OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 29 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       On Wednesday the winds were Santa Anas, whipping through the canyons and passes from the deserts northeast of Santa Monica so fiercely as to whip up conflagrations that pressed the regulars in the O.J. press contingent into wildfire duty. By Friday, winds of equal or greater velocity were roaring off the Pacific and sandblasting the courthouse, just four blocks from the beach. Who says we don't have seasons?
       Inside Judge Fujisaki's courtroom, depictions of Nicole Brown Simpson are similarly polarized, as opening statements reach their climax. On the one hand, you could take the word of Brown family attorney John Q. Kelly, sandy-haired, a hint of rasp in the voice: "She was full of life." On the other, you could absorb the blast from O.J.'s lead attorney Bob Baker, who makes all the evening newscasts describing Nicole's alleged associations with prostitutes and drug dealers. Since money damages in this case will be decided by the jury (assuming they find O.J. liable for the deaths) partly on the basis of the value they place on the lives snuffed out, it is a distasteful but inevitable facet of this civil trial that, in addition to battling over the culpability of the defendant, the two sides will be arguing about the character of the victims.
       Kelly, who gets the unenviable job of closing out the first day of statements, teeing off around four in the afternoon, basically replows the territory of Chris Darden's opening statement in O.J. 1: He promises a look at the defendant's "dark world of uncontrollable rage"--images of darkness and blackness as evil will undoubtedly play better in front of a largely pale jury. There is, in addition to the familiar litany of abuse, the tale of a new incident, at least new to these ears: a time when, shortly after they met, O.J. threw "all of Nicole's clothes ... out of an apartment window (in San Francisco), and they were scattered over parked cars." Anticipating O.J.'s version of the New Year's Day abuse incident (and anticipating it correctly), Kelly says, "This was no push and shove incident. This was a beating." We learned watching the criminal trial that attorneys fill and pause and backtrack and speed up just so they can close each day with what they hope will be a memorable moment, a line or image that rattles around in the jurors' heads all night like the chorus of a stupid pop song. Kelly knows he can't do better than "this was a beating," and he folds his tent for the night.
       As part of his order banning cameras in court, Judge Fujisaki mandated a security procedure for the listening room, lest anyone try to tape or relay the audio feed to the world outside Gallery Room North. All media organizations using the listening room are assessed some serious bucks, mainly to pay for the security guard, uniformed, armed, who pats us down each time we attempt to gain entry to the facility. He seems OK--no particular attitude to the frisk--and, after spending the first day sitting outside the room, Thursday morning he moves in with us. Maybe he's interested in the trial, maybe he was lonely out in the hall. So now, if you want to listen, you not only have to be frisked; you have to knock.
       Kelly resumes, telling the jury that after Nicole moves out of Rockingham and into her own place on Gretna Green, "Mr. Simpson began acting in a most peculiar way." Anyone who's seen him act might agree, but that's not what Kelly means.
       "You'll hear that after Nicole left him, the defendant called Mrs. Brown, her mother, each and every day--five, six, seven times a day--wanting to know where Nicole was, what she was doing, who she was with." This is the obsessive O.J., first cousin to the stalking O.J. Kelly pushes the pain to the point of comedy: Mrs. Brown "would be in her kitchen, cooking, and Mr. Simpson would be talking about Nicole, and she'd put the phone down, and when she'd pick it up, five, 10 minutes later, he'd still be talking about Nicole." It's an odd detail for a plaintiff's lawyer to share with jurors, because it makes you feel a little sorry for O.J., pouring his heart into a phone sitting on the counter while Juditha Brown rustles about in the fridge, or stirs the soup. On the other hand, most people, if they don't hear at least an "uh-huh" every couple of minutes or so from the other end, might start wondering if anyone's really listening.
       Like Daniel Petrocelli, Kelly wants to emphasize "preferential treatment" of celebs by police. When officers show up in response to the 1993 911 call, "you'll hear Mr. Simpson's total disregard for law enforcement. ... Again, you'll hear the deference shown to Mr. Simpson by the LAPD." Aside from being plausible and maybe even true, preferential treatment is designed to inoculate the jurors against the virus of the planting theory. It is one of the primary defenses against the Mark Fuhrman Gambit.
       What else is new? A tantalizing detail totally left out of the criminal trial surfaces in Kelly's statement, albeit in passing: O.J.'s role in filming a pilot called "Frogman." Among aficionados, this is a favorite piece of lore, primarily because O.J. was supposedly trained, for purposes of verisimilitude in the role, in certain stealthy forms of assault favored by Navy Seals. Kelly just drops a reference to "Frogman," on his way to pointing out that O.J. missed several major events in his young children's lives. This is the "Bad Daddy So He Must Have Been a Killer" attack, to be met head-on by Baker's "She Consorted With Sleazeballs So Anyone Could Have Killed Her" defense.
       And the keys to Nicole's condo make another appearance--actually, a disappearance--in Kelly's statement. On June 7, five days before the murders, "Nicole realized that the keys to her condominium, keys that she kept in her kitchen, were missing." Ominously, O.J. had been there the day before.
       Kelly's final flourishes are references to a couple of phone calls. After Nicole returned diamonds O.J. had given her, he called Juditha Brown. Kelly, who will obviously call Brown as a witness, quotes O.J. as telling her, "I know the last time (we split up) it was my fault. This time it's gonna hurt." Presumably drawing upon O.J.'s deposition--since no other party to this conversation can testify--Kelly says O.J. called Nicole at 9 p.m. the night of the murders, and asked her only one question: "Is Sydney (their daughter) asleep yet?"
       And now, Bob Baker. In a way, he may have the hardest job in the courtroom. Whereas Fujisaki only has to end up not having half a dozen Xeroxes of himself prancing around on the Tonight Show stage, and the plaintiffs only have to not lose, Baker has to follow Johnnie Cochran's act. He starts off as if the task is too much for him. In the early part of his statement, he's almost goofy, and clearly mistake-prone. Starting his narrative with O.J.'s birth, he puts heavy emphasis on the defendant's football prowess--"At San Francisco Junior College, O.J. Simpson smashed every running record in the book. His daughter Arnelle was born on the day O.J. received the Heisman Trophy. ... He became the first player in pro football history to run the football more than 2,000 yards in a single season." Nobody could do that and then, a mere 20 years later, turn into a killer.
       The mistakes seem to be the product of opening-day jitters: Farther along in his narrative, Baker has Arnelle being born a second time. I've heard of born-again, but this is ridiculous. He calls the limo driver Alan Parks, when his real name is Park. A minor error, but quibbling is what they do in court. Baker interrupts his narrative several times--"let's go back for a minute. ... I missed this, too. ..."--to pick up threads he dropped.
       He berates a police officer responding to the 1989 incident for "giving O.J. a hard time," but gets the officer's name wrong, and has to correct it after a break. And, in describing O.J.'s physical exam at the behest of Robert Shapiro, he confuses Dr. Robert Huizenga (the sports doctor) with Robert Heidstra (the car detailer). And, although a couple of observers in the courtroom say the moment played well, to a listener Baker commits an act of premeditated melodrama that might make even Bill Clinton blush: Looking down at the text of the note that only the day before he had objected to being characterized as a suicide note, he now says, "I guess I was wrong to say it shouldn't be referred to as a suicide note. It is." To buy this moment, you have to believe that a two-and-a-half-year-old piece of writing by his client has just been handed to Baker as he walked into court this morning, but, hey, I'm no juror.
       And yet, slowly at first, Baker, in his flat Midwestern baritone, lays the groundwork for what, in this case, has to be more than reasonable doubt. In numerical terms, four of the 12 jurors have to agree that 51 percent of the evidence points to O.J.'s innocence. There are the symbolic touches--whereas the plaintiffs tend to refer to him as Orenthal James, Baker almost always calls the defendant O.J. He rebuts the little specifics: O.J. couldn't have sped away from the police in 1989 at 30 miles per hour, as Kelly averred. (Actually, Kelly put the speed at 35, but who's counting?) He paints the O.J.-Nicole relationship as little short of ideal: They "were an amazing couple. ... Their life together was a terrific one." Again answering a specific charge from Kelly, Baker denies that O.J. went to the Rose Bowl game after the 1989 incident, because, "as some of you may know, when January first falls on a Sunday, they play the Rose Bowl game on the second. The game was played on Monday the second that year." It wasn't Al Cowlings who insisted that Nicole go to the hospital after the beating, suspecting a concussion, as Kelly had charged, it was O.J. We don't hear about, in Cochran's memorable phrase, O.J.'s "circle of benevolence," but Baker comes close.
       O.J., says his attorney, didn't stalk Nicole after their breakup; he became her confidante. The confidante angle is the crowbar with which Baker opens the subject of Nicole's "lifestyle" issues, specifically saying that when she became pregnant by "one of her boyfriends," she didn't tell her mother, she didn't tell her sisters, she told her best friend and O.J. She then "decided to terminate the unwanted pregnancy." If Bob Dole had been as deft at manipulating the abortion issue in front of a majority-female audience, he'd be whistling "Hail to the Chief" right about now.
       O.J. didn't pursue Nicole after their breakup, Baker says: "In fact, the exact opposite was true. ... She would come over to his house day and night. She showed up at Riviera Country Club, she followed him down to Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of Baja, California, where he loved to go and play golf." A great swath of America feels as if it knows these two people. In that sense, this trial, much more than O.J. 1, will put us in that exquisitely awkward position of being bystanders at their divorce. At least the conflicting winds outside the courtroom cleared the air.
       Baker spends a lot of time on the hour and a half for which an alibi is essential, and it ends up being the familiar grab bag: chipping golf balls, getting the cell phone out of the Bronco, taking a shower. And it's clear from his statement that the defense has a lot of work to do in rebutting the implications of the Bronco chase; Baker introduces the topic by pointing out that, on that Friday, O.J. was "on heavy, heavy medication."
       Last time I looked, that's not a defense for avoiding arrest. And he deals with the contents of the bag by pointing out that O.J. couldn't wear the disguise while using his passport (picture wouldn't match face), and that O.J.'s prescription-strength Motrin ("this isn't the Motrin that you can buy at PayLess") which he has to take twice a day wasn't in the bag. Nor were toiletries. Toiletries? Don't they sell those anyplace besides Brentwood?
       But Baker finishes the morning with a strong image: After O.J. came back to Rockingham and saw his mother (a courtesy not lavished on most fugitives), "the police handcuffed him and they took him down to jail for 490 days in solitary confinement for two murders he did not commit."
       Add the Doubletree Suites Hotel to the list of people making money off this case. Not only are they renting out the Gallery North Room for our listening pleasure, and the Gallery South Room as the print-press work area, but the Fourth Street Grille plays host at lunch time each day to the O.J. party. While Baker sits with Robert Blasier at one table, O.J. sits with three associates two tables away, eating a chicken quesedilla plate, ignoring the "G'day, Mate!" Australian food promotion the grill--excuse me, the Grille--is running. O.J.'s walk to and from the Doubletree is fast becoming a staple of the footage-hungry TV crowd, but who else tells you what he eats?
       Thursday afternoon, and I trade in my listening-room pass for one that says, more simply and elegantly, "Media." Neon-green and numbered, it's a pass that Jerianne Haizlitt, the Superior Court's press relations tsarina, hands out in exchange for your photo i.d., assuming that your assigned seat is in fact available to you. The two people who share my seat have both waived their privilege at this point, and so I get to watch Baker close out his preview of coming defenses.
       For the trial, a 32-inch TV has been installed between the witness stand and the jury box. Though it's designed to display the maps and photos with which O.J. fans are intimately familiar, it spends most of the afternoon filled with a calming blue. When Baker leans on the witness stand, as he often does while facing the jurors, my vantage point puts him right in front of the blue screen, and he looks as if he's step one in filming an elaborate special effect in which, ultimately, he'll be leaning on a dinosaur.
       For our after-lunch enjoyment, we are served up two rollerbladers who were skating down Bundy the fateful night and reported seeing a Caucasian or Hispanic male crouching in the bushes in front of 875. They were interviewed by Detective Vannatter, Baker tells us, and then: "nothing happened." Imagine that. Petrocelli objects to this narrative, and a five-minute sidebar ensues. Baker wants to let us know who won the sidebar, even before the transcript comes out, so his first words upon re-emerging are, "As I was saying."
       Baker promises the jury they will hear "Nicole's best friend say that Nicole and Ron Goldman had a date" on the night of the crime. There will obviously be contention as to who was her best friend, but O.J.'s version is that it was Cora Fischman.
       One possible reason is that she's the only one of Nicole's friends not to conclude that O.J. killed her. That's what friends are for. Or, as Baker says at another point, "We all need an Al Cowlings."
       Now Baker starts narrating the defense theory of the chronology of the killing, and he can't resist sneaking in what the judge has forbidden him to do: speculate on an alternate theory of the case. "Ron," he says, "was inside the gate when the attackers--and I say attackers--," and Petrocelli is on his feet objecting. The apposite cliché, hammered into our heads by legal analysts during the televised trial, is that the bell, once rung, cannot be unrung. That sound you hear is not Avon calling.
       The rest of Baker's afternoon is, in fact, a retelling of the familiar defense themes: You can't trust the blood evidence, the coroner came late, evidence at the crime scene was moved around before it was collected, Thano Peratis collected 1.5 cc of O.J.'s blood that's unaccounted for, Juditha Brown's glasses are broken while in police custody, the Bronco was unlocked and broken into while in custody at Viertel's--it's important, and Baker seems to draw rhetorical power from being on familiar ground, but it's the kind of thing (especially when he gets to alleles and Dqalpha) that makes some reporters in the courtroom long for the freedom of the listening room, where you can come and go at will. The primary novelty is Baker's flat assertion that the photo showing O.J. wearing those "ugly-ass shoes" is "a phony ... doctored." The shoes in the photo look dry, he says, but it had been raining for hours in Buffalo that afternoon.
       Members of the public have been able to get seats the first couple of days, suggesting that O.J. frenzy is not yet upon us. But there are counter-indications, as well. A couple of days earlier, while I was buying some shirts, the proprietor of the store where I'm a semi-regular confided in me that, "One of my other customers is a juror in the Simpson case."
       And shortly after Baker concluded his statement, I was in an Italian deli not a mile south of the courtroom when the guy washing the windows insisted on engaging me in a half-hour argument about the evidence, peppering it with accusatory comments like, "That's the way white people see this case." The man in question was white.
       Maybe not an epidemic quite yet, but the fever is spreading.

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