OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 5 1997 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       The easygoing valedictory spirit of the week before has dissipated over Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the strings are pulled taut again as closing arguments begin. The judge sets the tone, refusing to let Robert Blasier's wife, Charlotte, back in the courtroom. She'd been banned in December, after discovery that she was (inadvertently, she says) wearing a microphone for America's Most Wanted. Blasier has returned from back surgery in a wheelchair, and Bob Baker makes a heartfelt plea that Charlotte be readmitted to aid her husband. Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki is unmoved. And, when Blasier asks for a break so that the ruling can be appealed, the judge turns testy: "It's my courtroom." (Typically, Fujisaki reverses himself the next day, after Blasier sends him a letter noting his ill health and beseeching the judge to let Charlotte be present for what the lawyer describes as one of the "crowning moments" of his career.)
       Daniel Petrocelli begins his day-long argument putting pictures of the victims--"Here they are in life"--up on the large-screen TV. You know what comes next, ugly crime-scene photos of the victims, but what's surprising is the defendant's reaction: O.J. looks away from the screen as the photo of the murdered Nicole is displayed, but when the image cuts to that of the murdered Ron Goldman, Simpson turns to the screen, fixing his gaze on it until the screen returns to its blue repose.
       Petro's tone is even, measured, relentless, suggesting a barely suppressed outrage. Dressed in a black suit, he strolls the courtroom, from the lectern to the witness box, always facing the jury, except for the day's early, dramatic moment: The blood of the victims, he says, forced the murderer "to leave shoe prints, that are just like fingerprints, shoe prints that tell us who did this unspeakable thing. Their voices tell us that there is a killer in this courtroom!" The lawyer raises his voice, turns to his left, and points his left arm in the direction of O.J. Simpson, also wearing a black suit. In the land of the Jacuzzi, this is classic "j'accuse."
       The plaintiffs' position, as Petrocelli articulates it, is that their side has gone far beyond the "preponderance of evidence" burden, has presented "overwhelming and incriminating evidence" of Simpson's guilt, "to a certainty, beyond a reasonable doubt." But his emphasis, early and often, is on pressing the advantage of having had O.J. to cross-examine. What, he asks the jurors, did the defendant tell you about his blood on the ground at Bundy, his glove and cap at the crime scene, Nicole's and Ron's blood in his Bronco, his inability to produce in court his Aris Leather Lite gloves, or the 30 photographs "of him wearing the ugly-ass Bruno Magli shoes that he swore to you he never owned and never wore?" Over and over again, Petro repeats the mantra: "Not one word."
       But it's not the flourishes that make Petrocelli's closing argument so instantaneously impressive that within hours the lawyer-tators on cable are declaring it a classic. It's his ability to follow an obvious point one step further to a powerful, and not-so-obvious conclusion, his sense that the question to ask rhetorically challenging the claim of doctored shoe photos is this one: "This guy's gotta be one of the most photographed people in the world. Did he bring in one single photograph wearing the shoes he was really wearing [at that football game]? Not one."
       Petro's best repetitive theme, though, is, "What kind of man?" As, when he flashes a photo of the bruised and battered Nicole on the screen, he says: "What kind of man says 'I take full responsibility, but I didn't do anything wrong, I was just trying to get her out of my bedroom'? What kind of man, after sharing a house with a woman for 10 years, still calls it 'my bedroom'?" And, most cruelly, but most tellingly, later on in the day, he asks, "What kind of man signs a so-called suicide note with a happy face?"
       Of course he answers his own rhetorical question: "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out: What kind of man? A guilty man, a man with no remorse, a man with no conscience." Simpson lied, the lawyer almost snarls, about every important fact in this case. He's so image-obsessed, Petrocelli charges, that "he'll come into this courtroom, and smear the name and reputation of the mother of his children while she rests in her grave." They've tried to sell the image to you, he warns the jurors, "they've tried to sell you O.J., they've tried to sell you Juice." But, the attorney says, deriding the defense's frequent references to Simpson's glory days, "the rules don't change if a person has won the Heisman Trophy."
       The evidentiary points he elucidates are familiar--the artifacts of crime at Bundy are Simpson's, including the shoes. "If he's wearing that shoe, he did it." Three labs tested blood samples and came up with identical DNA results. There's no evidence of contamination on the evidence samples, and "there's zero contamination on the control swatches. That's the end of the discussion." O.J., for whom it's definitely not the end of the discussion, is staring straight ahead, his hands lying flat on the table in front of him.
       As superior as this presentation of the case against Simpson has been to the case made downtown by the new millionaires formerly of the DA's office, Petrocelli's argument underlines the incredible advantage of having been able to put the defendant under the microscope. Over and over, on the shoes, on the dark-blue cotton sweat clothing, on the question of whether he picked up the message from Paula Barbieri ending their affair, Petro tells the jury, "You have to ask yourself, why is O.J. Simpson obviously lying?" In a Bill of Rights that couldn't muster a popular majority in this country today, the Fifth has long been the most unpopular of amendments. The Simpson spectacle proves why. It also, incidentally, proves why the Fifth is a nice amendment to have around if you're an innocent man with a propensity to talk too much.
       Although his style could hardly be called folksy, Petrocelli every once in a while hits upon a turn of phrase that perfectly encapsulates his position without requiring him to go into possibly inconvenient, or unavailable, detail. To counter the still-lingering impression that "the gloves didn't fit" in the Christopher Darden-inspired demonstration, Petro makes the usual points--shrinkage, crumpling while in evidence, latex gloves underneath--and then insists, "And [Simpson] was not trying to make them fit. It was like putting pants on a crying baby." To ridicule Simpson's insistence on Chachi the dog's tendency to scamper off his property, Petrocelli says, "It's easy to blame dogs, they can't testify," then puts a photo of Chachi lying in the middle of the driveway on the screen, and cracks, "That dog ain't movin'."
       The other trump card, besides the defendant's own credibility, is the 30 E.J. Flammer photos. Petrocelli returns to them frequently. "Did you see the defense call an expert to testify that these 30 new photos are phony, too? Did you hear that testimony? It didn't happen. There was no such testimony. ... You didn't even hear that guy come back and talk about the Flammer photos." That guy is Robert Groden, and, sitting in a replica limo in Dallas talking a tourist through JFK's stations of the cross between rounds of tape-recorded gunshots, his ears must have burned. And, in perhaps the truest words spoken during a week of closing argument, Petrocelli denounces the defense's contention that the Flammer photos can't be trusted because they're for sale: "Everyone in this case," he declares, "has sold something."
       Then, in words ringing with slightly less veracity, he says of Simpson, "He's an actor, he can hide what's inside." This is in the context of another major theme, another opportunity taken in this case but disdained first time around: the ability to use Simpson's early interview with Tom Lange and Philip Vannatter to impeach his later statements. "No less than five times he told the police he cut himself in L.A. [before leaving for Chicago]. Why? Because they told him they found blood at his house, and he had to explain it." Simpson also told the police he had no idea how he cut himself, to which Petro's bitter rejoinder is, "Come on, let's get real." When the defendant took the stand, Petrocelli asserts, "he denied he cut himself in L.A. ... What kind of man would be not able to tell you how he got 11 injuries on his hands? A guilty man."
       Petrocelli is not above cutting a corner or two himself. He quotes Robert ("Could be a Bronco, could be a Blazer, maybe a Jeep-type vehicle") Heidstra as testifying, after he heard a male voice--presumably Goldman's--say "hey, hey, hey," that he heard another voice, a "deeper, darker voice." Heidstra never said "darker" in this trial. In the first trial, he sparred with Chris Darden about whether he'd told a friend that he thought the second voice was African-American, an occasion for Mr. Johnnie to thunder in outrage that it was impossible to make such distinctions purely by voice. This, of course, was before Ebonics.
       Petrocelli also does some interesting theorizing. There is no evidence to explain why Heidstra saw the Broncoesque vehicle turn right--south--on Bundy, when Simpson's home is to the north. Petrocelli says, "He didn't want to drive past the front of Bundy, where two bodies lay." If only Jill Shively hadn't taken the five grand from Hard Copy, there might even be a witness to put Simpson in the car, rushing north, at about the right time. But she did, and there isn't.
       "He's lying to you," Petrocelli insists, turning the subject to the absence of an alibi during the crucial hour-plus before limo driver Allan Park sees Simpson at the Rockingham front door. Relying on another item of evidence the millionaire losers didn't have--records of O.J.'s cell-phone calls--Petrocelli mocks Simpson's testimony that he confused Sunday night, when he told police he called Paula Barbieri but she wasn't home, with the night before. "We know she was there Saturday night, because they went out to a benefit dinner together." It is, Petro suggests, absurd for O.J. to suggest he confused an evening at a black-tie gala with an evening on which he was crucially, perhaps lethally, alone.
       On length of struggle, one of the defense's key points, Petro is at his peak of ridicule. He reminds the jury how long a round in boxing lasts--three minutes--and asks, contemptuously, whether they actually believe that the unarmed Goldman "went a round of heavyweight boxing with O.J.," armed with a knife. "Come on." The mystery duffel bag seen behind O.J.'s Bentley as he prepared to leave in Park's limo? "Mr. Simpson produced it in court. Or did he? It still had its tags on, somebody forgot to take them off. Kato Kaelin said that wasn't the bag he saw, Park said it wasn't the bag he saw. This was a ringer. We don't know where the other bag is, and we'll never know."
       The contempt for the defendant escalates as Petrocelli recalls the events following O.J.'s return to Los Angeles on Monday, June 13. "The next morning, Mr. Simpson goes to his office. He hasn't even seen his children. They just lost their mother. ... He didn't see them until Tuesday afternoon. This man is obsessed ... with covering his tracks, he has no time for his kids, he's huddling with his lawyers. He asked one of them to go with him to the airport to pick up his golf clubs. This," Petro says with utter disdain, "is a man who'd never go pick up anything in his life, he uses messengers and drivers. ... An innocent man doesn't get his golf clubs before he sees his children."
       Of the suicide mission to Nicole's grave on Friday, June 17, Petrocelli's disregard for Simpson positively curdles: "He's gonna orphan his two small children. What kind of innocent man does that? Does that make sense?" And another piece of evidence ignored by the prosecution, the tape of Simpson's conversation from mid-Bronco chase with Lange, who's heard constantly coaxing O.J. not to shoot himself, offers Lange telling Simpson that no one's going to get hurt, to which O.J. replies, "I'm the only one who deserves it." "Is it," Petrocelli asks, his voice rising in disbelief, "conceivable that an innocent man could ever utter those words?"
       On Wednesday morning, after spending considerable time delineating a motive that he acknowledges he doesn't have to prove, Petrocelli brings out a powerful audiovisual aid: the liar board, a list of all the witnesses and pieces of evidence that have to be lying, or mistaken, or planted, for O.J. Simpson to be telling the truth. It is, he suggests, O.J. against the world. And he asks the jury to believe the world.
       Bob Baker, who takes over in the afternoon, suggests a different formulation: It's the LAPD vs. O.J. Simpson. Baker has followed the other two plaintiffs' attorneys: John Q. Kelly, who offered a brief review of the O.J.-Nicole relationship replete with bizarre imagery ("She was the total package. To Mr. Simpson, she was the Heisman Trophy of women.") and the reading of the controversial writings of Nicole (including a paragraph in which she refers to "wife beating ... I called the cops to save my life."), and Michael Brewer, who represents Ron Goldman's birth mother, and who was assigned the task of explaining the verdict form to the jurors, only because the job of bringing them water was already taken.
       Baker's half-day with the jurors is bizarre in more ways than one. In content, it offers what is in essence a defense against the criminal-trial evidence. In form, it is as meandering and disorganized as a Bob Dole speech in Hour 53 of his 72-hour campaign marathon. Even before he starts talking, Baker suffers a loss. Petrocelli has noticed that O.J.'s attorney has the evidence gloves on his table, and objects to the possibility that Baker may ask Simpson to try them on during his closing argument. Baker erupts in righteous indignation: "It's demonstrative, your honor." But Fujisaki says, tartly, "It's demonstrative evidence." The time for evidence has passed. "Sustained."
       "During the last two days," Baker starts off, "I didn't hear one word about police malfeasance. Did you hear one mention of EDTA?" He accuses police officers of lying on the witness stand, and he accuses the plaintiffs of sandbagging. He says there's an enormous amount wrong with the evidence, that while the plaintiffs point to the results of tests, "we talked about contamination before the tests."
       And then, the first of many sudden changes of direction--the moves not so much those of a running back, more of a getaway car. "An immense amount of people want to see my client found responsible, including the media. If you find him not responsible, the gravy train is over." In the audio room, that line produces a gasp from the journalists and legal commentators. They can't believe they're being included in the widening net of the people out to get the Juice. But then, just as suddenly, Baker remembers who the real enemy is, law enforcement, and tries to connect it to the plaintiffs: "They're linked at the hip, or wherever else you like."
       Bill Bodziak, the FBI shoe-print expert, came out to Santa Monica twice, Baker complains. "You paid. My client paid. Is this a level playing field?" He shows a photo of FBI hair-and-fiber expert Doug Deetrick with Fred and Kim Goldman. "Is this fair?" The plaintiffs, he suggests, have had whatever assistance they needed, gratis, from a law-enforcement community bent on avenging a humiliating reversal in the criminal trial. And, he says flat out, the plaintiffs have "twisted" witnesses' testimony "to fit the story they want." The next moment, Baker charges that the true goal of this lawsuit isn't justice; "It's a fight to have Mr. Simpson transfer dollars to Mr. Goldman."
       He points out, accurately, that motive is the soft underbelly of the plaintiffs' case, and he says, in response to the accusation that O.J. has no murder-night alibi, that no witnesses have come forward who saw Simpson on Bundy "or careening down San Vicente" (Jill Shively, hope you invested the money). Since the defendant is a bachelor, Baker suggests, it's perfectly normal that O.J. not be able to produce a witness for his activities while he was home, preparing to get ready to leave. "It just doesn't make any sense," he insists. Like Petro, he asks the jury to use its common sense. One of them is going to be sorry he said that.
       Baker attacks India Allen, the veterinary nurse who testified she saw O.J. slap Nicole in the clinic parking lot, for not having called the police at the time, and for later having posed for photos in a state of undress. "Me, I don't need advertising," he says, "I keep my clothes on." Of the New Year's Eve 1989 incident, Baker first criticizes the plaintiffs for their emphasis on that event--"they put on more evidence about that event than about the murder"--then he adopts his client's mixture of passive voice and distanced apologia: "Something happened. She got injured, and she shouldn't have. ... Did she rassle with Mr. Simpson? Yes. Did she have a chance? Absolutely not." Don't blame O.J., blame the promoter for staging a mismatch.
       Back to lack of motive. If O.J. didn't go into a blind rage when he saw Nicole performing oral sex on Keith Zlomsowich, "it doesn't sound like the man gets totally out of control, gets triggered by a nonevent" like not being invited to the family dinner after the dance recital on June 12. Blind rage, in Baker's formulation, is a linear thing. Those who explode, he suggests, never simmer. The plaintiffs' motivation theory, he says, "doesn't pass the smell test."
       It's hard to reproduce the rambling nature of Baker's discourse. He begins to discuss the evidence in chronological order, then shifts back and forth in time more confusingly than a student film. But, to answer the "wife-beating" letter that, he points out, Nicole never sent, Baker reads a letter she did send O.J. in which she proclaimed that she'd love him forever. To answer the fear the plaintiffs say she felt around him, Baker recalls a day in spring 1994 when, at a party at Rockingham, she put her head in his lap, then went upstairs and lay in "his bed." "Doesn't sound like somebody afraid for her life," Baker says. The "confusion" in O.J.'s mind about when he called Paula? "A mistake about a nonevent." The idea that Paula's breakup message was the last straw? "Do you think for five seconds that because Paula broke up with him again, he murdered two people? Use your common sense." Of course, that latter line of reasoning ignores O.J.'s denial that he knew Paula broke up with him again. And there are times when Baker tries to contradict a plaintiffs' interpretation of evidence, only to stop and say, "I could be wrong. I tried to check." He's reported to be suffering from the flu. The great ones play with pain.
       So, suddenly, Thursday morning, the defense changes signals, possibly because of an audible from the defendant, and here is Bob Blasier taking over to present a challenge to the physical evidence. It's a mark of how flaccid Baker's presentation was that Blasier, usually a man who takes "incredibly dry" to be a compliment, injects some passion into the defense argument. It is familiar stuff to Simpson junkies, a stripped-down version of Barry Scheck's devastating argument in the criminal trial, but it's still effective, because there are still far more anomalies, far more "oopses," than one would expect from a high-quality police department in a high-profile case. Discrepancies in DNA richness between the Bundy drops and the drops on the gate collected three weeks later, the wet transfers visible on the blood-drop swatches, the failure of Andrea Mazzola to initial the bindles in which the swatches were packaged, the failure to count the swatches, the "missing" 1.5 cubic centimeters of blood that Thano Peratis collected--they're all recounted by Blasier in a manner that does make you stop and think. What it makes me think is how lax and lazy a police department can get when its image has been burnished for years by a jackhammer PR campaign, and when it's been insulated from any civilian oversight by fear of political retribution from a chief who still enjoys a remnant of the Dragnet halo effect, even after Rodney King.
       Blasier rolls around the courtroom in his wheelchair, unveiling a new side of his personality. Normally immersed in the most arcane details of the scientific evidence, bandying alleles and slot blots with the experts, he suddenly reveals a positively down-home aspect of himself, calling the jurors "folks," pointing out the changes in testimony since the preliminary hearing by anti-Simpson witnesses: "It always gets better. A criminal case is not like a fine wine, it's not supposed to get better with age." He even lapses into Yiddish: "There's been a lotta publicity in this case. There's a lot of schmutz out there." Is he wearing an earpiece, getting prompting from Barry Scheck? Will he denounce Vannatter and Fuhrman as the twin schmucks of michigass?
       But, for all his passion and cogency and intelligence, Blasier, too, is arguing the criminal case. He finishes (after apologizing for his lack of brevity--"It went faster in the shower this morning") with the Willie Ford video of O.J.'s house, the tape made for liability purposes, which Ford said he shot after evidence was collected. Nonetheless, the defense thinks it's probative that there are no socks on the bedroom carpet in Ford's video. Blasier thinks something else is probative: some "straps" that are lying on the bed in still photos depicting the socks on the rug. Blasier runs the video, announcing, "If the video shows the bed with the straps down, we know the socks were planted. There it is, the straps are down, folks. Have you seen enough cockroaches yet?" Or maybe somebody just moved the straps.
       Neither Blasier nor Baker has crafted a ringing defense of O.J.'s credibility, and neither has so much as mentioned the shoes. That task is left to Dan Leonard, who opens by saying to the nonsmiling jurors, "Did you really think coach Baker was gonna keep me out of the lineup?" In a remarkable half-hour performance late in the afternoon, Leonard uses two facts in evidence--the "price list" for the Flammer photos and Gerald Richards' admission that with enough "time, money, motivation, and equipment" an undetectable fake can be created--to plant the suspicion that someone saw enough money on the table to fake 30 photos. Who would that someone be? The agent that Flammer and Harry Scull had in common, Rob McElroy. "Where," Leonard asks theatrically, spraying the courtroom with his gaze, "is Rob McElroy?" Leonard glances at the audience often during his normal questioning, as if, Ed Koch-like, he wants to know "How'm I doin'?"
       Peter Gelblum, whose witness Flammer had been, can barely suppress his amusement at this performance, grinning in plain view of the jurors as his counterpart proclaims, "What a deal. Evidence for sale." But, given the thankless job of refuting the virtually irrefutable, Leonard earns his money in this 30-minute aria. He points out that no salesperson testified to having sold Bruno Magli shoes to O.J., something he says would be a memorable experience. Why? Because "O.J. never bought a pair, he never owned a pair." He points out the absence of anyone from Pro Football Weekly, to which Harry Scull says he sent his photo long before the murders. And, leaning on the lectern, staring at the jurors, Leonard concludes that these photos "came too late, and they cost too much." Anybody who makes an agent the heavy can't be all bad.
       Fujisaki takes a one-day break for a judges' conference (a seminar on judicial retirement?), then the arguments resume on Monday. Bob Baker has taken a coherence pill, and despite the groans with which the listening-room crowd greets his promise that "as the morning wears on" he'll demonstrate that there's evidence of planting and contamination all over the place, and despite the fact that he now sounds like he's got a cold, and despite the sense that maybe we've all been argued out by this time--despite all this, Baker's Monday is powerful and focused, though still chatty. He takes the obvious question head-on: why the LAPD would want to do these nefarious things to O.J.? Because, after years of screwing up big cases like the McMartin preschool child-abuse prosecution, O.J. was a "big fish," and they were determined to catch him. (Only a fact nut would point out that McMartin happened outside the LAPD's jurisdiction.) This time around, he's determined to call the jury's attention to the dark star of the criminal case, Mark Fuhrman. "They're hiding him," he says of the plaintiffs.
       "Objection," Petrocelli responds. "He knows better."
       "I know the truth," Baker snaps back. "Does Fuhrman see more than one glove, another glove back behind the body of Ron Goldman that later ends up at 360 North Rockingham? You bet." The blood on the Rockingham glove is tacky and moist, and the glove has no insect activity on it. Had the glove been dropped by Simpson the previous evening, he says, the blood would have dried, and the insects would have partied. And there is "not a scintilla, not a minute speck" of blood anywhere around the glove behind Kato's room.
       Baker overrreaches, too, suggesting that the jurors listen to Paula Barbieri's answering-machine tape to see if there are any "automotive sounds" behind O.J.'s Sunday-night cell-phone call. The problem, as Petrocelli points out to the judge, and Fujisaki then points out to the jurors, is that there's no evidence that any such tape exists.
       But Baker asks a question that may well resonate through the deliberation room more than any other. "Mr. Petrocelli said in his opening statement, 'We will call [FBI expert] Roger Martz.' Where was he?" He was, we soon find out, busy being transferred to new responsibilities as a scandal sweeps through the FBI crime lab. Another law-enforcement organization that fed us heroic visions of itself through four decades of television gets stripped of its mantle, thanks to this media circus. Bob Baker knows this may be his best point, and he whispers it home: "If they were so confident there was no EDTA in the blood evidence, why didn't they test everything? Because they didn't want to know the answer."
       Petrocelli has a final rebuttal ("We're getting there," he begins), and he has an answer for Baker's planting-motivation theory. O.J. wasn't the big fish, he was treated like gold by the Los Angeles cops. And Petrocelli has an answer for what everyone perceives as Baker's unkindest cut, one aimed at diminishing the jury's view of compensatory damages, should they find O.J. liable. Baker had pointed out Ron Goldman's previous bankruptcy, and said, had the victim lived, far from owning the restaurant of his dreams, he'd be "lucky to have a credit card." Yes, everyone cringed, but only Petrocelli makes the intuitive leap. "Do you think, if O.J. Simpson was innocent, he'd let his lawyer mock this young man who tried to save the life of the mother of his children? He'd be a hero to O.J. Simpson!" Petrocelli ridicules the size of the alleged conspiracy, a conspiracy to commit acts that could send cops to jail for heavy time, all to frame a guy most of them either like or have never met. He answers Leonard--the photos came in just in time, and they're priceless--and he minimizes the evidence, the envelope with the glasses, the little piece of paper, the Bundy glove, that seem to have been moved after the cops arrived: "Big deal. This is a crime scene, not a museum."
       Tuesday morning almost doesn't start. The jurors are taken to an adjacent courtroom and questioned by the judge, while the news contingent whips itself into a fever pitch of speculation. ABC tells its people to stand by, since the network will do a live interrupt if a juror is dismissed and it turns out to be the only African-American on the panel. When court resumes, the scene in the listening room is straight out of a Hollywood cliché of journalism: Tom Lambert begins talking, signaling a closing argument rebutting Blasier and not a jury dismissal, and two-thirds of the people in the room stampede out the door.
       "Enough is enough," Petrocelli says, and we all agree. But he's got one more dramatic flourish, and like the best drama, comedy is embedded in it. Baker had said dismissively that it only takes $200 to file a lawsuit. Petrocelli takes a wad of bills out of his pocket and waves it, in one of this trial's iconic moments, in front of Simpson. "Here's $200," he yells at O.J. "Give my client back his son, and we'll march out of here in a heartbeat." It's a Rob Reiner courtroom moment to start with, and Petrocelli later tells a reporter that what he had in his pocket at that moment were five 20s and two singles. Closing arguments finish with a lawyer trying to stiff the defendant.

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