is almost too easy.
       "Debate with whom?"
       "With whoever wants to debate it."
       "You think this is a debate, sir?"
       "No."
       It begins to get a bit tedious at this point, slogging through the ups and downs of what sounds like a seriously unpleasant marriage. Divorce lawyers get paid a lot of money to listen to this stuff. Not that I'm defending divorce lawyers.
       O.J. does get on the record his memory of a time, late in their attempt to reconcile in the first half of 1994, when Nicole would be "great one day, and the next day she'd be weird." This is code for the "world of Faye Resnick" that O.J. has publicly blamed for the killings. But Petro scores bigger when the subject comes around to a present O.J. gave Nicole.
       "On May 19, you gave her an expensive present?"
       "Expensive is a relative term."
       "Five or six grand, right?"
       "Yes."
       The present was an emerald bracelet, which Nicole accepted, then returned three days later. She also gave back some earrings, which O.J., in a slip worthy of the glory days of Nixon, says he had a "juror--I mean a jeweler" make for her. Shades of Governor Evidence.
       "You bought this bracelet for her?"
       "No."
       "You told the L.A. Police detectives who interviewed you on June 13 that you bought it for her, didn't you?"
       "That's correct."
       "OK. And certainly on June 13, only three weeks after May 19, that is a lot closer time than today, true?"
       "Yes."
       "And in fact, you told the detectives who interviewed you, Detectives Thomas Lange and Phil Vannatter, on June 13, that you kind of were in a bad spot because you had bought the bracelet for Nicole, given it to her; she returned it to you, and you gave it to Paula, and told Paula you had bought it for her, true?"
       "That's true."
       "OK. And now you're telling us that all that's false, right; yes or no?"
       "It is false."
       "OK."
       "It's partially true. But if you want me to explain, it's a very simple explanation, and I think you will understand if you give me the opportunity to explain."
       "I think I understand, sir."
       Yeah, I think we all do. O.J. is saying that when he told the cops that he lied to his girlfriend, he was lying.
       You may be getting the impression, dear cyber-reader, that O.J. was doing poorly. Certainly the media crowd, assembled on the lawn outside the court building at the lunch break, were falling over themselves to pronounce the case as good as over. In fact, some of these sequences read much worse as I look at the notes than they sounded going by. But then, jurors take notes, too.
       After lunch, the pace slows. A huge chunk of time is taken up with the details of drafting and redrafting a letter telling Nicole not to use O.J.'s Rockingham address as her own, a move that would, because she had flipped a rental property in San Francisco into the condo on Bundy that was now her primary residence, cost her between 75 grand and 100 grand in IRS payments.
       O.J.'s lawyers sent back a corrected draft of his first version, saying they were making it less "revengeful." Meanwhile, in the audio room, Larry Schiller is telling anyone who will listen, "Go interview Bill Pavelick about the shoes." Pavelick is an investigator who worked for the Dream Team. "He's got the secret," Schiller smiles, a grin that makes rictus look jocular.
       The shoes are news because at lunch time, a photo from the new NationalEnquirer has circulated through the media ranks: another photo of O.J. wearing--rip out the front page and tear down the candy rack!--Bruno Magli shoes. If these photos continue to surface, Oprah can keep her stupid diets to herself.
       Petrocelli confronts the defendant with the names of golfing buddies he apparently bored silly with constant talk about Nicole, and then takes O.J. through a virtually minute-by-minute narrative of the weekend of June 11 and 12.
       It was on that Sunday morning that Paula Barbieri left a message on O.J.'s cell-phone voice mail breaking off their relationship. A good deal of the afternoon testimony centers around that message. O.J. says he never retrieved it, at which point Petro produces cell-phone records that indicate precisely the contrary, that a call was placed from O.J.'s home phone to the cell-phone message manager, retrieving the one extant message.
       And finally, before the fusillade of accusations, Petro charts O.J.'s trip with Kato to McDonald's in his Bentley (Why do you go to McDonald's in your Bentley? O.J.'s arthritis was acting up, and the B was the closest car) and his decision, upon his return, to move the Bronco from its normal parking spot on Ashford Street to the other side of his property on Rockingham. O.J. went to the Bronco to retrieve his golf clubs for the trip to Chicago, he testifies, and Petro gets him to admit that just walking out of the Ashford gate, getting the clubs, and walking right back is a much shorter, easier trip for a man whose arthritis is acting up than walking out to Ashford, getting in the Bronco, driving it onto the property, making "a tight right turn," taking the clubs out, driving it out to Rockingham, parking the vehicle there, and then walking back in. O.J.'s explanation is the pay dirt Petrocelli anticipated when he questioned Kato earlier in the week: O.J. didn't want Chachi the dog to run outside. It is a close question who is more arthritic, the animal or its owner, but O.J. insists that this was "my thought process."
       "Is your dog a trained dog?" Petro asks, springing one more trap.
       "No."
       "You testified at your deposition that Chachi was a relatively trained dog, didn't you?"
       "Relatively. You call her, she comes."
       The alternate theory of the Bronco's relocation is that, between Ashford and Rockingham, the vehicle made a brief trip to Bundy.
       The weekend that follows is beautiful. There is probably a new constituency in Southern California that hopes for bad weather on weekends, just so that O.J. can't play golf.

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