For some of the most emotionally gripping scenes in the rapidly unfolding drama of O.J. Simpson, the man at center stage has been Robert L. Shapiro, a discreet advocate who is known for deft damage control behind the scenes and in front of the news media.
Before dozens of journalists and cameras nine days ago, Shapiro said his client was suicidal and pleaded for him to return to face arrest. Last Monday, he comforted the subdued former football great as Simpson said he was not guilty of murdering his ex-wife and her friend. And, on Friday, the bushy-browed Shapiro won a victory when Superior Court Judge Cecil J. Mills decided that a tide of leaked information had tainted the grand jury that was considering murder indictments.
The decision to pull the jury off the case means that Simpson, who stands charged with murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, may have a chance to first hear the evidence against him at a public preliminary hearing scheduled for Thursday. Shapiro had hoped to avoid a grand jury indictment, which would have precluded a preliminary hearing where witnesses could be cross-examined.
With characteristic reserve, Shapiro did not gloat over what is being called a major setback for the prosecution, even though Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti supported the dismissal because of pretrial publicity. Shapiro merely said he looked “forward to finally presenting this evidence in a public courtroom.”
The victory did much to at least temporarily dispel criticism that Shapiro, best known for getting celebrity clients out of relatively minor scrapes, was not up to the job of handling what is one of the most sensational murder cases of this century.
“He made a brilliant move,” said Harland W. Braun, a former prosecutor who defended some of the officers accused of beating Rodney G. King. “The main thing is he’s shaking them up on the other side.”
The stakes in the trial are high for everyone involved. Simpson stands accused of crimes that could make him subject to the death penalty.
For Garcetti, the case is a chance to end a string of embarrassing defeats for the district attorney’s office, including hung juries in the Menendez brothers’ first trial.
And for the 51-year-old Shapiro, the son of a factory worker who later operated a catering truck and moonlighted as a bandleader, it may be the case that defines his place among the most famous attorneys in America.
Although he has counted among his clients a few murderers, drug dealers and blue-chip corporations during his 25-year legal career, Shapiro has made his name by representing entertainers such as Johnny Carson and Rod Stewart, sports figures such as Darryl Strawberry and Vince Coleman, and other lawyers, including F. Lee Bailey.
Instead of courtroom brilliance, his professional stock in trade has been his skill at negotiating plea bargains and winning sympathy for clients by shaping the public perception of their alleged misdeeds. And some lawyers, including New York attorney William Kunstler, have noted that Shapiro does not have an extensive record of arguing cases in court.
During the Simpson case, the ever-dapper Shapiro has appeared at each juncture to be unflappable, even serene, the antithesis of the confrontational lawyers often portrayed in movies and on television. Asked prickly questions by the media, he has opened his eyes wide and answered in detail without a hint of dismay. And inside and outside the courtroom, he has been the paragon of politeness, even when forcing the prosecution to admit it did not have a piece of widely reported evidence--a bloody ski mask.
Being polite, sincere and low-key has served Shapiro well personally as well as professionally.
Celebrity car valet Chuck Pick, a friend since childhood from the working-class Westside neighborhood where both grew up, attended a bar mitzvah for Shapiro’s son recently at movie producer Robert Evans’ house. Other guests included Garcetti, to whom Shapiro made a campaign donation of $5,000 last year, and such celebrity clients as Strawberry and Coleman and movie star Jack Nicholson.
Shapiro, Pick said, spent much of the party “hanging out with us guys that he grew up with.”
Those characteristics also win points for Shapiro in the courtroom, said Alvin S. Michaelson, a criminal defense attorney who has worked with Shapiro on numerous cases.
Somehow, he said, Shapiro is able to be very nice and still get what he wants out of a system that is built on confrontation.
“It’s absolute nonsense that he doesn’t know how to try a case,” Michaelson said.
Two members of the pantheon of legal stars come down on opposite sides of the debate over Shapiro’s readiness to take the case.
Bailey, godfather to Shapiro’s first son, described him as the only lawyer in America allowed to use Bailey’s name on a letterhead. “The bottom line is O.J. Simpson is in perfectly good hands,” he said.
Bailey, who defended Albert DeSalvo in the Boston Strangler case and publishing heiress Patty Hearst, said Shapiro has been consulting with him on the Simpson case since the beginning and talked to him about Friday’s motion to void the grand jury proceedings.
Leaving open the possibility that he might be brought in to handle the courtroom phase of the case, Bailey said Shapiro has not made a decision. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who defended boxer Mike Tyson, also has been consulted about constitutional aspects of the case. Another member of the team is Gerald F. Uelmen, dean of the Santa Clara University Law School.
“Bob is a team kind of guy and is quick to say that the best service to my client is to get all the best to help out,” Bailey said.
In the 1990 murder case involving Christian Brando, son of actor Marlon Brando, Shapiro took over from Kunstler.
Kunstler said the younger Brando had a strong defense in the death of Dag Drollet, the lover of his half sister, Cheyenne, and that Shapiro should have taken the case to trial. Instead, Shapiro allowed Brando to plead guilty to manslaughter and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Shapiro later appealed the sentence.
“To take on a notorious fixer, a plea bargainer, like Shapiro gives the wrong message,” Kunstler said. “He is entirely the wrong man for O.J. Simpson.”
Shapiro also took heat in that case for allowing police to interview Cheyenne Brando about her lover’s death.
She later left the country and turned up in Paris. Prosecutors suspected that Shapiro had, at least indirectly, advised her to flee to keep her from testifying against her half brother. Although witnesses were subpoenaed about that, it could never be proved and the matter was dropped.
The Brando case is one Shapiro cites in an article he wrote for a professional journal advising other lawyers how to handle themselves in high-profile cases.
In the Brando case, he wrote, he had to counter the likelihood that the prosecutor would try to make an example of his client because of his famous actor father. “To keep my options open, my first response to the media was a statement . . . that in all cases a lawyer has a responsibility and obligation to attempt to resolve cases without a trial.”
That statement made it seem like it was common practice to resolve cases without going to trial, he said. It put pressure on the prosecution to settle “on terms that were acceptable to us.”
The first time Shapiro’s name was associated with renown was in 1975, when he was still trading services for office space at a Sunset Boulevard firm headed by veteran defense attorney Harry Weiss. Brought in to help represent porn star Linda Lovelace in a Las Vegas drug case, he managed to get the case dismissed.
In 1982, he got calls from Bailey and Carson on the same day, asking him to represent them in drunk-driving cases. He was part of a team that called nearly 30 witnesses and got Bailey acquitted in what was at the time the state’s most celebrated such case. To avoid such a trial, Carson pleaded no contest in Beverly Hills.
Other clients have included Evans, whom Shapiro was able to keep from testifying in the spectacular Cotton Club case involving the 1983 murder of Roy Radin. Evans was not charged in the case.
Last fall, Shapiro took on New York Mets outfielder Coleman as a client after he was charged with throwing a powerful firecracker in the parking lot outside Dodger Stadium, injuring three people, including a toddler.
Attorney Larry Feldman, a longtime friend, said Shapiro’s first public statement after taking the case showed his ability to shape perceptions.
Shapiro said throwing the firecracker was “the stupidest thing anyone can do,” said Feldman, who last fall represented the child who accused Michael Jackson of sexual molestation. “That defused the whole situation and then he went about building up who this person was and how sorry he was.”
Coleman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was given a one-year suspended jail sentence and three years probation. He was ordered to pay $1,000 and restitution to those who were injured. At Coleman’s sentencing hearing last fall, during the Malibu fires, Shapiro told the judge that Coleman had his jeans and shovel in the car and was on his way to help out.
By that point in Shapiro’s career, humanizing his clients to deflect attention from their misdeeds had become almost second nature.
Texas Rangers baseball slugger Jose Canseco had started carrying a gun, Shapiro said when his client faced weapons charges, because he was scared and tormented by obscene telephone calls. Canseco pleaded no contest and received a six-month suspended jail term and 80 hours of community service.
Christian Brando, in his murder trial, was portrayed as protecting his half sister from further beatings by her lover.
In the case of Simpson, Shapiro has talked about the football injuries that keep his client from sleeping unless he has a special pillow, and described him as lonely for his children on Father’s Day.
In 1980, Shapiro defended Jerry Blackmon, who was neither famous nor rich. He had admitted shooting his estranged wife twice in the chest with a .357-caliber magnum revolver a year earlier while standing over her at the side of the Foothill Freeway in Pasadena. According to court records, witnesses testified that Blackmon said if he could not have his wife, no one else would.
Two psychiatrists hired as witnesses concluded that Blackmon was “so mentally impaired that he lacked the capacity to form ‘malice’ as the law defines it” and the charges in the case were reduced to manslaughter. Blackmon served five years and four months of an eight-year sentence.
“I know how Mr. Shapiro . . . orchestrates things,” said Blackmon, who now lives outside Oklahoma City. “He was like Liberace playing the court system. If it weren’t for him, I would have served 27 years to life.”
Now Shapiro is handling a case with eerie parallels, one that will forever mark his career for good or for ill. And his transformation from hard-working celebrity attorney to the celebrity attorney of the hour is all happening within a few miles of the neighborhood where Shapiro grew up.
He was born Sept. 2, 1942, in Plainfield, N.J., to a father who was working in a shirt factory and a mother who was employed as a department store clerk. He was 5 when he moved with his parents, an aunt and a grandfather to a four-unit apartment building at Pico and La Cienega boulevards.
After graduating from Hamilton High School, Shapiro went to UCLA, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in finance in 1965. Studies came easily for him and his fraternity brothers recall him spending as much time at parties at the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity--called the campus “Animal House” by members--as in the library.
Thirty years later, fraternity brothers still remember the dapper suits and big hair that earned him the nickname “Trini,” after folk singer Trini Lopez.
“We used to tease him about being flashy,” said Jeffrey Allan Cohen, a Beverly Hills civil attorney and one of Shapiro’s fraternity brothers, recalling in particular a powder blue polyester suit with “zero lapels.”
They also remember his ability to negotiate settlements to frat house disputes. “He was always there to set matters right,” said Richard Levin, another fraternity brother who is now an executive with major league baseball in New York.
At Loyola Law School, Shapiro struggled at first. He once told an interviewer that he failed his first class but that the shock was enough to make him study harder. Always a skillful communicator who was able to ad lib as if he was reading from a script, Shapiro won a moot court presentation before a U.S. District Court judge.
While studying for the Bar, however, he became so nervous that he plucked out his eyebrows. Even so, he passed the test on his first try and began working as a deputy district attorney in Torrance.
He had married while in law school but the marriage fell apart a year later and was annulled in 1969. In 1972, he joined Weiss’ high-volume practice, where the young attorneys worked late many nights on everything from drunk-driving to child molestation cases. It was during that time he married his second wife, Linell, and the couple later had two sons, whom Shapiro now coaches in soccer or Little League baseball.
The Shapiros live in a 3,600-square-foot, four-bedroom Cape Cod-style home in Benedict Canyon that they bought in 1991.
The 1975 victory in the Lovelace case “made me feel good,” he told an interviewer several years ago, “but it also showed me the political pressures that come with publicity” and that it is “scary when somebody sticks a microphone in your face.”
Although Shapiro has declined to give interviews in the wake of the Simpson case, he has held several impromptu news conferences attended by scores of reporters and photographers.
In dealing with the press, Shapiro advises his colleagues, avoid cliches when describing a homicide. Do not, for example, call it a “tragedy.” Rather, use the term “horrible human event” or some other phrase that an attorney finds appropriate, he wrote.
Repeat such phrases continuously, he wrote, and “they will be repeated by the media. After a while, the repetition almost becomes a fact. That is the lawyer’s ultimate goal.”
The best initial response in a high-profile case, he wrote, was almost exactly what he employed in the Simpson case. He suggested telling reporters that “the best experts in the field are reconstructing the crime scene” and informing “the public that the client has support from his family and friends.”
He did veer from his prescription when he told the media the day he replaced Howard Weitzman as Simpson’s attorney that his new client had an alibi. If Shapiro later decides to argue that Simpson committed the crime but did so only under great mental stress, he will have to backtrack on the alibi statement, Kunstler said.
In describing Shapiro, attorneys familiar with his work as well as longtime friends return constantly to his personal qualities--his skill at making people feel at ease and his confidence with such social graces as remembering birthdays, sending flowers and notes to old friends and looking directly in someone’s eyes.
They also talk about the importance he places on his personal commitments.
Last Wednesday, after appearing in court with his client and accompanying forensic experts to examine evidence, he ducked out to keep a promise to his children by taking them to a World Cup soccer match.
His sense of honor, his acquaintances say, prompted Shapiro to go to great lengths a week ago to explain how Simpson had disappeared despite the lawyer’s assurances that he would be there when police came to arrest him.
Danny Davis, who defended Ray Buckey in the McMartin Pre-School case, said: “Bob Shapiro has immense interpersonal talent. He is one of the nicer guys in the Bar I know. Anyone who has ever talked to him knows he is very warm, very focused on people he is talking to, very sincere.”
Those skills, Davis said, have “facilitated what he has accomplished for other celebrities who have had minor skirmishes with the law. But that is different from defending someone in a murder trial.”
For his part, Shapiro says he is confident in a trial arena: “Let me tell you something about that. You cannot resolve cases or get favorable settlements until the prosecution knows you are capable of going to trial and winning.”
Indeed, there are some who say Shapiro’s reputation as a negotiator overshadows his substantial trial skills only by comparison.
Elizabeth Baron, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge in Compton, said she met Shapiro in 1983 during a child molestation case. Shapiro represented a father who was trying to gain back the right to visit his daughters after they had been molested by a half brother in his home.
By the end, “I was persuaded that the father was an incredibly good father,” said Baron, who was representing the daughters. “His cross-examination of witnesses was a marvel to behold. He does it calmly and quietly and he makes them look like idiots.”
She said Friday’s dismissal of the grand jury is further evidence of his skill. “I’ve never heard of such a thing being done, ever. It shows he has the ability to handle a big case like this and is not being overwhelmed by it.”