OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 22 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       The pressure on the CelebrometerTM continues to rise. On Monday of this week, Robert Shapiro makes his first appearance in the courtroom, supposedly in his new role as an analyst for CBS News, although he takes a seat in the front row, an area reserved for members of the defense team. He leaves that seat after about an hour, though, because, he says later, it felt awkward. By Wednesday, he's sitting in the listening room, joking with reporters during a cross-examination, the way they used to during his cross. His main beef now is with a Los Angeles Times column that erroneously ascribes to him a Porsche instead of a Mercedes, and that gently pokes fun at the elegance of his wardrobe. "I'd like to see where that reporter buys his clothes," Shapiro cracks, crinkly-eyed.
       Shapiro's new role is a prime target for journalistic sniping. Several reporters, in conversation, question his ability to balance the ethical obligation he still owes his former client with his presumed duty to provide useful information to his broadcast employer. But analysis, CBS-style, doesn't necessarily call for great gobs of content; one remembers Eric Sevareid, the last regular analyst on the Evening News, looking pensive and deep, filling 90 seconds with gaseous pseudo-profundities. Shapiro may have found the perfect job.
       As the buildup to O.J.'s testimony proceeds, the atmosphere begins more and more to resemble Judge Fujisaki's dreaded circus. Wednesday's visitors include Larry Schiller, subpoenaed by the plaintiffs to produce an audiotape Robert Kardashian made of a rueful O.J. shortly before the Bronco chase; Schiller hid behind California's capacious shield law, and managed to avoid anything more damaging than an evening booking on Charles Grodin's lugubrious O.J.-fest. Incidentally, am I the only cable-connected human who remembers a time, about 18 months ago, when Grodin was booking second-rate comedians and Rainbow Room singers on his show and pledging, doe-eyed, that he'd never get hung up on the O.J. Simpson nonsense? Then, of course, the Rivera Live ratings started hitting him in the toupee, and the rest is hysteria.
       Also brightening the courtroom Wednesday are Mary Jo Buttafuoco and Al Goldstein. Mary Jo, introduced to me by a companion of hers ("Why do I know you?" Mrs. B asked me. "It goes to 11," her friend prompted, slightly erroneously), explains her presence by saying she's here to speak for victims, having been one herself. She hugs Fred Goldman. Goldstein, the avatar of Screw magazine and New York's unforgettable Midnight Blue cable pornfest, doesn't explain his presence; maybe he's searching for victims.
       The court's PR lady, Jerianne Haizlitt, is feeling the pressure, too. More and more folks begin showing up looking for media seats in the jewel box of a courtroom, and, at the close of proceedings Wednesday afternoon, the schoolmarmish Haizlitt (either she doesn't have a computer or I'll never get into the courtroom again) says to a TV reporter, "You folks be nice to me, OK?" The reporter smiles and agrees, only to swear under the reportorial breath as soon as Haizlitt's earshot is escaped. It's an occupational recreation of people covering this trial to complain about her, and there are days when she seems to suffer from the bureaucrat's disease: She behaves as if she wished the people she's here to deal with would leave her alone.
       And, like a sturdy dinghy bobbling through a hurricane's eye, the trial pushes steadily along. Tuesday morning, the plaintiffs play a half-hour tape, surreptitiously recorded by a police sergeant, of his underling playing marriage counselor to O.J. and Nicole after the cops respond to her Gretna Green apartment following the famous 911 call. On the tape, Officer Robert Lerner is patient and understanding and just the teensiest bit obsequious--he tells O.J. at one point, "We don't want to make a big, big deal out of this. As a matter of fact, we want to make the smallest deal that's legally possible." Here again, the plaintiffs are freed from the prosecution's duty to pretend that the LAPD doesn't engage in celebrity-coddling, a duty that fed the defense's conspiracy allegations as well as flying in the face of common sense.
       On the tape, Nicole Brown Simpson's voice is measured. She sounds almost rational, compared to the palpable fear in her tone speaking to the 911 operator, explaining her fear of the "black," "animalistic look" O.J. gets in his eyes. Hearing those words, you can understand why the prosecution might have chosen not to play this tape for a largely African-American jury that was already disposed not to like Nicole, with her fake nails, fake breasts, and fake blonde hair. When Officer Lerner, conducting, as Bob Baker calls it, "shuttle diplomacy," goes over to O.J., he has to deal with a guy who's talking a mile a minute at the top of his lungs, claiming the door he broke down was already busted by their kids, and making unflattering references to Nicole's circle of friends. Making out the verbiage, though, is hard work; what you take away from this tape is far more about tone of voice than content.
       And now, as predicted in this space, comes the new, cleaned-up Kato Kaelin: hair cut, light green-gray jacket, white shirt, dark tie. He looks classier than some of the lawyers. Kaelin's performance in the criminal trial has always reminded me of Ronald Reagan's during the Iran-Contra crisis. In each case, a man who knew the public regarded him as sub-Einstein material seemed to manipulate that image expertly to avoid having to say the unsayable. Anyone who met Kaelin subsequently--and, last year, the hardest job for a non-bedridden Angeleno was to not encounter Kato--or who heard him on the radio knew that he was glib and jovial, quick-witted if not Algonquinesque: the very opposite of the hesitant, word-challenged flake on the witness stand.
       Makeovers are a staple of daytime TV, and all that was missing from this one was the camera. Under the questioning of Daniel Petrocelli, Kaelin was precise, concise, quick to answer, and quick to shut up. Petro had, up to now, left the questioning either to colleague John Kelly or to his mentor, Ed Medvene, but the Kaelin testimony appeared to be the quarterback's warm-up for his confrontation with the running back.
       The substance of Kaelin's testimony--gee, it feels odd to use "substance" and "Kaelin" in the same sentence--largely paralleled that in the criminal trial, with a couple of striking innovations. The time line, which Marcia Clark massaged to the early side to conform with Pablo Fenves' hearing of the "plaintive wail," has been allowed to slide back later, by about five minutes. And the three thumps heard round the world are now characterized as "like someone bumping into the wall." Kaelin's role here is different, as well. For the prosecution, he was a crucial time-line witness. But Petrocelli uses much of Kaelin's time on the stand to lay pipe for the questioning of O.J. Kato contradicts what the defendant says in his deposition--O.J. never walked Chachi the dog, since the animal was as arthritic as the rest of the family--giving Petro the ammunition he needs to launch a frontal assault on O.J.'s credibility.
       But while Kaelin's performance may end up hurting O.J. in the eyes of the jurors, the person who comes off worst after Kato's crisp day on the stand is Marcia Clark. In what Baker elicits to be eight hours of prep time, Petrocelli has molded Kaelin into the witness he needs, while Clark, with comparatively all the time in the world, succeeded through her suspicion, or her vibe, or her hard-nosed feminism, in scaring Kato into ultimately becoming, as Ito finally declared him to be, an adverse witness. Clark is too busy making triumphant speeches to women's groups (does it feed victim psychology to make role models out of losers?)--and avoiding the reported hostility of her former fellow district attorneys over her and Darden's "congratulations-you-blew-the-case" bonuses--to study the transcript of the second coming of Kato. But these two divergent approaches to a problematic witness will, in years to come, probably help a lot of law-school professors fill a nice chunk of a semester.
       Editing down the testimony of witnesses (and of cops) has the advantage of depriving the defense of fertile areas for cross-examination. The corollary disadvantage of having Kaelin add new details is providing Bob Baker with hours of family fun as he hammers Kato along the basic lines of, "Now you tell us!"
       Baker's good; the pre-trial handicapping touted him as the superior of anyone on the plaintiffs' side. In fact, during jury selection, one legal analyst leaned over to me, pointed out Baker, and said flatly, "He's the only one in here who knows what he's doing." He knows all the tricks that make the rest of us respect attorneys so much: He'll state beguiling premises and invite to you to agree with them, despite the fact they undercut what you know and believe to be true; he'll assail your motives; he'll indulge in sarcastic asides that he knows will be stricken from the record, but perhaps not from jurors' memories.
       And yet, poor little puppy-dog Kato, who made the word "houseguest" so pregnant with comic potential that a major studio green-lighted a movie with that title, does not flinch or crumple before Baker's barrage. Of the 911 door-breaking episode, at which Kato was a spectator, Baker demands: "And during that entire episode, O.J. Simpson never threatened any ..."--INNY, in Bakerspeak--"anybody with anything physical. Did he, sir?"
       Kato does not take the bait. "There was no physical harm, no."
       Another new tidbit Kato offers comes in for furious attack by Baker. Kaelin has testified on direct that he and O.J. were watching TV on June 11, the day before the murders, when the subject of the film The World According to Garp came up, and O.J. said it reminded him of the time he saw Nicole giving oral sex to her former boyfriend Keith. Kato is being used to introduce the stalking theme the prosecution could never quite plug into its case. Baker will have none of this:
       "You say you were watching television with O.J. Simpson, correct?"
       "Correct."
       "And you mentioned something about 'The World Of Garp'?"
       "Correct."
       "Now, you first mentioned that in an interview that you did with Mark Elliott on December 27, 1994, some six or so months after the killings, true?"
       "I guess."
       "You had never mentioned that in any conversations you had with Mr. Shapiro, with any of the DAs at the grand jury or at the preliminary hearing; isn't that true?"
       "I guess so. I was never asked anything." Kato has learned to add the crucial detail that takes the curse off his admission.
       "Well, when you were having this interview with Mark Elliott, this is when you were contemplating putting out a book and making a few bucks relative to your involvement in the O.J. Simpson matter; isn't that true?"
       "To possibly get a book, right."
       "And in fact, you'd even signed a contract before you came up with this 'World of Garp' story; that had never surfaced in any of the prior interviews; isn't that correct, sir?"
       "No, I didn't sign any contract."
       "And this was really you ... attempting to cash in on your 15 minutes of fame, so to speak, wasn't it, sir?"
       "No."
       Kato testifies to another conversation with O.J. on the afternoon of June 12, in which O.J. complains about Nicole "playing hardball" with him, by not allowing him to see their daughter Sydney after the dance recital. This earns Kaelin another blast of "what took you so long" from Baker: "And isn't it true that you never mentioned one thing about this alleged hardball with Sydney until you spent eight-and-a-half hours with Mr. Petrocelli?"
       "I don't believe so. I think I said it before that."
       By midafternoon, Baker is reduced to an assault on details, the only purpose of which is to create the impression that Kaelin has a spotty memory: On the return from the trip to McDonald's, did Kato really believe O.J. was going to eat with him, despite the fact that O.J. had already consumed his burger? Did O.J. park the Bentley in such a way that Kato had to crawl out through some bushes? But the soft mush of Kaelin 1 has become a hard rock wall, and Baker can find no foothold. He moves from subject to subject, in a strategy that can best be described as flailing upward.

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