Simpson Pleads ‘100% Not Guilty’ to Charges : Hearing: Judge Lance Ito is assigned to case. Prominent L.A. lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. joins defense team.
Speaking in a firm, assertive voice, O.J. Simpson proclaimed he was “absolutely, 100% not guilty” Friday as he was arraigned for the second time in five weeks on charges that he murdered his ex-wife and a young Brentwood waiter.
Friday’s hearing featured a more forceful and engaged Simpson than in previous court appearances. He consulted with his lawyers throughout the brief session and stood ramrod straight when the charges against him were read.
Dressed in a dark suit and accompanied by his growing team of lawyers--the latest addition being veteran civil rights attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.--Simpson calmly answered a series of routine questions by the Superior Court presiding judge, then entered his not guilty plea before a nationwide audience of millions.
As he was escorted from the courtroom back to the jail cell where he has spent the past month, Simpson gave a jaunty thumb-up sign to spectators. Family members of the two victims, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, sat silently nearby.
Supervising Criminal Court Judge Cecil J. Mills assigned the Simpson case to his assistant, Judge Lance Ito. But Mills declined to set a trial date, preferring to leave that and other matters to Ito. Simpson lawyer Robert L. Shapiro has said he expects to seek an early trial date. Under the law, Simpson can insist on a trial within 60 days of Friday’s arraignment--meaning that the case could begin by Sept. 20.
Ito recently told the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal publication, that a judge “would have to be crazy to want that (Simpson) case.” Now, he will quickly become a central player in a drama that has gripped the nation for almost six weeks. Almost every hearing in the case so far has been broadcast live on national television; the main participants already have become household names, and some have been subjected to withering scrutiny.
A bearded 43-year-old former prosecutor, Ito is married to the highest-ranking woman in the Los Angeles Police Department, Capt. Margaret York. Before assigning Ito the case, Mills asked the lawyers whether they had any objection to the appointment based on Ito’s relationship to York, who heads the LAPD’s bunco-forgery division.
Because of that relationship, Ito routinely volunteers to step down from cases that involve the LAPD, Mills explained.
Shapiro and Cochran conferred briefly, then Shapiro spoke with Simpson before responding: “Judge Ito is a choice that is acceptable to us, your honor.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark said prosecutors had no objection either.
Cochran is the other new face in the explosive case, but his entry was expected and he is no stranger to publicity. His current clients include riot beating victim Reginald O. Denny and superstar entertainer Michael Jackson--merely the latest in a long string of high-profile cases that have rarely had Cochran far from the spotlight.
A former ranking member of the district attorney’s office, Cochran is one of Los Angeles’ best-known trial lawyers. He lists Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and many other notables as personal references.
Just this week, he attended a meeting between Garcetti and prominent African Americans who raised concerns about the district attorney’s handling of the Simpson case, including the racial composition of the jury and the possibility of Simpson facing the death penalty.
Three days later, Cochran was part of the Simpson team, joining Shapiro, Gerald F. Uelmen, Sara L. Caplan, Robert Kardashian, F. Lee Bailey and Alan M. Dershowitz. Shapiro is acting as the lead attorney and said Friday that more lawyers are expected to sign up soon. So far, neither Bailey nor Dershowitz has appeared in court.
Unlike Shapiro and prosecutors, who avoided questions from reporters after Friday’s hearing, Cochran paused long enough to say he was pleased to have been hired by Simpson, with whom he has enjoyed a long friendship.
“It’s a very important trial,” Cochran said. “I’m glad to be part of the team.”
As expected, Friday’s arraignment was a brief, perfunctory affair, lasting about 10 minutes. Simpson had been arraigned June 20 in Municipal Court, where his preliminary hearing was held. Defendants who are ordered to stand trial on serious charges in that court, as he was, must be arraigned again in Superior Court, where the trial is held.
The highlight of the arraignment Friday, aside from the assignment of Ito, was a brief exchange between Mills and Simpson after the charges against the famous ex-athlete were read.
“Are you ready to enter a plea at this time?” Mills asked.
“Yes, your honor,” responded Simpson, standing next to Shapiro.
“How do you plead to counts 1 and 2?” the judge inquired, referring to the two premeditated murder counts against Simpson.
“Absolutely, 100% not guilty,” Simpson said.
In the five weeks since he was arrested after a nationally televised pursuit across the freeways of Southern California, that brief remark by Simpson was his longest public comment on the charges against him.
But even as Simpson was proclaiming his innocence in court, investigators were moving forward in their case against him.
LAPD detectives on Friday delivered blood samples to a private laboratory in Maryland.
The samples will undergo DNA testing as investigators attempt to show that blood at the scene of the crime came from Simpson and that bloodstains found at his estate might have come from either of the two victims. The procedure to be done by the lab is known as RFLP testing. In some cases it can show with great precision the likelihood that a certain sample did or did not come from a specific person.
In papers filed in court after Friday’s arraignment, Simpson’s lawyers sought to stop the prosecution from going ahead with the DNA testing of specimens of hair and blood collected by police at the murder scene, at Simpson’s estate and from samples Simpson has provided to the prosecution.
The testing is scheduled for Tuesday, but Shapiro said a key defense expert would not be able to attend that day.
The defense lawyers have contended that they should be given portions of all of those samples so they can conduct their own independent testing. If the prosecution is allowed to proceed with the tests as planned, the defense fears that some of the samples will be entirely consumed, making the independent testing impossible.
That same issue was dealt with during Simpson’s preliminary hearing earlier this month. At that time, Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy-Powell ruled that the defense could have its experts present during the testing, and prosecutors offered to split any samples that were large enough.
Clark reminded Judge Mills of the earlier ruling during Friday’s hearing, but Mills declined to take any action because the motion had not been filed at that point.
Shapiro, asserting that Kennedy-Powell no longer has jurisdiction in the case, asked Ito to rehear their arguments. Late in the day, Ito scheduled a hearing for Monday morning.
Another motion filed by the defense, requesting immediate access to police and prosecution records, could be heard then or Friday, when Ito has scheduled a pretrial hearing. A trial date is likely to be set during one of those sessions as well.
Friday is also the day that prosecutors are expected to announce whether they will charge Simpson’s best friend, Al Cowlings, with aiding a fugitive based on his actions on the day that Simpson failed to surrender to police as scheduled.
O.J. Simpson was arraigned Friday in the slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Lyle Goldman. A trial could start as soon as Sept. 20.
THE PLEA: Simpson said he was “absolutely, 100% not guilty” of the June 12 deaths.
NEW JUDGE: Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, 43 was selected to preside over the trial. After being named, he said, “It feels like I’ve had 12 cups of coffee and I’ve only had one.”
NEW LAWYER: Veteran civil rights attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., whose clients have included Reginald O. Denny and Michael Jackson, has been added to the defense team.
NEXT STEP: Ito, who will ultimately set a trial date, has granted a defense request for a hearing Monday on DNA testing.
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