OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 25 1997 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       There is a letter O.J. Simpson has to explain, one which instructs Nicole to stop using 360 North Rockingham as her address, after the two decide they will no longer attempt to reconcile. This matter is arcane even to people who understand Newt Gingrich's problem with 501(c)(3) organizations. Stripped down to game shape, the issue is this: O.J. gave Nicole an income property in San Francisco; she sold it to buy the Bundy condo, and for her to enjoy a tax exemption, the condo should have been rented out. Not being sure she'd move back in with O.J., she lived in the condo, and gave her official address as Rockingham.
       Simpson's explanation of why he gave her the San Francisco property in the first place is worth the price of admission: "My mother told me, the devil works through idle hands. So I encouraged her [Nicole] to be active, and I gave her the property because I wanted her to have a good income." If you think good incomes have encouraged idleness more often than activity, raise your hands.
       The letter in question informed Nicole she could no longer use 360 Rock as her official address. Simpson tells us he had earlier encouraged his ex-wife to set aside in an escrow account enough money to pay the tax indebtedness, in case their reconciliation didn't work out. So his letter was written merely to shield him from any problems resulting from the diddling of the Internal Revenue Service. Too prudent to kill.
       But now we're taken to an earlier point, in late April, when O.J. is in Puerto Rico filming a movie (when will a jury ever be told about Frogman, the suppressed film, in the training for which the defendant learned the technique of murder by knife?), and the two believe that "maybe this will work." They've had a great weekend in Mexico, and then, suddenly, as O.J. calls home from the set, "I literally didn't know who I was talking to. One day she was concerned, and wouldn't tell me why or about what, and the next day she'd say she loved me. I started talking to her mother, Juditha, who was kind of a shrink for me during this period, just trying to figure out what was going on."
       This is code for "drugs." Having been prohibited by the judge's order from alleging rampant cokiness on the part of Nicole and her pals, Simpson is nudging and winking, alleging behavior so erratic that normal explanations don't apply.
       Simpson got back home from Frogman, and Nicole "apologized to me for the way she had acted the last few weeks. She sort of blamed a few things--what her friends were going through--and she told me she loved me; when I was coming home, she wanted to be at the airport to get me and all of that; and she was. But by then I felt I didn't like what was going on and I had told her mother that week that, you know, I didn't like what was going on and I was ready to leave the relationship."
       Soon after, O.J. was taking Nicole out to dinner. As he came by with the car, "she came to the front door, she started shaking and just--I can't even describe it. Just started saying, I can't do this, and shaking and--she couldn't explain what she was feeling, she couldn't explain what was going on, and, you know, I was--I was sort of lost. And I finally got her seated, calmed her down. We went and dropped some things off at the Browns' house. Went to dinner. Had a nice dinner. Ran into a friend of ours named Matlin, and really had a very pleasant dinner and came back.
       "But I told the Brown family the next day what had transpired and my concerns about it.
       "We went on to have a very nice Mother's Day at the Browns' house."
       The bitch had a freakout.
       They decided to "go our separate ways for now."
       Almost instantly, Simpson found out that Paula Barbieri, the girlfriend he had left to return to his ex-wife, was back in town. "I met her at the airport, took her to dinner, and we started to see each other again." When you're O.J., women just slide in and out of your scene without much effort on your part, without any awkward months of reading Playboy. It's a fact of a handsome celebrity's life. Too cool to kill.
       After Nicole gave him grief for inviting her friends to his celebrity benefit, O.J. says he decided to cut off communication with his ex on any subject except the kids. He was tired of the fact that conversations with her "seemed to be problem after problem after problem." Oddly, perhaps, this is the part of this saga that--despite the gruesome crime-scene photos--I find the most uncomfortable, the moments when this trial becomes just an extension of some impossibly annoying divorce case. The nature of the relationship was put into play by the plaintiffs, so the defense had to answer. But this recitation takes place in that squirmy space halfway between a drinking buddy's stories at a bar and a patient's self-justifications on the couch. So Simpson manages to share with us about an auto accident Nicole had, on the pretext that, because she told him and Cora Fischman about it and not her parents, it showed that she still confided in him. "I didn't tell [the Browns] until I was in jail, I believe." One is left to speculate on what made her shake, what made her the culprit in a "serious" rear-ender.
       This is your ex-wife's brain on drugs.
       "Were you disappointed that your attempt at reconciliation didn't work out?"
       "Yes."
       "Did you express that to anybody?"
       "If they asked me, yes."
       Friends of Simpson's--golfing partner Craig Baumgarten, Paula Barbieri--have testified that he was more than disappointed over the breakup. But if you're living the life of O.J., you move on. Nicole didn't indicate she was angry about the IRS letter Simpson now sent her. He still loved her, "very much so." No problem.
       Simpson describes his activities in the week leading up to the murders. He was back East for most of the time, playing golf every day. Despite his commitment to be in Chicago the following Monday, to play golf for Hertz, Simpson flew back to Los Angeles to attend his daughter's dance recital. Paula picked him up at the airport. He played golf first thing Saturday morning. That night he took Paula to a charity event. "Did you have a nice time?"
       "We had a great time."
       Who has a great time at a charity dinner?
       Not only did they not argue that night, they had a conversation about "filling up a house with babies." They went to their separate homes, and O.J. got up early Sunday morning to--play golf.
       Simpson takes us literally hour-by-hour through his Sunday, leaving out only the time between his return from McDonald's and his departure for the airport. Nothing was bothering him that day. The argument Craig Baumgarten reported on the golf course was nothing more than Craig's frustration over "sculling" a shot, and Simpson, in the jocular persiflage of their scene, calling him a "real butt hole."
       The chronology is interrupted for a moment for an issue which inflates to surprising prominence--whether or not O.J.'s dog Chachi has a tendency to run off the property. This, believe it or not, figures in the explanation of such disparate puzzles as the Bronco's location and O.J.'s failure to admit limo driver Allan Park onto his property despite repeated intercom buzzings. The story has always had a canine motif--think of the "plaintive wail" in the criminal trial--and Simpson is forthright in the defense of his dogs' propensity to roam:
       "Our dogs go out, the gates open, they're out. The Sunday before, Faye Resnick was there, she opened the gate, the dogs ran out." Any juror who may have heard about Resnick's drug problem now makes a connection. And we don't have to take his word about the dogs: "I had been warned by the SPCA."
       Simpson denies he was in a "dark mood" at the recital Sunday evening. As Baker screens the video of a jolly O.J. bidding farewell to his relatives, the witness lets us in on the joke:
       "Lou [Brown, Nicole's father] and I were talking about women. He was teasing me about his daughter and I and Paula Barbieri, and Judy had been talking about dinner, about where's Nicole, and she said, Why not join us. I said, No, I told Lou I've got to stay away from his daughters now." Odd use of the plural--daughters--but who's counting?
       Simpson reports no animosity between himself and his ex-wife at the recital--"she saved a seat for me." After the recital, Simpson called Resnick's ex-boyfriend, Christian Reichhardt (who testified briefly in Trial 1), and suggested a double date upon O.J.'s return from Chicago, since "Paula's got some good-looking girlfriends." This is evidence that Simpson didn't think at the time that he and Paula had broken up, though she has testified she left a message to that effect on his service early that Sunday morning. It is a keystone of O.J.'s defense that he never picked up that message. To the plaintiffs, the breakup is equally central to the motive of the last straw--a suddenly abandoned narcissist lashes out.
       Simpson is not asked about his Sunday evening phone call to former Playmate Gretchen Stockdale, in which he tells her machine, "For the first time in my life, I'm single." But Baker does quiz him about the 10:03 p.m. cell phone call to Barbieri's number. If that call was made from the Bronco, Simpson could well have been on his way to Bundy. "Do you have any cordless phones in your house, O.J.?" Baker asks cozily.
       "No."
       "Do you use your cellular phone as a cordless phone?"
       "Yes."
       So Simpson is racking up air-time charges, and making a computer record, calling Paula from his front yard. He gets her machine.
       One of the most hotly contested issues in the trial is O.J.'s wardrobe that Sunday evening: "I was wearing the same blue golf pants, Bugle Boy, that I was wearing to play golf that day, a blue warm-up, I use it sometimes as a windbreaker, maybe a white golf shirt, I'm not sure of the color, and white Reeboks." These are not the clothes Kato remembers him wearing, the dark sweat suit with the white piping down the front that could be the source of the blue-black cotton fibers found at the crime scene, and on the Rockingham glove. These are the clothes of an innocent golf nut. O.J. denies even owning a "black sweat suit with a white stripe, or a white zipper" in 1994. By the time he got into Allan Park's limo, Simpson had changed, presumably for the plane trip, into stone-washed jeans, a white polo shirt, a stone-washed top. "At any"--here's Bob Baker's exaggerated "innny" again--"time on June 12, 1994, did you wear a black sweat suit with a white stripe?"
       "At no time," Simpson intones.
       And suddenly we're being told about O.J. giving autographs on the plane flight. No chipping golf balls, no nap. No idea, really, what he was doing during that 90 minutes when no other person can vouch for his whereabouts. It's audacious, especially since the place where we land after this leap--demeanor evidence--is so vaporous. Demeanor evidence--he signed autographs, he was nice--is supposed to rebut our preconception of the way a murderer acts after the crime. But what's that image based on? Viewing a critical mass of old Cannon episodes? And down this road lies an endless series of mirrors pointed at each other. (So Simpson didn't act like a typical murderer, what a perfect cover for a murderer skilled in acting to adopt. Sure, but he's not that good an actor. After the plane lands, there's another remarkable elision: O.J. does not tell us anything about cutting his hand in the Chicago hotel room. Instead, we focus on Jim Merrill, a Hertz executive who picks Simpson up at the airport, and who puts the celebrity's Swiss Army golf bag into the trunk of his car. This is a detail worth fixating on, because the plaintiffs allege that O.J. has something he's hiding in that bag, and that, after the call from the cops in Los Angeles, he phones Merrill three or four times, increasingly frantic to get that golf bag on the plane with him. Simpson's version, not surprisingly, is as relaxed as Dean Martin on the 19th hole. He needed a ride back to the airport quickly, he had Merrill's pager number, he didn't know the Hertz exec lived 45 minutes away and, as for cabs, there were "absolutely none." In the event, another Hertz official gave him a lift, and Simpson caught an early plane, taking off just as Merrill arrived at the airport. The golf bag went to Los Angeles on the next flight. No big deal.
       And now we get to the Watergate section of the testimony--what Simpson knew about the crime and when he knew it. O.J. had phone conversations in the hotel, before leaving for O'Hare, with Detective Phillips and Simpson's daughter by his first marriage, Arnelle. (Am I the only person who wonders how many people in the '70s named their girl-children after a synthetic fabric?) At some point, he also talked to Detective Lange--"I didn't know who these guys were at the time. And I spoke to another officer at my house at one point, who, if I had to guess, I would say it was Fuhrman." Bonus points in this round, of course, any time you can work in the F-word.
       "And were you told that your ex-wife had been murdered?"
       "I believe the first thing that Phillips told me--I thought he said 'murder'--he may have said 'killed.' But I knew when I was on my way home that she had been murdered."
       "How did you know that?"
       "Because someone told me that."
       "You recall who?"
       "I thought it was Phillips, as I said. Phillips, I believe the first words he told me was that my wife had been--first he said my kids were all right--your wife was murdered. Arnelle may have said it. But that's what I knew. I was on my way home. I knew it wasn't a car accident."
       Simpson also attributes his knowledge of a second victim to Arnelle, in a conversation before he got on the plane. That's important, because a fellow passenger, Mark Partridge, recalls O.J. telling him that his wife and someone else had been murdered in the garden of her condo. That information has to be accounted for, lest it sound like something that only the killer would know.
       Fast forward to Parker Center, police headquarters, where Simpson agreed to talk to Tom Lange and Philip Vannatter--a chat to which, to the continued amazement of the Los Angeles legal community, his then-lawyer Howard Weitzman gave his assent (he went off to have lunch). And this is a new touch:
       "Tell the ladies and gentlemen of the jury," Baker urges, "what occurred the first time that they tape-recorded you."
       "Well, they turned it on and they started reading; they explained what they were doing, they started reading my rights. When they got to the part about a lawyer being present, I made a comment. Just, 'Oh, yeah, sure, that's what you say here,' or something to that effect. And he stopped it and he says, 'Oh, come on, O.J., we just want to get this thing over with. I mean if you want your lawyers in here, they can come in here and we'll be here all day. You said you wanted to talk to us.' And I said, 'I do.' And he said, 'Well, you know, we just want to get it over with. You give some answers, you can go home, you can see your kids.'
       "And I said, 'Start it over again.' And he did it again. I kind of chuckled at that point and the second time, but I didn't care if they talked to me or not. I didn't feel I needed a lawyer."
       This is either a suggestion that the two detectives were undermining Simpson's right to counsel, or a re-emphasis of O.J.'s certainty that he and the police could work this out by themselves--a certainty that could only have been maintained by an innocent man, or a very arrogant one.
       Simpson was tired when he made this recorded interview, he says, and so he said "cell phone" when he meant "cell phone accessories," he said he called Paula from the Bronco on the way over to her house on Sunday night when actually that happened the night before: " I have a way of talking, when someone will call and say, What are you doing, I'll say, I'm going to somebody's place, and in fact I'm at home. But I was sort of running both nights and things together because I didn't really have a Sunday night because I hadn't slept, and at the exact same time on Saturday night I was on my way to Paula's and I called Paula when I was on my way to Paula's at that particular time. I don't know the significance of it. I just had those two nights running together."
       "OK. Fair enough." Baker has a habit of using that phrase to punctuate a particularly troublesome piece of testimony, as if he can take the curse off it. But, despite the oddness of that alleged "way of talking," this explanation seems, for the moment, fair enough.
       O.J. tells us he spent the next few days at Robert Kardashian's house. He's on firm ground in this testimony, knowing it won't be contradicted by other evidence, since Kardashian never testified. He tells us he offered the services of Dr. Henry Lee to the police to help their investigation. "I had spent a lot of time in Connecticut, I was aware of his reputation ... I thought he was the best in the world, and I offered to pay for him." In the listening room, reporters chuckle aloud at the idea that the pre-murder Simpson kept current on the reputations of forensic pathologists.
       We've reached Friday, June 17, when O.J. is examined by several of his newly hired experts. Were there any bruises on his body? "Not that I know of." A bruise the plaintiffs had pointed out on a photo of his bicep? "I've had it since I retired from football." Still there? "Yes, along with many other imperfections in coloration of my body, due to football." Aside from the football reference, we could be listening to another former client of Johnnie Cochran's, Michael Jackson. Strange but meaningless.
       And now, O.J. on the Bronco journey, the version of the "low-speed chase" that the prosecution reportedly feared because of its sympathy-arousing potential.
       "I was feeling a lot of pain, I wanted it to end, I guess I was feeling suicidal."
       "Were you planning to end your life, O.J.?"
       "I just wanted the pain to end."
       Unable to get to Nicole's grave, Simpson and Al Cowlings parked in an orange grove, and while A.C. went to find a bathroom, O.J. got in the back of the Bronco and took his gun out. A.C. returned in time to prevent a suicide.
       "He said, 'I'm taking you home,' and I said, 'Take me to my mom.' I was in a lot of pain, I was--I was missing Nicole, my kids didn't cry, I--you know, I guess they had attacked me somewhat, and that hurt, hurt me. And I just didn't know what to do."
       "And what was it that kept you from ending your life that day?"
       "Well, partially it's the--my mother told me years ago that you couldn't go to heaven if you commit suicide, and I was kind of dealing with that. And thank God for A.C."
       Baker's voice is soft now. "How many days did you spent in jail for a crime you didn't commit? Fifteen months?"
       "Yes."
       And now, as if shot from a cannon, Petrocelli interrupts this somber mood with a barrage of cross-examination that previews his closing argument:
       "You understand that it's important that you be believed by this jury, correct?"
       "I believe it's important for me to be honest to the jury, yes."
       "You understand that it's important for you to be believed by this jury, true?"
       "I believe it's important for me to be honest to the jury."
       "Can you answer my question, sir?"
       "I can't answer your question the way it's worded. I believe it's important for me to be honest to the jury."
       "Let me ask it again, and try to answer it. My turn now. You understand how important it is for you to be believed by this jury? 'Yes' or 'no'?"
       "I can't answer that. I believe it's important for me to be honest to the jury. I don't think you've given much consideration--"
       "Excuse me. Ask that the witness answer the question 'yes' or 'no.' "
       "I can't."
       Judge Fujisaki, who has already overruled two Baker objections to this question, complies with Petro's request, telling the witness, "Answer it 'yes' or 'no.' "
       "I can't answer 'yes' or 'no.' "
       This is either a battle of wills or a very bad experimental one-act play. In either case, this exchange may never end. Perhaps Simpson and Petrocelli will be locked in this combative embrace forever.
       "Let me ask the question again. And answer 'yes' or 'no'; the court has ordered you to."
       Baker tries to help. " I object to the court ordering my client to answer it 'yes' or 'no.' He can't answer it 'yes' or 'no.' "
       Fujisaki sits firm. "Ask the question."
       "You understand how important it is for you to be believed by this jury; true?"
       "I can't answer that 'true' or 'false.' I know it's important for me to be honest to the jury."
       "Do you understand that it's important for you to be believed; 'yes' or 'no'? Do you understand that, sir?"
       "I can't answer that 'yes' or 'no.' I think it's important for me to be honest to the jury."
       Petrocelli moves to strike the answers, but the judge apparently likes the idea of filling the record with this colloquy, and it stays.
       Petro then, in short sharp thrusts, accuses Simpson of having repeatedly lied to the jury and throughout his life. O.J. demurs. After admitting that he was unfaithful to Nicole "from time to time," Simpson finds himself in another minuet with Petrocelli, this time a repetitive, rabbinical tug-of-war over whether cheating constitutes lying or whether it's "morally dishonest."
       After a break, Petro frames a question that on first hearing almost sounds daffy, until you realize that's its purpose. It concerns the promise to abrogate the prenuptial agreement should a further incident of domestic violence occur, a promise O.J. has referred to as a "governor":
       "Now, is it your testimony, sir, that you agreed to give Nicole--or excuse me--that you agreed to impose this governor, as you put it, simply because you were trying to get Nicole out of your bedroom?"
       "I don't understand the question."
       "In other words, sir, the reason why you were prepared to give Nicole this agreement to tear up the prenuptial is you wanted to assure her that there would be no further incidents of violence in your relationship, correct?"
       "Yeah, among other things, yes."
       "That's because there had been a history of violence in your relationship, correct?"
       "No."
       "You didn't give her a $5 million agreement just because you were trying to get her out of your bedroom on one evening, correct?"
       "The way you're wording it, I don't think that when I wrote that up, that getting her out of my bedroom was on my mind. What was on my mind was I saw her--she was bruised when I saw her a few days later, she was very depressed by it, I was very depressed by it, and that's why I did it."
       Over Baker's objection, Petrocelli introduces portions of an undated letter Nicole addressed to O.J. The judge has allowed the document to be evidence, not of the truth of what she alleges, but of her state of mind. One of the sections quotes Nicole as saying to O.J., "You beat me like holy hell," so the jury can't consider whether Simpson actually did beat her like that, but only whether Nicole, at some unspecified time, thought he did. If the eventual verdict goes against O.J., the defense will no doubt whine mightily about the tilt of the judge's rulings against them, and this is one of the rulings they'll have in mind.
       O.J. replies, when confronted with her handwriting, that he never saw this letter until he was incarcerated. He says her accusations of infidelity in the letter are "because of what she interpreted as infidelity," even though he's just told Petro he had an affair with Tawny Kitaen that he'd never revealed to Nicole until after their breakup.
       Now the attorney prepares a bit of a trip. Why, he asks, would Nicole write in the letter that she doesn't love O.J.? Simpson, jumping at the chance, says that her lawyers were trying to get her to write "various things" as part of divorce prep. Trap sprung.
       "Did Nicole lie to you frequently?"
       "She's lied," O.J. says, perhaps realizing he's now in the uncomfortable position of calling the murder victim a liar, "but I couldn't say frequently."
       Did she lie when she told Al Cowlings, "You hit her and pulled her hair?"
       "I assume it was in the heat of anger when she said that."
       "This was the next day."
       "I didn't know that."
       When Petrocelli brings up the subject of the sweat clothes O.J. wore in the exercise video, clothes he had previously said he gave back at the end of the shoot, he volunteers an amendment: "I kept one top, a cashmere top, a Donna Karan cashmere top, I had one like it before, and I use it as pajamas, I do recall that."
       "You did not receive a cotton sweat suit top and bottom from [wardrobe mistress] Leslie Gardner?"
       "I did not."
       Leslie Gardner returns two days later, during the plaintiffs' rebuttal case, to testify that he did, and that the cashmere top she ordered didn't fit, and was sent back.
       Finally, Simpson is confronted with the 30 new photos of himself in Buffalo wearing what appear to be the "ugly-ass" shoes. "To an extent, it looks like me ... I do not recognize ever owning these shoes. I don't believe I ever owned shoes like that."
       "Did you ever wear them?"
       "I don't believe so."
       He's also not sure about the pants: "I'm normally a pretty sharp dresser, and those don't look like me."
       "Do you have any explanation for these photographs showing you wearing those shoes?"
       "No."
       The defense case ends with brief testimony the next morning from Arnelle, businesslike in a dark brown suit, her hair pulled back. No Simpson Women in Yellow this time around. Her job is simple. Yes, the dogs often got out. And, yes, she told her father on the phone on the morning of June 13 that "Nicole was dead and there was somebody else with her."
       Not businesslike enough, perhaps. Simpson had testified he knew--presumably from this conversation--that Nicole hadn't died in a car accident. But Arnelle doesn't say she told him two people were killed, or murdered, only "dead." Kids say the darnedest things.
       Dreading the rebuttal to come, trying through a welter of motions to derail it ("This has got to stop sometime," Baker thunders), unable to prevent the inevitable ("What a shock," he mutters loudly as the judge rules against him again), the defense rests.

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