OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 5 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       I have never been a particular fan of Halloween, even before it was hijacked by grown-ups. Nothing against people getting dressed up in grandiose or macabre costumes, but there's something profoundly irritating in the way Halloween antics have infiltrated everyday life during more and more of late October, in much the same way Christmas has appropriated great huge chunks of November. What's irritating? Coming into your bank to transact some humdrum piece of business and noticing that the tellers, when you finally get to them, are done up as cowboys and prostitutes. It seems to say, "Hey, screw you, buddy, we've got custody of your money and we're just messing around."
       So, Thursday morning, one floor below Department Q, one could drag oneself into the dreary precinct in which miscreant Santa Monicans must trudge to deal with their parking offenses, only to see the place covered in spider webs and cheesy goblins. If you think it's a stretch to consider these antics proof of the arrogance of power, imagine what would happen if you strolled in for a court appearance dressed like Bela Lugosi.
       Upstairs, there are no costumes or cobwebs in Judge Fujisaki's court. But the decorum stops there. This is the first day of the heavy lifting by the plaintiffs, in which much of the physical evidence of the crimes will be introduced to the jury, and retired LAPD Detective Tom Lange is the loading dock. The strategy is plain: Of the two lead detectives working the double murder on Bundy and associated events at Rockingham, Lange is the one not singled out by Johnnie Cochran Jr. in the criminal trial as one of the "twin devils of deception," the other being Mark Fuhrman. And the defense strategy is equally obvious: scorched earth, with Lange guest-starring as the earth.
       In his morning testimony, Lange narrates photos of the crime scene, which are, fortunately, not transmitted to the listening room. He identifies the blood drops, and the shoe prints, and the distances between the bodies as they were discovered. While reports from the courtroom tell of jurors (not to mention family members of the victims) becoming emotional at the sight of those photographs, we listeners can concentrate on Lange. The retired cop is now a private detective, and he is, appropriately for the profession, laconic and world-weary. His voice carries a tone of weariness that seems to have a subtext: I'm too tired to lie.
       Thursday afternoon, we lose our second juror. There is a "we" feeling to this strange enterprise, especially since it's taking place inside a semiblackout, a gag order, and a blinded courtroom camera. That wonderful sense of camaraderie so easily available during the criminal trial, when the day's goofy or bizarre moments could be shared in the evening with close friends or total strangers, is now possible only with fellow attendees at the proceedings. What we all shared during O.J. 1 was a special case of the bonding that reporters on a story always have, whether they're in Camp O.J. or on a candidate's press plane, a bonding fueled by mutual appreciation for the little moments that will never, because of space and time restrictions, make it into their stories.
       The juror, actually an alternate, No. 367, took sick during the morning, apparently a side effect of changing blood-pressure medication. While he rests comfortably in the hospital, the judge relieves him of further service. We are ahead of the juror-removal pace of the criminal trial: two weeks in, two jurors down.
       And, while he's on the subject of jurors, Judge Fujisaki tells the panel, "I'm also advised that, yesterday when we were dark and you went back to work, some of you experienced pressure from co-workers. You are henceforth to consider yourself serving as a juror every day, even when we're dark." They are effectively ordered to stay away from work, reassured that even on off days they'll be drawing their $5 from the county. It's not sequestration, but it's one more step away from normal life. "Is everybody OK so far?" the judge quizzes them after his announcement. They are OK. So far.
       The rest of us, though, experience a mild case of whiplash. Plaintiffs attorney Ed Medvene is questioning Tom Lange about the decision for four detectives--himself, Tom Vannatter, Ron Phillips, and Mark Fuhrman--to leave the Bundy crime scene early on the morning of June 13 and travel the couple of miles to O.J. Simpson's Rockingham estate. Medvene is balding with a fringe, bearded, tall but slightly stoop shouldered. He'd be the conservative rabbi in a Woody Allen movie who tells Woody to leave the 17-year-old shiksa alone. Lange is balding, with a brush mustache. One white balding man questioning another. "We felt," says Lange wearily, "that Mr. Simpson would, down the road, be an integral part of the investigation; we had two minor children who had been transported to the police station under very traumatic circumstances. ... We wanted to meet this individual, to establish some rapport with him." Lange's intention, he testifies, was to leave Fuhrman and Phillips behind to "see to Mr. Simpson's needs"--code for special police treatment for celebrities--and be back at Bundy in 10 to 15 minutes. Lange testifies about this decision, because Vannatter's testimony on entering Rockingham, in the preliminary hearing for O.J. 1 and in his sworn application for a search warrant, has already been declared by Lance Ito to be in "reckless disregard of the truth." The plaintiffs' attorneys have learned from Trial 1, if they didn't know it before, that, if you give a stick like that to the defense lawyers, they will hit Vannatter with it.
       Here's where the whiplash occurs. Medvene's next question is about the morning of June 17, five days later, when O.J. is supposed to surrender to police. About the intervening events--most particularly the discovery of the Rockingham glove and O.J.'s statement to the police--Lange is asked nothing. Two days earlier, Fuhrman's partner Ron Phillips was used to introduce the glove behind Kato Kaelin's room into evidence. Still, for those of us accustomed to the--shall we say, stately--pace of the criminal trial, this bit of time travel is breathtaking.
       As Lange testifies that he "received information that officers had responded to Mr. Kardashian's house" after O.J. failed to surrender, Bob Baker objects. If Lange sounds weary, Judge Fujisaki has a tone of resigned impatience, especially when he rules on objections. His "sustained" inflection implies that any sane attorney on the planet should know better. In answer to Baker, the judge's impatience flows out. "If it's that important to you, Mr. Baker, I'll sustain these objections, and we'll jump through hoops."
       "I object to those comments, Your Honor," Baker shoots back, unwilling to be the humiliated pupil. "I am entitled to make objections."
       Fujisaki will not be cowed. "I made my comments, and I stick by them."
       The purpose of directing Lange to June 17 is to introduce, through him, what was seized from Al Cowlings' Bronco (everybody in this scene had a Bronco) after O.J. surrendered following the slow-speed chase. Lange enumerates them: "A .357 Magnum revolver, a black-leather travel bag containing several items, a cell phone, I believe a green towel was involved. ..."
       "What items," Medvene asks in his tentative tenor, "were found in the travel bag?"
       "I found what appeared to be changes of underwear, numerous credit cards and what I would term private club membership cards, a National Football League Hall of Fame ring, a goatee and mustache disguise with a receipt, a passport in the name of Mr. Simpson. ... There might have been other small items, maybe some socks. And there were keys, two or three sets of keys. ..." Although we've all known about this stuff, none of it was evidence in Trial 1. And, shortly, on the television screen between Lange and the jurors flashes Exhibit 690, a photograph of the goatee and mustache, black against a white background. It's a ludicrous image--a close-up of a disguise without a wearer--across the room from O.J., in a tight-fitting black suit, without a disguise. Moments later, the screen is filled with a photograph of six rounds of .357 ammo taken from the cylinder of the revolver.
       But the keys, the keys. "Two keys with what I term a Smokey the Bear ring," Lange testifies, and another key ring with "what I believe appears to be a Bentley insignia."
       "Did you," Medvene moves in for a crucial question, "determine whether the keys in Exhibit 699 fit the lock in Nicole Brown Simpson's condominium?"
       But, as he poses the query, Baker is counterpointing, "Your Honor, Your Honor, I wanna approach." It's sidebar time.
       During the 15 minutes that ensue, Baker actually pounds his fist on the bar a few times for emphasis, and O.J. whispers something to attorney Dan Leonard, after which Leonard hurriedly joins the huddle with the judge. To get the lawyer's attention, O.J. places a hand gently on his right shoulder. Leonard, who's 5 foot 8 inches or 9 and slender and sitting in a reclining swivel chair, visibly recoils back and downward from the weight of the Simpsonian hand. O.J. is clearly larger in every way than anyone else in the courtroom, but in this fleeting moment you sense, if you dare, the latent power of the man.
       After the sidebar, it quickly becomes clear that getting the nature of these keys into evidence is a nut that Ed Medvene can't crack. He asks Lange, "As a part of your investigation, did you determine that the locks had been changed at Nicole's condominium some time after the murder?" That gets a "yes," but any follow-up questions are swallowed up in objections. As a matter of fact, Baker even objects to "Mr. Petrocelli whispering to [Mr. Medvene] within 5 feet of an alternate juror."
       "Well," says the judge, pretending to be amused, "he'd have to go all the way over to your side of the room."
       "He could write him a note, Your Honor."
       It is tight quarters in here. The large exhibit boards that Bob Baker sometimes attempts to put up on an easel between the witness stand and jury box often go unwieldy and downright wobbly in his hands, making jury duty on this case a hard-hat job.
       After a break, the jurors enter, only to be excused by the bailiff. "TFC," a reporter next to me mutters grimly. "This fucking case." The rabbinical Medvene has learned, or anticipated, that Baker wants to enliven his cross-examination of Lange by playing the audiotape of O.J.'s statement to the cops. That, Medvene contends, is outside the scope of his direct examination of the detective. Baker apparently got whiplash, too.
       "Your Honor, they have taken this witness from June 13 to June 17. We intend to fill in the gaps." His intentions fall before the judge's ruling; the tape, for now, is precluded.
       Perhaps his adrenalin has been stoked by that rejection, or perhaps he's just a true professional who knows when to show his claws, but, at the sound of the bell, Baker is out of his corner tearing away at Lange. The defense lawyers have had testy moments with earlier witnesses, but there's been a lot of light comedy as well--take the colloquy between Dan Leonard and Detective Ron Phillips two days earlier. Trying to poke behind the protective facade being built around Phillips' partner Fuhrman, Leonard asked, about the morning after the murders, why a black-and-white car had been called to Rockingham:
       "And it had nothing to do with door-knocking, right?"
       "They weren't, no. It had nothing to do with that."
       "What is door-knocking?"
       "Going up to a door and knocking on it."
       "You trying to be facetious?"
       "No, I'm not. You're asking what door-knocking is. I'm going up to a door and knocking on it. I'm not trying to be cute with you. It's the answer to your question. I apologize if I've offended you."
       Leonard: "I apologize."
       Judge Fujisaki: "That's enough apologizing."
       There is no banter, no badinage between Lange and Baker. Lange is the best police target the defense is going to get in this case, and Baker starts firing as soon as he gets to the lectern near the corner where the jury box meets the spectator seats.
       "Are you," he asks, "being paid by the plaintiffs' attorneys?"
       "No," Lange says wearily.
       "Do you consider yourself friends of the Goldmans?" The family, Lange allows, did attend both his and Vannatter's retirement parties.
       "You've appeared on Larry King Live, Rivera Live, Charles Grodin, and Dateline, to tell your story of the criminal case, right?"
       "To some extent, yes."
       "Didja get the book deal you were hopin' for?"
       "I hope to."
       "Is it going to include a chapter on testifying at the civil trial?"
       "We'll see what happens."
       Past the initial sparring, Baker finds the going tough. He tries to get into the familiar defense territory about time of death, uncollected Ben & Jerry's ice cream, even a Levi's jacket that Ron Phillips noticed on the kitchen counter of Nicole's condo--but it's all outside the scope of direct. Baker works over Lange on the motivations for going to Rockingham--he repeats the word "rapport" from Lange's direct testimony perhaps two dozen times, giving each reading a fresh coat of sarcasm--but Lange sasses him right back. Questioned about his interpretation of shoe prints that Baker suggests point east, i.e., back toward the murders, the detective sighs, "I suppose it's possible that the perpetrators could have their shoes on backwards, but I don't think that that's what happened in this case." A few minutes later, Baker turns more feral: "Do you know how to answer questions on the witness stand, Mr. Lange?" An objection to the question is, "sigh, sus-tained."
       Baker, tall and silver-haired, likes to stroke his chin with his left hand in a gesture of mock-thought, or to put his left index finger up to his lips, as if savoring the ludicrousness of the testimony he's about to try to skewer. Increasingly as this battle of wills continues, he gives us Perry Mason moments:
       "Was Mr. Simpson a suspect that morning? You can answer 'yes' or 'no.' " And, moments later, at the end of a question about the blanket placed on Nicole's body: "True or untrue, true or untrue, Mr. Lange?" Mr. Lange puts on his own low-key show of unflappable attention to the details in the barrage of questions. "Did you believe when you got into the car to go to Rockingham that O.J. Simpson was a suspect in the murder of his former wife, Mr. Lange?"
       "There were two cars."
       The battle continues Friday morning. "How many other next of kin of victims did you invite to your retirement party?"
       "I didn't invite the Goldmans."
       "They just happened to show up?"
       "Along with about 350 other people. This wasn't an intimate affair."
       No, the light comedy is not in the dialogue, but in the stagecraft. Aside from continuing to threaten the jurors with falling exhibits, Baker is always calling on "Phil," his son, by first name to put up exhibits on the Elmo, which is wired to the large-screen TV. Phil is supposed to call out the number of the exhibit as it hits the screen, but more often than not Friday, testimony has to halt while either the court reporter or opposing attorneys offer what turns out to be the correct number. At one point, acknowledging the momentary descent into farce, Baker offers up a somewhat dated tribute to Maxwell Smart: "Would you believe [exhibit] 89?"
       It is a cleverly constructed box the plaintiffs have built around Lange, but Baker, intent on a planting theory, does manage to plant some images in jurors' minds in his questioning: Isn't it true that there was no dirt residue on the Bundy glove and cap? ("I didn't look at the underside"); "Did you ever pick up the cap and drop it from 6 to 8 feet to see if it would land under the leaves or if it had to be kicked there?" ("I didn't handle it."); What about the eight identifiable fingerprints found at the crime scene, none of which could ever be connected to O.J.?
       Some of these attacks misfire, or end as ambiguous duds: "Did you find any prescription medication" in O.J.'s bag seized from the Bronco? "There was prescription medication in the name of someone else in there."
       And sometimes, the attacks allow Lange to go on the offense. Hammered about the possible trace evidence that might have been found on that triangular piece of paper that police photographed but didn't collect from the crime scene, the retired detective almost raises his voice: "I wish I had picked up that piece of paper, only because it's become a point of contention, not because it's a crucial piece of evidence, which it is not."
       "Move to strike, Your Honor."
       "Overruled."
       The fireworks inside the courtroom reach a climax when, questioning Lange about those blood drops on the rear gate that several officers have testified seeing June 13, but which weren't photographed until three weeks later, Baker quotes a report Lange wrote that refers to "additional blood droplets." The attorney literally throws the report on the stand in front of Lange, and Medvene immediately objects. Baker snaps at his counterpart, "I don't need an etiquette lesson from Mr. Medvene." Before the judge can do anything but shrug helplessly at yet another example of lawyerly misbehavior, Baker apologizes.
       Outside the courtroom, the major fireworks happen at the end of Thursday's session, in the widely reported shouting match between O.J. and Fred Goldman over who was staring at whom, O.J. at Fred or Kim Goldman at O.J. What was not widely reported was an incident a week earlier, in which a reporter acquaintance of mine was standing in the courtroom during a break when Kim asked him to get out of her "line of fire," and indicated, behind him, the defendant. O.J.'s shouted response to Fred may well be the first corroborated instance, in the last two and a half years, of O.J. telling the truth.
       Friday afternoon, foreshortened by request of a couple of jurors (reportedly Orthodox Jews), is shortened far more drastically, and dramatically. Lange's partner Vannatter is called as the plaintiffs' witness, and spends no more than 10 minutes testifying about his actions taking O.J.'s blood sample to Dennis Fung at Rockingham and the victims' blood samples to the Scientific Investigation Division the morning of the June 14. Nothing terribly out of the ordinary. Nothing further. Thank you.
       If the plaintiffs built a box around Lange, they built a veritable Alcatraz around his ex-partner. For the defense to get anything out of Vannatter, they would have to recall him from his Midwestern farm as their--presumably hostile--witness, although the retired detective claims not to be hostile toward anyone. I'd be hostile toward a side whose chief advocate depicted me on international television as a "devil of deception," but that's only one of many reasons why I'd make a lousy cop.

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