Prosecution Won’t Seek Death Penalty Against Simpson : Courts: District attorney will ask for life in prison without parole. Defense says it can now concentrate its efforts on winning acquittal for the ex-football star.
Ending weeks of anticipation, prosecutors announced Friday that they will not seek the death penalty against O.J. Simpson and instead will ask that he be sentenced to life in prison without parole if convicted of murdering his ex-wife and her friend.
In a letter sent to Simpson’s lawyers, Assistant Dist. Atty. Frank Sundstedt said the decision was made after “consideration of all available aggravating and mitigating penalty phase evidence.”
The district attorney’s office also released a statement saying that Sundstedt’s decision was reviewed by Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who concurred.
Robert L. Shapiro, one of Simpson’s lead attorneys, said the decision meant the defense could concentrate its efforts on winning an acquittal for the former football great at his trial, scheduled to begin Sept. 26. Until the death penalty issue was decided, Simpson’s lawyers had not known whether they needed to prepare for that aspect of the case as well as the primary trial issues.
“We are continuing to prepare for trial, and this decision does not affect that,” Shapiro said. “The work goes on.”
Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Simpson’s other lead counsel, declined to comment in detail, saying only: “I think they made the right decision.”
The death penalty decision came nine days after the initial deadline prosecutors had set for deciding the issue. Simpson’s attorneys protested last week that they were being forced to prepare for trial without knowing whether their client was fighting for his freedom or his life.
Legal experts, who had criticized the delays, generally agreed that the district attorney’s decision was not only legally correct but strategically sound. Among other things, they theorized that it would have been difficult for prosecutors to win a conviction if jurors had been confronted with the possibility of putting the football legend to death.
Before making the decision, Sundstedt consulted with a seven-member committee of top officials from the district attorney’s office. Simpson’s attorneys declined an invitation to appear before the committee.
“We did not participate in the death penalty determination because O.J. Simpson is innocent of these charges,” Shapiro said.
Neither the district attorney’s letter nor the statement detailed the office’s reasons for not seeking the death penalty. A member of the committee said the decision was not difficult and was reached without significant disagreement among the panel members. “It was easy,” the committee member said.
Another committee member, who also requested anonymity, said one major factor in the decision to seek life in prison was Simpson’s lack of a felony history.
The committee last formally met Thursday, but reporters were told then that the Simpson case was not on the agenda. Garcetti approved the decision Friday morning, but delayed announcing it until after he notified members of the two victims’ families.
The decision by the district attorney’s office comes more than a month after Simpson was arraigned in Superior Court on charges that he killed his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. Simpson has pleaded not guilty to those murders.
Goldman’s father, Fred, said outside his Ventura County home that he had heard about the prosecution’s decision but did not want to discuss it. “That’s not an issue I want to comment on publicly,” he said.
Nicole Simpson’s parents in Dana Point could not be reached for comment. A message on their answering machine said they would make no statements to reporters.
At a hearing Aug. 31, Simpson’s lawyers complained about the delay in announcing a death penalty decision, saying that it made it difficult for them to prepare for a trial scheduled to begin in less than three weeks.
“We think it is fundamentally unfair for us to be left in a situation where we don’t know what to prepare for,” Shapiro said during that hearing.
Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito shared that concern, and urged prosecutors to move as quickly as possible to make a decision. The delay, he said “complicates all of our lives immensely.”
In particular, the looming question of the death sentence had a direct impact on how the two sides would proceed with jury selection, which is scheduled to begin Sept. 26. In death penalty cases, jurors who feel they could not order any person to be executed are automatically excused.
As the district attorney’s office weighed the decision, it was confronted by an unusual level of public interest and disagreement.
Some activists, including a group of leading African Americans, have criticized certain aspects of Garcetti’s handling of the Simpson prosecution and raised concerns that the death penalty decision would be in the hands of the all-white, all-male Special Circumstances Committee. Gloria Allred, a prominent attorney known for backing women’s issues, urged Garcetti to seek the death sentence, arguing that to do otherwise was unfair to battered women.
The district attorney’s statement alluded to those pressures but said they did not influence the decision.
“While the office is aware that there is deep public concern about whether the death penalty will be sought in a case, the decision must be independent of this concern,” the statement said.
John Mack, head of the Los Angeles Urban League office, said he expected anger from women’s rights activists who had urged Garcetti to seek the death penalty because it had been sought against women accused of killing their husbands and because Simpson had a history of physically abusing his ex-wife.
But that reasoning, Mack said, is misguided.
“Spousal abuse is a horrible, obscene thing, and it is clear O.J. Simpson was given a smack on the wrist for it because of his celebrity status,” Mack said. “I don’t want to get into any arguments from activists in the women’s rights movement about who has been jacked around more by the system, but they are really missing the point that this case ought to be judged independently and separately.”
Despite the competing views, most legal experts had predicted that the death penalty was unlikely to be sought in the Simpson case. As a result, few were surprised Friday.
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola law school professor and former federal prosecutor, said a variety of factors had made it unlikely that the district attorney’s office would seek to execute Simpson. Sympathy for the famous football star, his lack of a lengthy criminal record and the rarity of imposing the death penalty in domestic homicides all weighed against seeking it in this case, Levenson said.
Also, legal experts noted that almost all prisoners on Death Row have few financial resources. Simpson is a multimillionaire.
Under Garcetti’s administration, the Special Circumstances Committee has reviewed about 300 cases as of July. Capital punishment was deemed warranted in about 16% of those cases, according to statistics provided by the district attorney’s office.
Death was most often sought when someone was killed in the course of a robbery. It was next most often sought in cases involving multiple murders, the special circumstance with which Simpson is charged. Only one domestic violence case resulted in a decision to seek the death penalty.
The committee, according to its own guidelines, does not seek the death penalty unless it believes that the evidence bearing on the issue is of “such convincing force” that a judge or jury would have no choice but to conclude that the aggravating circumstances, those that work against the accused, outweigh the mitigating circumstances, those that work in his or her favor.
Charlie Gessler, the capital cases coordinator in the public defender’s office, said Friday that Garcetti’s decision was a “perfectly proper one.”
“The problem in that case has been O.J.’s celebrity status and the fact that everybody has been waiting for the D.A.’s decision,” he said. “If this were a case of a non-celebrity, I think the decision to go for life would have been made long ago.”
Gessler said Garcetti’s decision “takes into account the realities of any domestic situation, a long-term marriage situation or romantic situation where emotions come into play.”
Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor, cited some of the same issues and said the district attorney acted correctly.
“No jury would have given Mr. Simpson the death penalty for two important reasons,” he said. “First, they couldn’t have dehumanized him, which is what jurors need to do when they impose the death penalty. Second, Mr. Simpson doesn’t have the past criminal history that would suggest his execution is necessary to eliminate any ongoing lethal threat to society.”
Although most observers praised the decision, they also were critical of the district attorney for taking so long to reach it. Barry Levin, a defense attorney and former Los Angeles police officer, said the decision should not have been a difficult one and added that the delays undoubtedly complicated the task for Simpson’s lawyers as they rush to prepare for the upcoming trial.
Harland W. Braun, a well-known Los Angeles defense lawyer, agreed.
“I think it’s astounding that it took them this long to make such an obvious decision,” said Braun, who once worked in the district attorney’s office. “Even if it was premeditated, it was still based on simmering passion. It was never a death penalty case. It seemed as though the D.A.’s office enjoyed being the center of attention for so long and dickering over somebody’s life.
“Now, like cowards, they sort of make the announcement on a Friday afternoon and run for home,” Braun added. “They should explain what factors went into this decision so we can judge the application of the death penalty from the public’s point of view.”
The most vehement protest came from attorney Leslie Abramson. Abramson is defending Erik Menendez, who faces a possible death sentence.
She praised Garcetti for deciding not to seek the death penalty against Simpson, but called him a hypocritical politician for continuing to seek it against her client, who along with his brother, Lyle, shotgunned their parents to death.
“In the absolute sense, it is right: O.J. does not deserve the death penalty--even if he did what they say he did, which there is no proof of yet,” Abramson said. But she said Garcetti “can draw no viable distinction (between) seeking death for the Menendez brothers and not for O.J. There is only a political difference.”
Abramson said both the Simpson case and the Menendez case involve domestic violence. She also stressed that her client and his brother had no prior criminal record and that two juries had failed to convict them of first-degree murder, a prerequisite for seeking the death penalty.
Therefore, she said the district attorney’s decision to continue to seek the death penalty against the brothers is “neither pragmatic, legal or moral,” but rather political.
“Obviously, Mr. Garcetti is not worried about the Cuban American vote,” Abramson said. “Obviously, he is worried about the African American vote at the jury and in the next election.”
Times staff writers Andrea Ford, Henry Weinstein, Alan Abrahamson, Matthew Mosk and Rebecca Trounson contributed to this story.
Weighing the Death Penalty
The district attorney’s Special Circumstances Committee does not seek the death penalty unless it believes that evidence bearing on the issue is of “such convincing force” that a judge or jury would have to conclude that aggravating circumstances--those that work against the accused--outweigh mitigating circumstances, those that work in his or her favor. The following factors could be aggravating or mitigating:
* Defendant’s age: Simpson is 47. In general, the younger the age, the more mitigating the circumstance.
* Criminal record: A prior felony conviction is an aggravating circumstance. Simpson has no felony record. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of spousal abuse in 1989.
* Special circumstance: The absence or presence of a special circumstance such as multiple murder, which is what Simpson is charged with.
* Force: The presence or absence of attempted use of force or violence or the threat of force of violence. The deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were very violent.
* Emotional state: Whether the accused was at the time of the crime extremely mentally or emotionally disturbed. No evidence of this has been publicly offered one way or another in the Simpson case.
* Victim’s role: Whether the victim participated in the homicide or consented to it. No public indication of this in the Simpson case.
* Extreme duress: Whether the accused acted under extreme duress or substantial domination by another person. No evidence publicly offered.
* Defendant’s role: Whether the accused was an accomplice rather than a main actor and the degree to which he or she was involved in the crime. No hard evidence publicly offered, but Simpson’s lawyers have contended in court that one person could not have committed the murders.
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