OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 1 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       The first week of testimony begins with a moment we all should have seen. I know, virtually each of these dispatches contains some sort of shot at Judge Fujisaki for closing his courtroom to television, but America needed to see Robert Heidstra on the stand again. Screw America; I needed to see him again, and although I have parlayed my O.J. obsession into a (modestly!!!!) paying venture, there are days--there will be many--when I won't be any closer to the courtroom than, say, the real killers.
       Heidstra, you may recall, was the French-born car detailer who enlivened Trial 1 with his performance as a defense witness who helped the prosecution more than did many of their own witnesses. He wasn't called by Clark and Darden because his recollection of hearing two male voices (one, higher and younger, yelling "hey, hey, hey," one, deeper and older, talking fast) while on his nightly dog walk conflicted with the prosecution's chosen time line. But in the civil trial he is Mister Time Line, a position upon which he hopes to capitalize with a book, co-written with his attorney, called I Heard the Murders of the Century.
       What he heard, besides the men's voices, was the now-famous barking of the Akita named after Kato Kaelin. In the criminal trial, it was a "plaintive wail." In Heidstra's telling, it was "confused ... panicked" barking. All this could be read in the transcript with great economy of time and little loss of nuance, one suspects, until you get to the spot where the witness is asked by the skeptical defense how a panicked dog barks. The transcript tells us that Heidstra's reply was: "Grrrrrrrrr [makes barking sounds]," but there's something thin and unsatisfying about that quote, like hearing someone tell you the next day about the interview during which Marlon Brando placed a paper towel on Larry King's face because the talk-show host was sweating too much. Secondhand, in the case of such probably electrifying spectacles, is worse than no hand at all.
       Heidstra did make the talk-show circuit in the following days, shaking so hard on Rivera Live that I had to concentrate on looking at his shirt to be sure that this wasn't some sort of satellite jitter we were seeing. To compensate for the lost golden moment, I've spent much of the ensuing week asking reporters and other spectators who were present to give me their best impression of Heidstra's "panicked barking" demonstration. The consensus is that it sounded pretty much like "Grrrrrrrr." More growling than barking. But for true unsimulated--though noncanine--panic, look at Heidstra's face on CNN's Burden of Proof. Muhammad Ali with the Olympic torch trembled less.
       The first week of testimony does seem to have a theme: To paraphrase Bob Marley, the motif is "One Glove." The plaintiffs put on half a dozen police witnesses who seem to be enrolled in the Fuhrman Protection Program. To the plaintiffs' attorneys' credit, they have learned from the debacle of the prosecution case in the criminal trial. And in this early testimony, as the witnesses describe the depressingly familiar details of the hours following a brutal crime at 875 N. Bundy, they are enlisted in an elaborate pre-buttal of the defense theory that the glove at Rockingham was placed there by someone other than the perp.
       The jury's not in the listening room, they're in the actual courtroom, where they can hear well and see, but still they send a message to the judge Monday afternoon requesting that the attorneys reintroduce themselves and clarify just who it is they represent. Fujisaki, who often betrays a contempt for lawyers that borders on the Shakespearean, announces this request, then turns to the attorneys and quips, "So you can see how big an impression you've been making." The lawyers duly announce themselves and their clients.
       With police testimony, we are plunged back into the world of LAPD lingo. The department seems to have approved one verb for use by its employees, and that verb is "respond." Sgt. David Rossi, who at the criminal trial was a prodigiously tanned witness, must use the word 20 times in the first five minutes of his testimony. Like so much language today, which tries to dress up basically mundane, if not passive, behavior in the gaudy raiment of action verbs ("You still working on that burger?"; "Let's crack open a brew"; "I flamed his e-mail"), "respond" gives a sense of hair-trigger reactivity to what is, more often than not, just the act of going somewhere. So Sgt. Rossi "responded" to the murder scene. Other officers "responded." Later, four of them "responded" to Rockingham. Every once in a while, one imagines, they responded to the men's room.
       The only other new evidence, aside from the disciplined insistence on one glove at the Bundy crime scene, is the testimony of two officers--the partner of Officer Riske, who first "responded" to Bundy, and Officer Don Thompson, who later cuffed O.J. briefly upon his return from Chicago--that they saw blood on the rear gate of Nicole Brown Simpson's condo early on the morning of June 13. The lack of a contemporaneous photograph of those three blood droplets was a large piece of Barry Scheck's jigsaw puzzle of distrust. Generals are often accused of fighting the last war. The plaintiffs' attorneys are clearly intent on plugging the holes in the last case against O.J. Do they have enough fingers to leave no new holes unplugged? That's why we play this game, to find out.
       But it's not electrifying stuff--even had this proceeding been televised, CNN might have broken away to join Jenny Jones trial coverage, in progress. On Tuesday afternoon, there is exactly one other person in the listening room. All these fluorescent lights; all this booming audio--turned up loud, because the attorneys aren't miked, though the witness and judge are; all this impressive security--our guard sits at the end of the room, reading Golf magazine--for just the two of us, a CNN woman and me. A trial whose last incarnation was on a stage as big as the electrified world has now become a parlor performance.
       Next: Fireworks for Halloween.

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