Simpson Legal Fees Could Run Into Millions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The best defense money can buy costs big, big bucks. And for O.J. Simpson, the meter is ticking.

During his preliminary hearing, the superstar athlete turned accused murderer was surrounded by as many as five attorneys, led by Robert L. Shapiro. At least two other big-name lawyers--F. Lee Bailey and Alan M. Dershowitz--are acting as advisers but have not appeared in court so far.

Top criminal defense lawyers command from $250 to $400 an hour, although most legal experts believe Simpson probably has signed a flat-fee agreement, with a lump sum to be paid for the preliminary hearing and another for the trial, which a judge ordered Friday. In any case, experts speculated, the legal bill is already well into five figures, probably six.

Then there is the supporting cast: the paralegals, investigators, criminalists, psychiatrists, forensic experts and DNA scientists. Each will demand a paycheck. Some bill by the hour, some by the day. Some will demand appearance fees for testifying--and don't forget travel expenses.

The final tab, experts said, is almost certain to run well into the millions and strain, if not drain, Simpson's considerable net worth, once estimated in court papers at more than $10 million--perhaps at the expense of his children's financial future.

In recent days, family members have expressed concern about the financial future of Sydney Simpson, 8, and Justin Simpson, 5, with their mother dead and their father in jail.

"I assume Simpson will be bankrupt or broke by the end of the trial simply because the money, whatever he has, will have been spent legitimately on his defense--and that's without any make-work b.s.," said Santa Monica criminal defense attorney Charles Lindner, a veteran of 13 capital cases.

Los Angeles lawyer Bradley Brunon, who has tried nearly three dozen murder cases, said: "If the client has an unlimited budget, the legal fees can approximate that. Remember that old saw about the football coach, George Allen, being given an unlimited budget and exceeding it? That may prove true in a case such as this.

"Because," Brunon said, "what corner would you want to cut when a man's life is at stake?"

Prosecutors have not decided whether to pursue the death penalty in the case against Simpson, charged with murder in the slayings of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman, 25. Though Simpson was ordered Friday to stand trial in Superior Court, that decision is still weeks away.

It is virtually impossible, experts said, to quantify the cost of a death penalty case. In large part, that is because defense lawyers have long kept such costs shrouded in secrecy, believing that itemizing the bill would tip prosecutors to secret defense strategies.

It is well-known around any courthouse, however, that defense costs in any death penalty case typically reach well into seven figures.

"On the other side of the coin no expense will be spared," San Diego defense attorney Elisabeth Semel said, referring to prosecutors. "So when someone's life is at stake, it behooves the defense to exploit every resource it can."

Even if prosecutors do not opt for the death penalty, the overall cost to Simpson is still likely to be substantial. Should the case go to trial, a conservative estimate, said Los Angeles defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., would be $2 million.

"It's going to be major," Cochran said.

Shapiro signaled the intensity of the campaign ahead as he left the courthouse Friday, saying: "We are going to be working very hard throughout the weekend getting ready for the trial. . . . We are going to start working tonight. We are not going to waste time."

With that kind of legal effort, one issue, experts said, is how much O.J. Simpson, who turns 47 in jail today, can afford.

An accountant hired by Nicole Brown Simpson in connection with the couple's 1992 divorce fixed O.J. Simpson's net worth at $10.8 million.

But most of that, according to court records, is in real estate, not cash--the home in Brentwood, valued at $5 million, a house in Laguna Beach and various condominiums.

In recent months, Simpson had been divesting himself of real estate. The house in Laguna Beach was sold in August for $1.55 million, according to property records. Last November, Simpson sold a Monarch Beach condo that he had acquired in 1989 for $300,000, absorbing a $116,000 loss.

According to court records, accountant Edward J. Lieberman said in 1992 that Simpson earned $1.5 million in 1991, much of it under contracts with NBC and Hertz Corp. In the prior five years, he earned an average of $1.2 million a year, Lieberman said.

Simpson argued that his income was substantially less, about $881,000 annually.

He also said he stood to lose money that year, saying his investments in Pioneer Chicken restaurant franchises were worthless.

He claimed extraordinary expenses--housing expenses in Brentwood of $264,000 in 1992 as well as support to his mother of between $800 and $1,100 per month and $32,000 annually to his adult daughter from a prior marriage.

The judge in the divorce ordered Simpson to pay even more support, $5,000 per month for each of his two children with Nicole Brown Simpson--$10,000 total.

For the moment, Sydney and Justin Simpson are being cared for by their maternal grandparents, Louis and Juditha Brown at their home in Monarch Bay, a secluded community within Dana Point in Orange County. The Browns share the home with three adult daughters and now four grandchildren, including the two Simpson children. Louis Brown, 70, is a semi-retired real estate broker and investor.

Rolf Baur, a first cousin raised by Nicole's parents and considered like a brother by her sisters, said he does not know if Nicole left a will or whether she was covered by a life insurance policy. Family members have not yet been able to check on such matters, he said.

Other family members declined comment Friday.

Even though O.J. Simpson is behind bars, those children are still entitled to monthly support, family law specialists said. Beyond that, those specialists said, the children likely have no legal claim on how their father spends his money--or how much of it goes toward the defense of the criminal case.

"It's his money," Brentwood attorney Joan Patsy Ostroy said. "As long as he's supporting the kids, I don't think they get to complain about how he spends his money."

And spend it, criminal defense lawyers said, he will.

The going rate for top lawyer talent in Los Angeles, one of the nation's most expensive legal markets, starts at $250 per hour, experts said. When defense attorney Leslie Abramson sought public funds this year for the retrial of the Menendez brothers, that's what she sought--only to have a judge tell her it was too much.

For this case, most experts said, Shapiro and former law school dean Gerald F. Uelmen would get far more than that.

If, however, Shapiro and Uelmen were each charging "only" $300 per hour and working "only" 14-hour days during the just-ended preliminary hearing, that figures out to $8,400 per day for just those two attorneys, Los Angeles defense lawyer Harland Braun said.

For the seven-day workweek that an intense preliminary hearing demands, the total would climb to $58,800 a week--again, just for Shapiro and Uelmen.

Working for hourly wages, Braun said, he alone made a total of between $600,000 and $700,000 on the "Twilight Zone" case. That, he said, was nearly 10 years ago--and the charge was manslaughter, not murder.

Simpson, meanwhile, had at least three other lawyers in court with him regularly--Shapiro associate Sara L. Caplan, business attorney Leroy (Skip) Taft and longtime friend Robert Kardashian.

Kardashian has said he is working for free. The other lawyers could not be reached or declined to comment about inquiries on their fees.

It quickly becomes apparent to most clients, Braun and other defense lawyers said, that an hourly ticker makes little financial sense. "If he's paying him by the hour, he can't afford that," Cochran said of Simpson, a friend. "He's going to have to come to a lump sum."

Such flat-fee arrangements can be lucrative for the lawyer.

In the Menendez case, Abramson made $650,000 in fees for the first trial, according to court records. Now that the Menendez estate has virtually evaporated, taxpayers are paying Abramson's fee for the second trial, about $125,000 per year.

No one can begin to guess just how much Shapiro and the defense team might command for Simpson's defense. But, experts said, the deal most likely would be structured to include one fee for the preliminary hearing and another, fatter sum for the trial.

"Whatever the fees are, they're going to be high--because of the complexity, enormity, seriousness and responsibility of the case," San Diego attorney Semel said.

Tacked on to the fees, meanwhile, are the costs of the case--the mounting charges for paralegals, investigators and the like.

A good investigator charges at least $75 per hour, Braun said, adding that $250 per hour is not unheard of.

Then there are the experts. It costs $550 to do DNA typing at Cellmark Diagnostics of Germantown, Md., the nation's largest private DNA testing laboratory. A molecular biologist to explain the test results for jurors costs $1,200 per day if the biologist has a Ph.D., $1,100 per day with no doctorate, according to Mark Stolorow, Cellmark's director of operations.

"Plus travel expenses," Stolorow added.

"And this is an experts case," Cochran said. "This is a case about forensic pathology. You cannot be outgunned. The people have more resources than O.J. Simpson. To fight them, you've got to do everything you possibly can--for as long as the money holds out."

Times staff writers Rebecca Trounson and Denise Gellene contributed to this story.

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