OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 19 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       You didn't expect me to write about DNA, did you? There is, after all, a fine line between being obsessed and being downright nuts. After the dramatic high of Dr. Werner Spitz, the O.J. civil trial needed a breather, and Douglas Deedrick's hair-and-fiber testimony, followed by two days of three DNA witnesses, were just what the doctor ordered.
       Deedrick's appearance was a disappointment only because it failed to deliver new evidence. During the criminal trial, the prosecution tried to introduce the FBI hair-and-fiber expert's testimony about how rarely fibers found on the knit cap occur in the carpets of Ford Broncos. Implicit suggestion: O.J. owns a Bronco. O.J.-like hairs are on the cap, too. Hence--you do the math. The defense objected on the grounds that Deedrick's report on the subject was delivered to them at the last minute, and Judge Ito agreed to preclude carpet-fiber-rarity testimony. So this time, the hype went, we'd hear about the rarity.
       Except for one thing: No evidence has been introduced that there was a Ford Bronco at the crime scene. Robert ("Could have been a Jeep, could have been a Blazer") Heidstra eyewitnessed some white sports-utility vehicle on Dorothy Street, half a block south of 375 South Bundy, and that's it. Without a Bronco at the crime, the defense argued, figures about the rarity of Bronco carpet fibers are irrelevant. Judge Fujisaki agreed, and so Deedrick's testimony, as well as that of Robin Cotton of Cellmark and Renee Montgomery and Gary Sims of the California Department of Justice, was an edited-for-brevity rerun of Trial 1.
       It was during Cotton's abbreviated stay on the stand that an alternate juror was seen dozing. Frankly, I can't blame her. I listened to an hour of Cotton, and as the familiar litany of DQAlpha, D1S80, polymarker, and alleles came tripping off her tongue, I took a brief ride to dreamland myself.
       Here, however, is some much-needed perspective: On Friday morning, shortly after dismissing the alternate for snoozing, Judge Fujisaki returns to the bench after a "10-minute" break (famous for normally being twice that long). Bob Blasier, the defense DNA expert who begins almost every sentence with a drawn-out, high-pitched, nasal, throat-clear of a conjunction--"Aaaaaannd"--resumes his cross-examination of Gary Sims. Blasier gets a question out, Sims offers an answer, and then a juror gets the attention of one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, who calls out to the judge: "There's no reporter here." This isn't a comment on the number of journalists out filing stories on the juror dismissal instead of taking more notes on DNA testimony. This is the news that court was proceeding without a court reporter; had the juror not spoken up, none of the subsequent cross-examination might ever have been re-enacted on E! Fujisaki's reaction to the news: "I wondered why nothing was showing up on the computer." Alternates who doze get the boot. Lawyers who doze get the robe.
       The current big news is the appearance of O.J.'s name on the plaintiffs' witness list. This prompted a spate of stories that O.J. could be testifying as early as this Friday, which prompted an equal and opposite counter-spin. One network legal commentator started peddling the premise that the plaintiffs are faking--that they won't really call O.J. and give him the chance to charisma-bomb the jury during their case in chief, but will wait until the defense brings O.J. to the stand and then cross-examine him to death.
       By Friday afternoon, you could get close to even odds on this bet. My question, uninformed by legal training, is this: What if the defense then keeps O.J. off the stand? They have, after all, done it before. Won't the plaintiffs have lost a golden opportunity? Won't Fred Goldman, the driving force behind this case, have lost the chance to make the man he thinks killed his son squirm publicly and endlessly?
       Perhaps the best indicator that the celebrity pressure is rising is this fact: Dominique Dunne has just paid his first visit to this courtroom. If that doesn't portend O.J. on the stand, then, as Little Milton once said, grits ain't groceries.
       Just because it's DNA time, some scene-setting might be in order. The Santa Monica County Building, in which the courtrooms are housed, may be the least impressive, let alone majestic, place in which to embark on (to steal a phrase from Mr. Johnnie) a journey to justice. Squat and light beige, in the 1950s California style, the building's only distinguishing features are walls of trapezoidal decorative elements on its front and back sides. This is why, in all the TV "live shots" from the trial, what you see behind the reporters is palm trees.
       Across the street from all this official activity is Santa Monica High School. These days, when one files out of a day spent watching or listening to testimony, the soundtrack is likely to be the marching band rehearsing on the field. The school is right next door to the Doubletree Hotel, where one of the two listening rooms is located. There was some hue and cry a few years back, when the hotel project was proposed, that it was inappropriate to place a facility where alcohol would be served cheek by jowl with tomorrow's leaders. If city officials had ever dreamed that one day, journalists and lawyers would be making the Doubletree their headquarters, they might have thought more than twice.
       Incidentally, there is another listening room, a double-wide trailer behind the trailers that house TV and radio work spaces. All these trailers are parked in a lot owned by one of downtown Santa Monica's leading landlords, the RAND Corp., which made its reputation think-tanking the Cold War. Perhaps because the cable has a shorter distance to travel, the sound in the trailer listening room seems slightly less awful than the audio quality over at the Doubletree. This becomes important because, while witnesses and the judge are miked, the attorneys are not, and hearing their questions and comments above the various hums and buzzes that accompany the audio is more challenging than making out the more sotto voce utterances on the Nixon tapes. It's the digital age, and the county is giving us, for our money, sound quality that a high-school AV crew would be proud of. Nonetheless, a Doubletree listening-room pass is no good at the alternate facility. The premise, as explained to me, is that if your media organization paid for the security guard at the hotel, you're poaching by having the security guard at the trailer frisk you.
       Just south of the court building, past the parking lot where jurors, reporters, and county employees all become seekers of the Close Space, is the Civic Auditorium, a building equally tarnished by its era. Basically, it's a Googie-style coffee shop blown up to mini-convention-hall size. It's got a nifty new electronic marquee, however, which, given the blandness of the County Building, gives you your only fair warning that you're approaching Camp O.J. West. When you see the sign that the "Malibu Cat Show" is coming soon, turn right for parking.

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