OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 22 1997 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

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       In his direct examination of the defendant, Bob Baker takes us through virtually the entire sweep of Orenthal James Simpson's life. His first question is, "Where were you born?" We learn of Simpson's athletic achievements, the origins of his lifelong friendship with Al Cowlings (they took the cross-town bus to high school together), and we also see glimpses of what you might call a becoming modesty:
       "Any junior-college records that you set still standing?"
       O.J. chuckles. "I really don't know."
       "What," Baker asks after determining that Simpson won the Heisman Trophy, "what is the Heisman Trophy?"
       "I think it goes to the college athlete that, in my understanding, that did the best job for his school, you know, exemplified college athletics, the best player."
       "The best college football player in the country, is it not?"
       "Yeah, according to who's voting."
       Not boastful about his greatness--nice opening touch. O.J.'s signing with the Buffalo Bills is the occasion for Baker's first serious rebuttal of Petrocelli's abrasive cross of his client in November. Petro had read a quote from a book issued during Simpson's rookie season under Simpson's name (ghost-written by Pete Axthelm), in which O.J. reputedly bragged about being an "effective liar." The defendant now gets to suggest that Fred Goldman's lawyer was guilty of a cheap shot.
       "Well, you know, they have this thing in the NFL where they haze the rookies. They would tell us there were free turkeys and we'd have to go to this town to get them, and the town was 50 miles away, and there was no turkeys. I started doing jokes on the veterans. I told one guy that came in, I said the coach was looking for a guy named Paul Costas, that he had been traded, or words to that effect, and he was pretty upset, and all of the veterans were upset. And it turned out one of the veterans--I don't know if it was Paul McGuire or Joe O'Donnell--he said, O.J., I know he's lying because he looks serious; and I said, how did you know, I thought I was a pretty good liar. It was all about a joke that I was playing on one of the veteran players."
       Baker takes the point from the specific to the general: "You have never bragged about being an effective liar, have you?"
       "No."
       "You have never attempted to lie, have you, on anything that's important, relative to your life, sir?"
       "No."
       The discursive nature of that story is typical of what we'll hear from O.J. on direct. We'll have to wait for the inside book on this defense team to know whether the witness and his attorney really agreed on such a chatty style for a goal-line stand. Typically, lawyers like to do more talking than their witnesses, but today, Baker is like an oral biographer reminding his subject of areas they want to go into, then sitting back and letting the tale be spun. O.J. speaks in a low, relaxed baritone, every once in a while erupting in a high-pitched chuckle. I'm in the listening room, subsisting on voice alone, and the double-wide trailer is straining with solicitorial humanity, full of legal commentators waiting for their opinions to ripen. The ceiling panels are developing new holes from the recent rain.
       But enough about me. Baker is asking O.J. if the Juice were ever thrown out of a football game. Interesting question, goes to "tendency to fly into rage under pressure." The answer could have been, "Just once."
       "It was against New England, and a guy hit me sort of late, named Mel Longford, big defensive end, and I jumped up and threw a punch at him, and a teammate of mine, Reggie McKinsey, went to grab him but somehow got flipped over, and Mel had Reggie on the ground, and I had Mel's helmet, and the referee kept telling me to let the helmet go, and I wouldn't let him go until he let Reggie go.
       "So because I didn't follow the instructions of the referee, I was kicked out of the game."
       "By the way," O.J. is asked, "how big was this guy that you decided to take a swing at?"
       "Mel? About 6-6; 260, 270."
       Civil wrongful-death trial? Or "Up Close with Roy Firestone"? You be the judge.
       But Baker brings the story around to a useful conclusion, asking O.J. if he'd ever had any other "altercations" during his football days:
       "I knew early on," Simpson says, "in my career in high school, especially in junior college, college, and pro ball, that people would try to provoke me to get me in fights to get me out of the game, so I had to learn early on to sort of harness and focus on the game and focus whatever that energy was to play in the game and not get distracted." Too poised to kill.
       O.J. met Nicole in l977, and a year later, they "became, I guess, a public item." On Simpson's retirement from the NFL, he said, "Money takes wing, fame is a vapor. All that endures is character." Baker gets intimate: "You believe that?"
       "Yes," O.J. says. "That's what's gotten me through this."
       Not to bust any chops, but periodically through the afternoon's testimony, the listening-room crowd--freed from the constraints of all authority except the peripheral vision of the bored deputy sitting way in back reading the Times--bursts into laughter. For instance, a chuckle at this point: If O.J. Simpson had been a suspect plucked from South-Central instead of Brentwood, all the character in the world wouldn't have kept him out of the slammer. Money bought the Dream Team. On the other hand, equally cynical journalists who see--or, as Bob Baker would say, visualize--this testimony come out grudgingly smiling. "It's very effective," they say.
       On radio, Nixon won the debate.
       We now go into meta-discursive, cued by Baker's "O.J., tell us about the relationship you and Nicole had between 1979 and 1983 ... Nicole's obviously a very attractive woman and nobody has ever said you were ugly. Did you have a great life? Did you travel, did you go to clubs, did you enjoy the celebrity status that you had attained at that time, sir?" (I believe in the trade this is what's known, to this day, as a Merv Query.)
       "Yes, we did. I believe we were very much in love. We traveled all over the world. Our house was always loaded with people. On weekends, we were just packed with people. On every major holiday, all of my friends who were either single or didn't have a girlfriend, or bachelor, we would feed, you know Christmas or Thanksgiving. I can't imagine anybody's home being so full of friends at virtually all times as our home was."
       "And did you enjoy the relationship that you had with Nicole in those years of 1979, 1983, 1984?"
       "It was super, yes, totally enjoyed it."
       Straight from that reverie to a challenge, the story told by India Allen, a vet's nurse, that she had witnessed O.J. hitting Nicole in the clinic parking lot. Did it happen? "Absolutely not." They demolish the details Allen recalls: Nicole wore a headband, O.J. says, only to play tennis. Had he ever seen Nicole wearing a fur coat in Los Angeles during the day? "I don't think I ever saw that." Did she ever wear a gold spandex exercise outfit under the coat? "I don't think I ever saw that." There is some skirmishing later on over whether the vet, Allen's boss, will be called later to rebut her recollection, but he never makes an appearance. The defense must think they don't need him.
       Now it gets really good. Baker asks O.J. to explain the 1984 incident, in which, as the lore has it, he broke the windshield of Nicole's Mercedes with a baseball bat. First, Simpson goes on the offensive against the policeman who testified at the criminal trial that, in addition to dents in its front and sides, the car ended up with three dents in its hardtop. "It was a Mercedes convertible," O.J. says, sounding coolly outraged, "everyone knows that."
       "Why do you have a baseball bat, anyway? You're a football player." Maybe my favorite question so far.
       "I used to hold a baseball game--we had like a weekly baseball game. Like now, if you came around my house, you'd see--well, my kids are around, so you see a lot of basketballs and bats, or golf clubs, which are mine, around the various parts of my property then." First of several nicely volunteered references to the verdict in the custody trial.
       "Not only did I have--I played baseball also, I had a pole, so--I don't know what you call the poles. Normally it's a big ball on it."
       "Tether?"
       "Tether, but I would have for a while a tether ball, but then I had a smaller ball on it. It was like you swing it and you hit the ball, just practice hitting the ball."
       Baker steers O.J. back to the relationship, away from the pole. "She wanted me to get married, and I was procrastinating. And she had gone out with a friend, and I guess they had some drinks. When she came in, she parked the car and we were talking about it ... I was bouncing the bat. As I was sitting on the car, the head of the bat would hit her tire and bounce up. And we were talking. And a few times, I guess, it hit her hubcap. At one point she moved my leg and said, 'If you dent my hubcap, you're going have to pay for it.'
       "And I kind of took the bat and hit the windshield and said, 'And I'll pay for that, too.'
       "And she went inside and hit a button for Westec"--the private security service--"and came back out. And by the time Westec or whoever followed them came in, it was pretty much over. But she wanted to make sure that I paid for the crack in the window. And it was a crack, because she continued to drive the car for about two or three months before it got fixed."
       "Did you pay for it?"
       "I paid for everything around the house that was broken, no matter who broke it, her or myself or whoever."
       The message of the story: Nicole didn't think of this as a major incident, and within days they'd set a date for their wedding. Oblique message embedded in the story: Nicole broke more stuff around the house than O.J., or whoever.
       Between 1985 and 1987, Simpson tells us, the relationship was good. "If there was any problem, it was that Nicole took bein' a mom as seriously as anybody I'd ever seen in my life." O.J. and his mother-in-law, Juditha, "conspired" to convince Nicole to take a weekend trip in the time after daughter Sydney was born, to no avail. After Justin came along, "it almost went to a new level."
       Meanwhile, after the kids arrived, O.J. "started to play golf to change my lifestyle, and I became addicted to it, which I am to this day." That's an important explanation; without it, there'd be no way to understand the incessant references in this testimony to golf.
       And now it's New Year's Eve, 1989, and O.J. and Nicole have both had too much to drink. O.J. too? "Yes, if I'd been stopped by the police, I couldn't have passed the test." But, in the first of the "lifestyle hints" Simpson drops throughout this testimony, "Nicole had more than I did." O.J. takes us through the labyrinth of the argument that ensues, but you'd need a miner's lamp to follow it. Baker cuts to the chase with his first challenging question, his voice rising an octave above its baseline baritone:
       "We've seen pictures, O.J. She looks bruised."
       "I was very physical with her, once we started getting physical with one another. But my purpose was not to injure her, my purpose was just to get her out of my bedroom."
       The women journalists in the audio room look up as one. "His bedroom?" they mutter. The guys don't think it's any big deal.
       "I'm one hundred percent responsible for her sustaining the injuries she did," O.J. continues, "I never denied that, but I also said I never hit or slapped her." Nicole, Baker elicits, was in good physical shape. The "wrestling match" between them lasted a couple of minutes. "I locked her out, she got a key, got back in the bedroom."
       "During that time," Baker asks, "Nicole sustained those injuries we've seen?"
       "I assume so. I really couldn't tell you. As I said, I was told that she fell outside, but I didn't see her fall outside."
       "Outside of your door?"
       "Outside of my house."
       In O.J.'s version, this incident may have begun the mysterious slide in his previously chummy relations with the LAPD. He describes the responding cop, Officer Edwards, as interrupting Simpson's recitation of the event to tell Nicole that "she should divorce me, he called me an asshole, and I asked, 'Who are you, you're supposed to defuse the situation, not be starting an argument.' " His maid Michelle and his daughter Arnelle came out and saw the burgeoning brouhaha, and urged O.J. to leave his premises, which he did. This wasn't flight from arrest, as Petrocelli had suggested; this was defusing an argument with a nosy cop, on the advice of the women in his house.
       And besides, within a month, Nicole and O.J. had gone to Hawaii together; "we had such a good time, and, I don't know, I was so disappointed in myself, so I called my lawyer to, you know, draft a note to, you know, let Nicole know that if I ever did anything like that again, it would void our prenuptial agreement." Nicole had not been fond of the prenuptial to begin with; this was a gift he knew would please her.
       In the fall of 1991, the two spent a substantial period of time apart, due to Simpson's broadcasting duties in New York. On Jan. 6, 1992, the couple went to lunch, and Nicole told him she wanted to separate. It was a "total shock" to the defendant. "I took it pretty hard for three months or so." Then, Nicole told him she'd met someone she "wanted to get serious about," and from that point on, O.J. "started to get on with my life; I met someone I was interested in after a few days." It is the celebrity's lot never to be burdened by aloneness unless he wants to be, and O.J.'s story underlines how little interest he had in solitude.
       Divorce proceedings began, because Simpson felt there was nothing to lose, since "it would still give us a lot of time, in a year from now, if we don't feel like it, we don't have to divorce." There was, he tells Baker, never any evidence introduced during the divorce proceedings that he "had been physical with" Nicole subsequent to the New Year's Day encounter. If there had, of course, it would have triggered Simpson's prenuptial letter, worth $5 million to Nicole.
       The former Mrs. Simpson didn't testify in their divorce proceedings. "She didn't show up. Instead, she came over to my house that night. And she didn't want to testify." What got O.J. ticked during this period? Not much. He even committed an amusing gaffe, giving Keith Zlomsowich his condolences without knowing Nicole hadn't told Keith she was dumping him yet. Too cool to kill.
       Unless, of course, she charged a golf day with "two other guys" to O.J.'s account. On that occasion, he testifies, he was "pretty upset." She can screw whom she likes, but let's keep golf out of this.
       Keith was the beneficiary of the sex act witnessed by O.J. at Nicole's Bundy condo. "Did you go into a rage?" Baker inquires.
       "As I turned to leave, I hit the doorbell, just to let them know they could be seen, it was a little obvious. I don't know if they heard the bell, but"--but the next day, O.J. shook hands with Keith. (Was it a special, secret handshake?) Over the summer, O.J. saw Keith, would talk to him, would ask Keith about his golf game. Keith was, O.J. notes, "a golfer."
       The judge has ruled that Simpson can talk about Nicole's wild lifestyle, including her aborted pregnancy, as a "state of mind" issue: The defense cannot argue this evidence to advance the Colombian necklace theory of the crime. But his ex-wife's pregnancy, in the summer of 1992, is introduced as evidence that she continued to confide in O.J. "I and Cora Fischman were the only two she told [about the pregnancy]; she didn't even tell her parents." She didn't separate, and he didn't retaliate--that's the redeeming social importance of Simpson testifying to her abortion. Any right-to-lifers on the jury? One can hope.
       Whatever else you can say about the Simpsons' divorce, it was cliché California: "Every day when we left court, she and I would go have sushi together."
       But soon enough, the civility of the separation eroded. "It began to seem to me that whenever I'd talk to her, I'd get mired in her life. Businesswise, I was making more money than ever, I had what I thought was a healthy relationship, and it seemed to me most of the problems that I was dealing with were hers." O.J. left word with his housekeeper that, if the subject didn't involve the children, he didn't want to talk to Nicole.
       And now, a tactical decision that may come to haunt the defense: the introduction of a letter from Nicole. O.J. testifies that, in May 1993, his ex started pursuing him; calling him; sending cookies and cakes and musical tapes with love songs on them; showing up at his house with the kids, a videotape for him to watch (he didn't), and a letter for him to read (he did).
       In the letter, Simpson says, she indicates that most of the problems in their relationship had been caused by her; that she, not he, was the controlling party; that she loved O.J. "forever and always." Why didn't he watch the tape? Because this whole thing was "so out of the blue. At the time, I was making more money than I'd ever made, I was happy with my golf game, the kids were happy." Not only was O.J. not carrying a torch for Nicole, his self-description at this time is of a profoundly unpassionate man. As long as the bucks and the golf were good, what's the problem? Too shallow to kill.
       Nicole, he says, was trying everything to get back in his good graces, even going as far as to take golf lessons with her girlfriends. At a--what else?--golfing holiday in Cabo San Lucas, O.J. "laid down what I felt were the ground rules, and we agreed to give [reconciliation] a chance."
       And so we get to October of 1993, and the incident that triggered the notorious 911 call by Nicole Brown Simpson. O.J.'s testimony up to this point has been a model of brevity, compared with the winding mountain trail of a story he shares with us now:
       "Well, during the course of going back and forth and shooting the [Naked Gun] movie--I was on the set of my film one day, and a girl named Alexandria, I guess--I don't know her last name. She was a stand-in for Anna Nicole Smith and she came up to me and was telling me that, 'You don't seem like a bad guy.'
       "I said, 'Why would you think I was a bad guy?'
       "She proceeded to tell me what a guy named Keith Zlomsowich said about me. It sort of upset me a little bit, so I asked her to get Keith on the phone. And we both called Keith, and he wasn't there, so we left a message for him. But from the call, she proceeded to tell me things about Keith's drug problems, Nicole and drugs, and her and stuff, you know.
       "I didn't know this girl. I wasn't comfortable, because when we started talking about it, there were other people around. And when I went home, I went to Nicole's house after, and I made mention to her, and I told her that next time you talk to Keith--because I think from time to time she talked to Keith, and it didn't bother me--you tell him he was out of line, what he said to her."
       Two days later, O.J. is back at Nicole's. "And she had told me that he had called and she had explained to him that she understood that when people split up--evidently, Alexandria and this guy had split up--that they say things about one another.
       "And I got a little upset about that, because I felt, Why are you making excuses for this guy? And I went home because I felt myself getting angry ... When I got home, Nicole called, and she said to me that--I had always promised that--we would talk everything out and argue it out, and now here I am, leaving, and I wouldn't talk about it.
       "And ... I thought about it and got in my car and went to her house ... We started talking about this, and it slowly became an argument. We ended up on her patio in the back of her house.
       "And she was smoking a cigarette, and she yelled at me that, you know, why would you believe this Alexandria or whatever ... Nicole yelled that she was a hooker, and that she had started a fight with Heidi Fleiss at the Monkey Bar that started the whole Heidi Fleiss thing.
       "I started to say, What the hell are you doing with hookers? This girl said she stayed here; you gave her a party here, and why are these girls around here?
       "Like most arguments, she said something about Paula ... Evidently, when Nicole and I was apart, I was looking for a frame one day to put a picture of Paula in, and I ended up using a frame that had previously had our wedding picture in it.
       "And Nicole brought that up ... And I said to her, What about all of these pictures? And at that time, she turned, she went in the house. I was walking behind her. And she sort of slammed the door and I kicked the door, and proceeded to point out all the pictures in her home with guys that I didn't know.
       "It's stupid, I know. But when you have arguments, that's what happens.
       "And while I was venting and she was in the kitchen, Kato Kaelin showed up, and I began to vent to Kato. I wasn't aware that Nicole had gone upstairs.
       "And at one point, I was in my venting, I walked, looking for her, and went upstairs. And I didn't realize she was on the phone with the police. And I came downstairs and vented.
       "At one point, she came downstairs in the room that I was in, still venting, not quite as loudly, and picked up the telephone in that room. And I assumed she was on the phone with her mother."
       It was, he says, just an argument. He never threatened her. She wasn't afraid of him, otherwise she wouldn't have come back downstairs.
       "Were you out of control, O.J.?"
       "I don't think so. I kicked her door, which I shouldn't have done, but it was just a reflex."
       This account seems slightly goofy on the face of it. When laid in the mind side by side with the tape of the 911 call, it's almost Orwellian in its use of psycho-bonics. The story of October '93 is the high-water mark of this garrulous narrative tide. The next big special effect in Simpson's testimony is the whiplash we experience when his incredibly detailed chronology turns out to have omitted only one interval: the period between 10 and 11 p.m. on the evening of June 12, 1994--the hour of the murders.

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