OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 15 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea


       First, the news. A friend and former co-worker of Brian (Kato) Kaelin--that latter description narrows it down a lot--reports a Kato sighting this past weekend. He has cut his hair short, the friend reports, and is wearing glasses. How short? We agree on this succinct description: "TV hair." When asked why the transformation, Kaelin, a jovial and even glib man off the stand (how else do you maintain perpetual house-guest status?), reportedly complained that the courtroom sketch artists never drew his old hair right. For this tidbit alone, the editors should start charging for S



       In the courtroom, a pattern is developing. Witnesses called by the defense in Trial 1 are showing up on the plaintiffs' side in the civil matter. First Robert Heidstra, now Dr. Robert Huizenga, the strawberry-blond sports doctor. Huizenga was the physician to whom Robert Shapiro sent O.J. for an exam the Tuesday after the murders. In the criminal trial, his best-known tidbit of testimony concerned the defendant's purported physical inability to carry out a strenuous activity like double homicide: "He looked like Tarzan, but he walked like Tarzan's grandfather."
       Testifying for the plaintiffs, the good doctor is not allowed to venture a guess on where the defendant fits in Edgar Rice Burroughs' fictional genealogy. Again, Daniel Petrocelli's questioning enforces the law of brevity. Maybe, after this case is over, he can start editing the sketches on Saturday Night Live.
       What Dr. Huizenga is here to do is set the stage for the testimony of another doctor, forensic pathologist Werner Spitz. Huizenga testifies to finding 11 bruises on O.J.'s left hand (seven abrasions and four lacerations), as well as one cut on his right hand. It will fall to Spitz to interpret those bruises. Interestingly, Huizenga offers a diagram of the left-hand injuries, rendered by mistake on an outline of a right hand. This is the kind of sloppy screw up that would have earned some poor schmuck at the Los Angeles Police Department three days of crucifixion at the hands of Barry Scheck; here, it's just one of those things.
       Next comes another reading: Chicago Police Detective Kenneth Berris, who searched the hotel room in which O.J. spent just a few hours the morning after the murders. He found "a red stain, which I thought was suspect blood when I observed it" on the top sheet, bottom sheet, and pillowcases in the center of the bed in O.J.'s room. He also found the broken drinking glass in the bathroom sink, and a torn-up note in the bathroom wastebasket that said "Joe" and "Cocowitz" and "work." Also in the sink was the paper "I call ... a doily cover" that hotels place over drinking glasses to depict sanitariness. What Detective Berris didn't find in the sink was blood. If, as he told LAPD detectives in his June 13 statement, O.J. Simpson cut his hand on that drinking glass, Detective Berris' testimony suggests that O.J. hurled the glass, doily cover and all, into the sink, and bled from the cut in a different room. Hey, nuttier things happen. Sometimes.
       One other provocative discovery by the detective: There were no laundry bags in Room 915, the minisuite occupied for a few hours by O.J. Simpson. Either housekeeping needs to be reprimanded, or somebody put something in a laundry bag and took it somewhere.
       On cross, Dan Leonard makes two points: There was, the detective reports, "a small amount of clouded liquid, a very small amount" found on the bottom of the broken glass in the basin, and Berris agrees that it is consistent with the residue of water and toothpaste. "It could have been. It could have been." The clouded liquid was never analyzed. And there was no analysis of the bathroom sinks and drains, nor was any testing for blood done other than "simple observation, correct? ... The only technique used was ... ?"
       The Veterans Day weekend is bracketed by the testimony of Dr. Spitz. It will not escape notice that he is the third forensic pathologist to be brought in to testify for the plaintiffs and the prosecution. First came the medical examiner who performed the actual autopsy, Dr. Irwin Golden, the poster boy for the deficiencies of the Los Angeles County Coroner's office, a place, you'll pardon me, that you wouldn't want to be caught dead in.
       Dr. Golden's testimony during the preliminary hearing of the criminal trial, televised on all three broadcast networks, painted a picture of such hesitation and limited competence that his presence and--to the extent possible--name were banished from the criminal trial, replaced by the forced march through the world of Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran (I have a friend, an O.J. correspondent, who still prides himself as the only man on the beat who could actually pronounce that witness's full name).
       Dr. Spitz is no Dr. Lakshmanan. With short white hair and a scowling face that has a touch of the Kevorkian countenance, he is a witness whose command of the courtroom is nearly total. For those who are old enough to remember the father of the H-bomb, Dr. Spitz's delivery is a Teutonized rendition of Edward Teller: the same Olympian self-assurance, the same darkly shaded baritone seemingly extruded through more convoluted piping than is available to the average speaker until it comes out hard and loud, in quick, sharp bites of sound. Slightly hunched over, he speaks with the remnants of a German accent, and his sibilants are tinged with the hint of a lisp. Had this trial been on television, every morning man in America would be trotting out his Dr. Spitz impression this week.
       But his testimony is noteworthy for more than his delightful imitability. Dr. Spitz has been flown in from his home base in Detroit, and is being paid, we learn, three grand a day to deliver the new, improved interpretation of the victims' wounds and the bruises on the defendant's left hand. And it's this testimony, and defense attorney Bob Baker's increasingly frustrated attempt to impeach it, that's the easy winner of the Highlight of the Trial Award as of this writing.
       To comport with the new, later time line of the killings, Dr. Spitz offers a new, far briefer estimate of the duration of the struggle: "Around a minute, give or take," for Ron Goldman, and "the entire scenario of Miss Brown's altercation, from first wound to last, was less than 15 seconds. ... Once she is cut in her throat, she is inactive, instantaneously." Many of Goldman's injuries "occurred together, in one movement. ... The injury to Ronald Goldman's left flank would have been incapacitating in a very short period of time. There is a near-immediate fall in blood pressure. The person loses the ability to stand up and think, he becomes woozy, and, in very short order, he is disabled." Spitz is "of the opinion that all the injuries could have been inflicted by a single individual," and that the "injuries are totally compatible with a single knife." Could they all have been caused by a single-edged knife? "Yes."
       In Ed Medvene's direct examination, Spitz often interrupts the attorney in midquestion, taking his cue from a keyword and then barreling off under his own power to explain the bases for his interpretations. It becomes so obvious that at one point, Baker interposes an objection:
       "Could we go back to the question-and-answer form?"
       "It would be nice," Judge Fujisaki muses in response.
       Besides buttressing the time line, Dr. Spitz is being used to answer the most widely asked question by believers in O.J.'s innocence: Where's all the blood? "Mr. Goldman did not bleed externally to a great extent." And the assailant performed the fatal cut on Nicole Brown Simpson from the back, so the massive spurting of blood from the severed carotid arteries would have gone "downward and outward, not up and backward."
       The O.J. trials have been, for the most part, a dramatic, large-scale adaptation of a principle we all know: Stare at a word long enough, and it loses its meaning and becomes a random collection of letters. The years-long contemplation of a brief episode of violence has tended to focus our attention on the absurdities surrounding the act, the fast-growing jungle of egos, the circus and the anti-circus. But during Spitz's testimony, the gruesome autopsy photos go up on an easel that faces the jury but away from the spectators and media, and as he describes in clinical detail the nature of the injuries to Ron Goldman, Kim and Fred Goldman cry, put their heads down, and visibly suffer. The word regains its meaning.
       Also, of course, that very tableau is indicative of how different this trial is from the first draft. Both because Fred Goldman has been the driving force in keeping this grim drama onstage and because his son is not vulnerable to the kind of character-besmirching that Baker has indicated he'll visit on O.J.'s ex-wife, the focus has shifted dramatically. Whatever the verdict in this case, one definitive effect of the civil trial has been to rescue Ron Goldman from his status as the forgotten man in the criminal trial. It is Kim Goldman's tears, not Denise Brown's, that this jury is seeing.
       Now here's where Dr. Spitz delivers the payoff to Dr. Huizenga's straight line. "Would the assailant, in your opinion," Medvene asks in the tone of a slightly cowed grad student, "have any injuries on his person as a result of the struggle?"
       After a Baker objection is overruled, Spitz pauses, and gestures silently before beginning his answer.
       "In the course of the struggle, there is holding of the victims, each one, from the back, where the victim, obviously being unarmed, and rendered incapacitated by the holding, tries to get away. During this holding, the victim--one or the other or both--tried to remove the arm or hand from the holding. During this desperate attempt, injuries from fingernails are likely to be inflicted on the holding extremity."
       Written down, it sounds discursive and meandering. Spoken in Spitzian shards of speech, resounding through the courtroom even though the good doctor likes to speak with the microphone pushed away a foot or two to his right, this announcement has the power of a reveille in a library. We will spend much of the next two days on the fingernail theory, because no one who testified for the prosecution had this explanation for the marks on O.J.'s fingers. "These are not sharp injuries," Spitz declares. "These were not caused by a glass, these were not caused by a knife."
       Nobody enters the O.J. circle and escapes unscathed, though. As Medvene puts up a series of photos from Dr. Huizenga's examination of O.J.'s hand (and persists in saying he's putting them up on "the board," then correcting himself to say "the monitor"--old tech dies hard), Dr. Spitz describes the location of each mark, and interprets it as a fingernail scratch or gouge. But one of the photos shows a wrist bone, and Spitz describes its location as the webbing between thumb and forefinger. There's an immediate rustle in the courtroom, as all the reporters around me turn their hands over to the wrist-bone side, then back over to the webbing area, contemplating a glaring anatomical error in the otherwise authoritative testimony. After a 10-minute break, Dr. Spitz's first order of business is a gruff meaculpa: "The error was mine."
       With Medvene actually formulating questions, Spitz proclaims that the people who caused the fingernail marks, i.e., the victims, wouldn't necessarily have skin under their nails. And, in another switcheroo from Trial 1, the photo of O.J. and his daughter Sydney at the June 12 dance recital that the criminal defense used to show that O.J. was not in a pre-homicidal rage that evening reappears here. As the Elmo zooms in toward O.J.'s hands in the photograph, Medvene asks:
       "Do you see any evidence of what you've identified as fingernail marks?"
       "There are no marks," Dr. Spitz barks.
       In pro wrestling, a Battle Royale puts a couple of dozen wrestlers into the ring. The last one standing wins. In Department Q of Superior Court, Bob Baker vs. Werner Spitz is a Battle Royale.
       "You told the DetroitNews on Oct. 17, l994, as follows: Quote: 'Invariably, forensic pathologists take sides.' That's what you told the DetroitNews, isn't it?"
       "I couldn't tell you," Dr. Spitz deadpans. "Maybe I did tell them that, maybe I didn't."
       "Do you read the DetroitNews?" Baker asks, incredulous at the need to inquire.
       "No. I read the FreePress." The peril of questioning a witness from a two-newspaper town.
       Ed Medvene objects to this line of questioning as unfair, Baker objects to the characterization of unfair as improper, and the judge, impatient as always with antics, makes what is becoming his customary recommendation: "Let's get on with it." If this trial were televised, the Dancing Fujisakis would be singing "Let's get on with it" on the TonightShow.
       "From February to today," Baker resumes, "have you prepared one single note relative to this case?"
       "No, I have not," Spitz responds, and, unlike some of the defense witnesses last time, who seemed abashed to be caught in what sounded like a plan to take no notes so that none would have to be turned over to the prosecution, Spitz sounds proud, as if note-taking is the refuge of lesser intellects.
       The pathologist's time on the stand is the occasion for a number of arresting household analogies. On direct, he says, "The brain in the skull is like jello in a cup." During the cross, Baker is trying to dislodge Spitz's explanation that blood would not cover the assailant, and he can't get the doctor to agree with the premise of a question about blood pressure, so:
       "Doctor, if we take a hose and we use a three-quarter-inch hose, and we have a volume of water going through that hose, and we reduce it to a half-an-inch hose, and put the same--increase the pressure by 50 to 100 percent, the amount of water coming out into that hose is going to almost double. In other words, by that, I mean the distance that that water will arc from the exit of the hose until it hits the ground; you would agree with that?"
       "No doubt. But the hose hasn't got a regulatory mechanism, nor have I ever known of a hose that was scared."
       "Well, I certainly hope not. Have you talked to many hoses?"
       "No, not yet."
       "Be nice to me, now."
       The job of a cross-examiner is to frame questions in such a way as to pin a witness down on details where he may later be proven to be mistaken. The job of a witness under cross is to avoid that fate. Baker is silky and rubbery: You start hearing something Missourian, almost Limbaughian, in his ultrasmooth voice, and his movements are slithery, those of a man whose muscles are connected, not by tendons, but something loose and liquid. The stolid Dr. Spitz sits there like a defiant rock formation, while Baker flows around and over him, attempting to erode what he can.
       "You did a full reconstruction of how these murders took place, in your mind, that you're willing to sit here and tell us about? Yes?"
       "Yes or no?"
       "Yes, I do ... "
       "Thank you."
       "However ... "
       "Thank you."
       But each time Baker tries to commit Dr. Spitz to a point more specific than Spitz wants to commit to, the doctor wriggles free. Each time Baker wants to detach the pathologist from a point Spitz has made with dogmatic certitude, the doctor stands fast.
       Trying to pry Spitz loose from his conviction that Goldman's fatal wound was in the flank, severing an artery, Baker confronts him with the work of Dr. Golden:
       "It's the custom and practice," Baker purrs, "in autopsy reports that the prime cause of death is listed first, correct?"
       In Golden's report, the first wound listed is a damaged jugular vein. Severed veins take longer to kill you than severed arteries.
       "No," Spitz says. "Can I explain?"
       "You'll have plenty of time."
       It's now the morning after Veterans Day, and we've just endured a sidebar, followed by a moment requested by the court reporter to reposition herself for more testimony. She doesn't signal clearly enough that she's at her intended destination, and the courtroom enters a state of suspended animation for what seem like a couple of minutes. Nobody moves; Dr. Spitz and Baker frozen in their confrontational positions in front of and on either side of the jury box, the rest of us out front. Finally, the reporter signals she's OK, and Baker, as if roused from a hypnotic trance, snaps back into action.
       "It takes time, does it not, Doctor, for the blood to accumulate on the horizontal bar (of the front gate) and in the pool of blood in the dirt area?"
       "Everything takes time."
       When I was a kid, I took a college physics class from Edward Teller. Discounting his evident desire to blow up the world, he was an impressive teacher. He dealt with questions in this reductive manner--a scholar at the scary forefront of his science dealing with the pitiful queries of a mere freshman.
       "There is nothing we do," Spitz persists, "that does not take time. The question is how much time."
       And later:
       "The hole in the closed-in area," Baker points out the feature in a photo. "Do you have any"--Baker loves to emphasize the word "any," and the more emphasis it gets, the farther down the alphabet the vowel migrates, so it ends up being "INNY"--"inny idea how long it would take to dig such a hole?"
       "I'm not an expert on hole-digging."
       "Did you take it into consideration, Doctor ... "
       "My opinion is that ... "
       "Did you take the hole into consideration in formulating your complete reconstruction of the struggle? That's the question, not what your opinion is."
       "I took into consideration the blood I saw, I didn't take into consideration the hole. ... My opinion as to the duration of the struggle has not changed, and it will not change ... "
       Baker can't resist: "I'm sure of that."
       " ... Unless I am presented with new evidence."
       You've seen those commercials on television for videos featuring real live jungle cats mauling each other? This confrontation would fit right in. Baker grows increasingly frustrated: "Could you answer my question for a change?" "True or untrue, true or untrue?" "May I conduct the examination?" "Yes or no, doctor?"
       He asks, "Where was Ron Goldman in the closed-in area when he was defending himself with his left thigh?" This is a reference to Spitz's theory of Goldman's defensive stance when he was stabbed high on the leg.
       "He was somewhere in the 4-by-6 area."
       "Could you possibly be more vague?"
       And later, when the sarcasm ebbs, a flat-out accusation:
       "You are a partisan advocate."
       "Absolutely not. Absolutely not."
       Baker changes subjects quickly, either trying to catch Spitz off-guard or desperately looking for an opening that never materializes. It would look like flailing if done by a lesser attorney. As practiced by Baker, it looks like flailing upward; some reporters actually think he's making mincemeat of Spitz, as when he shows one of the photos of O.J.'s hand and inquires with mock innocence:
       "Have you ever had those kind of scabs on your hands and had no idea where they came from?"
       The pathologist, momentarily at a loss for a circumlocutionary parry, has to answer, "Yes."
       But Spitz commands the room. When asked by Baker whether he's sure that all Goldman's wounds occurred in the 4 foot-by-6 foot dirt area, and none on the tiled area, the pathologist grabs the coat rack standing beside the jury box and lays out the space. In an even more dramatic demonstration, perhaps inspired by the morning's unintentional freeze-frame, Medvene on redirect asks Spitz to mark the beginning and end of one minute, and we sit silently while 60 seconds tick off. As anybody knows who watches four 15-second spots in a row hurtle by on prime-time TV, a minute can be a long time.
       And finally, just before the end of the struggle of the titans, Spitz again resists the thrust of a Baker question:
       "You're misleading. Can I explain?"
       "No, no, no, no. Your Honor, he has to answer questions, he's not here to give a speech." Baker is at the end of his rope. "I'm sure that you have an explanation for everything."
       Judge Fujisaki now delivers the gentlest of admonitions to the witness not to volunteer information, but to answer the questions posed to him. The two Days of Spitz have illustrated how the Germans may have conned the Japanese into World War II--by sheer force of will.
       People who argue that a television camera in the courtroom makes the lawyers act more theatrically should have seen Baker end his examination. After getting Spitz to agree, finally, to the premise of a question--that Nicole Brown Simpson's defensive knife wounds wouldn't bleed, but O.J. Simpson's flesh-crushing fingernail marks would (those Bundy blood drops, after all)--the attorney sinuously snatches his papers from the podium and snaps, "Nothing further from this witness. Nothing further."
       The plaintiffs got their money's worth. Dr. Golden was turning over in his office chair. Dr. Lakshmanan, in still another switcheroo, may be called by the defense.

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