OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 26 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       The table's set, let's eat. The white smoke has issued from the top of the courthouse, indicating that we have a jury, so now it's time for opening statements. Unfortunately, I am, like so many of you, afflicted with FIBS--Fujisaki-Induced Blindness Syndrome. Due to the judge's order banning cameras from the courtroom, my only access to the kickoff of O.J. 2 is in the listening room set up in the Doubletree Hotel, across Fourth Street from the courthouse. We in the media can hear an audio feed of the trial, but there is a buzz on the line, and those who speak in the courtroom have not yet been reminded to stay within the same area code as the microphone, so it's not, as they used to say in radio, easy listening.
       But there's something warm and nostalgic about the experience as well. Your correspondent is just old enough to remember a media ritual that, by current lights, seems positively quaint and buggy-whippish: grown-ups sitting around the living room listening to the radio. We have become totally accustomed to the idea of the radio as a personal appliance--appliances in this country have a life cycle that takes them from the communal to the personal--but here we are, a group of putative adults, sitting at long tables and listening quietly, almost raptly, to the opening statements of O.J. 2, sharing it as a postmodern radio drama.
       The listening room is, in fact, the Gallery Room North of the Doubletree, a rectangular space whose decor makes "bland" a wondrous goal toward which one day to aspire. Two small bookshelf speakers sit on either side of a large horizontal mirror above a wooden countertop. More than one reporter in the room recoils at the idea of staring straight ahead for hours at a reflection of self, but maximum intelligibility occurs when you turn sideways and, doglike, cock an ear directly at the speakers. His Master's Trial.
       Conversation in the room before proceedings begin centers on the changed circumstances of the sequel, as a result of Judge Fujisaki's decision to exile the courtroom camera. "I like having an advantage over TV for once," says the reporter for a Major Newspaper. "But the fact is we'll be relegated to the inside pages." Sure enough, her story on the plaintiffs' opening day runs in the rear of the business section, cheek to jowl with the pork-belly prices.
       The Wednesday session begins with some final motions on what can and can't be mentioned in opening statements. The judge starts edging closer to Ito Country, allowing the attorneys to flex their vocal muscles in repetition of what they've already argued on paper. Opposing the plaintiffs' motion to preclude any defense references to Mark Fuhrman, Dan Leonard cites no additional cases or points of law--Fujisaki's original "tough" standard for oral argument--but does add this to the judge's store of knowledge: "Where I come from, this is called sandbagging. ... Basically what's going on here is that the plaintiffs want to have it both ways; they want the jury to reach the presumption that the evidence in this case was collected in the ordinary pursuit of police activity, and that it is trustworthy. At the same time, the plaintiffs say on Page 5 of their own moving papers that they don't vouch for Detective Fuhrman."
       Vouching for Fuhrman, of course, is what got Marcia Clark in trouble. Vouch? She did everything but nominate him for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar.
       To the consternation of the defense, Fujisaki puts off a decision on the question. "This certainly is an interesting issue."
       Leonard tries a closing flourish: "With all respect, this is a no-brainer."
       "We'll see what the Supreme Court says about no-brainer," the judge quips, and takes the matter under submission. When Bob Baker does present his opening statement, despite his protestations of being handicapped by this last-minute non-no-brainer, he somehow manages to work in the name of Mark Fuhrman about half a hundred times.
       But first, Daniel Petrocelli leads off the trio of plaintiffs' attorneys who will spend the day hammering away at "Orenthal James Simpson." In television terms--the only language that seems appropriate to this event--opening statements are the promos for the trial to follow. As the losing side last time, the plaintiffs are presenting not so much a rerun, but a rewrite. Although Petrocelli begins mentioning a list of strangely familiar names, like roll call at summer camp--Bodziak, Deedrick, Aris Leather Lights--it becomes clear that the case against O.J. has been retooled more extensively than Ink.
       Petrocelli, called Petro in the pressroom, promises that we will meet a new pathologist, Dr. Werner Spitz, from the Detroit coroner's office--a new way of picking up after the mess left by Dr. Irwin Golden, the original medical examiner. Mr. Deedrick, the hair and fiber expert, will be able this time to testify about the rarity of the beige carpet fibers ("found in very few Broncos") found on the knit cap and the Rockingham glove; the prosecution lost the ability to present this evidence as punishment for sharing Deedrick's report on the subject with the defense only at the last minute.
       Of course, we will hear about the extra-large Aris gloves, the Rockingham glove, the Bundy glove, and the two pairs of extra-large Aris Leather Lights, sold only at Bloomingdale's, that Nicole Brown Simpson purchased. We will see the photos of Mr. Simpson at football games, wearing both the brown and the black pair of what appear to be those gloves.
       "Designwise," Petro says in an oblique reference to the most unsuccessful demonstration since Tiananmen Square, "these gloves are supposed to be skintight." And then, a new flourish: "We have asked Mr. Simpson to produce the gloves he is seen wearing in the photographs. He will not be able to produce either pair."
       The testimony of William Bodziak, the shoe-print expert, on the size 12 prints at the crime scene left by "Bruno Mah-li--some people say Bruno Magli" shoes will be significantly expanded, thanks to the National Enquirer. Petro reads, from O.J.'s February deposition, a now-famous response, bowdlerized in some prominent newspapers, to the accusation that the size 12, casual, Lorenzo-style Bruno Maglis with a leather-type silga sole that makes a unique waffle-type pattern were his: "I'd never wear those ugly-ass shoes." Then he tells the jury of a photograph published in the supermarket tabloid, a picture taken by a sports photographer who works for the Associated Press and who gets to sell the photos the AP doesn't want--"that's how he makes his living."
       "In September of 1993, he took a picture of Mr. Simpson at a football game in Buffalo, standing in the end zone. In the photograph, Mr. Simpson's shoes are clearly visible, including the soles. Mr. Bodziak positively identified them as Bruno Magli Lorenzo-style, size 12. Once again, we asked Mr. Simpson to produce the shoes in the photograph. He cannot produce them. Where are they? His answer is 'I gave them away,' and he can't identify to whom he gave them."
       O.J.'s statement on June 13 to LAPD detectives Tom Lange and Philip Vannatter, any mention of which was studiously avoided by the prosecution out of a desire to force the defendant to testify personally, will make an appearance in this case. Petro promises to compare O.J.'s deposition--in which he says he cut his left finger on a glass in the bathroom of his Chicago hotel, but "he does not remember exactly how he cut himself"--with that early statement to the cops, in which he said "he cut himself before going to Chicago." O.J. has obviously left a rich vein of statements--a deposition, the BET interview, his ill-fated video--that can, and will, be compared and challenged this time around.
       And Petro, working for a bereaved father, has the freedom not accorded to Clark and Darden, tethered to a proud but troubled police department, a department stiffly determined to pretend, at least on national television, that it treats all citizens fairly and equally. He can say the words no one dared speak in the criminal trial, the words that may help to explain what otherwise is the inexplicable decision to send four detectives away from a crime scene to Rockingham to notify O.J. that his wife had been killed. The words are "preferential treatment for celebrities."
       "We will put on evidence that members of the LAPD had, if anything, a favorable impression of Mr. Simpson," Petro predicts. He describes the "baseball-bat incident" of 1984, when O.J. abused Nicole's car and a certain Detective Fuhrman responded to the scene: "Mr. Simpson will testify that Mark Fuhrman did not arrest, frisk, or mistreat him." He retells the New Year's Day incident of 1989, when, after police arrived and saw a visibly beaten Nicole, "Mr. Simpson got in his car and fled the scene. He was never arrested, and nothing happened to him for leaving the scene. ... We will present evidence," he says of the October 1993 incident at Nicole's Gretna Green apartment, "that the police did everything in their power to keep this incident quiet." O.J. Simpson, Petro says of the most famous American ever charged with double homicide, "is a celebrity, and the police go out of their way to give celebrities preferential treatment." Jack Webb rolls over in his grave, but, since he always underacted, you can't tell.
       And then, of course, there's the blood. "Probably the most important evidence we will present that identifies Mr. Simpson as the killer is the blood evidence," Petro declares, and you can feel yourself falling down, down into DNA-land. The first time he pronounces the initials RFLP, a groan ripples across the tables in the listening room. That is one of the compensations for being stricken with FIBS, the judge-imposed inability to see the jurors or Petro's choreography: Huddled around the radio, we can whisper, or groan, and drink coffee or water. Some of us even read the paper as Petro explains DNA and, in a passage that must have been written when he expected to have more than one black juror in the box, points out that DNA research "enabled scientists to realize that sickle-cell anemia was caused by a genetic defect."
       What's new in DNA? Petro does make a point left unmade in O.J. 1, that "the only witnesses testifying in this case about DNA will be the witnesses we present." That is an arch and subtle way of making what may turn out to be a powerful point: that though Cochran & Co. used up whole seasons of television time demanding that Judge Ito order the prosecution to produce "splits" of the blood evidence so that the defense could have its own experts conduct their own tests, no testimony about any such tests was ever elicited.
       "We will describe," Petro promises without much detail, "Mr. Simpson's activities and behavior after the murder. We will prove that he did not behave like an innocent man." This was a point on which the defense put heavy emphasis downtown; it bewildered me then, and it bewilders me now. If we reliably knew how innocent men behaved, we wouldn't need trials.
       And of course, in response to overwhelming public demand, the Bronco chase will be mentioned to the jury this time around. In his flat, nasal, but not unpleasant tenor, Petro promises, "We will present evidence that Mr. Simpson fled from the police with Mr. [Al] Cowlings and contemplated committing suicide, because of consciousness of guilt. There is no other explanation."
       O.J.'s letter to Nicole six days before the murder, threatening to blow the whistle to the IRS on the fact that she was no longer maintaining Bundy as rental property, will be introduced. But other "evidence" familiar to regular viewers of CNBC's lineup of O.J.-themed talk shows has not made the cut: Nicole's therapist, who supposedly was treating her for abuse days before the murder; Nicole's diary, which the California Legislature passed a special law to exempt from the hearsay rule. In this trial, to borrow Chris Darden's phrase, Nicole will not be speaking to us from the grave.
       Knowing what Bob Baker has in mind, Petrocelli mounts a pre-emptive rebuttal of the Mark-Fuhrman-made-this-whole-case-dirty theory. "We will prove from the observations and notes of the officers on the scene that the blood on the back gate at Bundy couldn't have been planted, because they saw it and because there is a photograph of it. ... During the hour after Lange and Vannatter arrived, we will present evidence that Mark Fuhrman was never alone or had the opportunity to take possession of crucial pieces of evidence. ... None of the witnesses we will present will testify that Mark Fuhrman had the opportunity to plant the second glove."
       Petro spends the rest of his opening statement playing D: "No witness will testify that the socks were pulled out of Mr. Simpson's drawer. ... The back-gate blood was not collected by the criminalists because they simply neglected to. ... Our experts will testify that, even if contamination did happen, you wouldn't get a false reading, you'd get readings of both Mr. Simpson and the 'real murderer.' ... There is no evidence that Mr. Vannatter took anybody's blood anywhere and did anything."
       Michael Brewer represents the Other Parent in the case, Sharon Rufo, Ron Goldman's mother, long divorced from Fred. In the listening room, you can't focus on his dark, high-rise pompadour, so one notices the tentativeness behind the bravado in his whispery baritone. "I'm going to call the incidents of June 17 'Mr. Simpson's Flight from Justice.' " Bob Baker booms an objection, and the judge sustains it. So Brewer starts working on a delicate subject: His client is suing for damages to compensate her for the loss of a relationship, yet after the divorce, she never saw her son. But they talked often on the phone. "You," he tells the jurors, "will have to evaluate her loss." He also tells them that O.J. drafted his "suicide note" on that Friday, only after hearing that he was to be arrested. But the note is dated two days earlier. The factual flub is ignored in the flurry of Bob Baker's theatrical objection to "the so-called suicide note," the theatricality to become evident at the end of his own opening statement. Brewer relents, and agrees to call it "this document."
       But what's new in Brewer's statement comes at the end. After O.J. was arrested at the end of the chase and the bag he had with him in the Bronco was searched, police found the keys to Nicole's condo. O.J., Brewer says, had testified that he didn't have keys to her residence. And, the attorney adds with the proper note of drama, "the rear gate at Bundy needed a key to be opened." That, of course, is the gate through which the--to coin a phrase--real killer fled.
       Next: Nicole's lawyer builds her up, O.J.'s tears her down.

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