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NEWS ANALYSIS : Lawyer Matchups Shape Tenor of Simpson Trial

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the O.J. Simpson murder trial winds its way through a slew of pretrial hearings and courtroom contests, its principal opponents are pairing off like sparring partners, setting the stage for a series of dramatic and startlingly different legal confrontations in the coming weeks.

There is the scrappy duo of Barry Scheck and Lisa Kahn, a volatile pair whose sarcastic faceoffs have made them a favorite of the press corps. And there is the supercharged conflict between Marcia Clark and Robert L. Shapiro, two of the lead lawyers who have collided in a series of increasingly bitter confrontations.

And then there is the third piece of the Simpson legal triangle: Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and William Hodgman, a pair of easygoing, experienced litigators who have worked together and against each other over the years. Unlike the other four principal lawyers in the case, their disagreements are tempered by their mutual admiration, and their arguments are models of civility.

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“We’re kind of an anomaly in this case,” Cochran said. “We get along.”

The lawyer matchups will shape the tenor and tempo of the Simpson trial, influencing the way jurors hear evidence and, if Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito allows cameras to remain in the courtroom, providing a national television audience with a glimpse of the vastly different styles of six talented, highly regarded attorneys arguing the biggest case of their lives.

“Some people have called this the trial of the century because of its notoriety,” said Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor who has closely followed the Simpson case. “In addition to that, it will be a fascinating case to watch because of the superb collection of lawyers and the matchups between them.”

First up will be the DNA lawyers, Kahn and Scheck, a pair of attorneys whose animated disagreements have livened up many a dry, technical hearing. Reporters have dubbed the Scheck and Kahn sessions “The Barry and Lisa Show,” and for good reason: When Kahn and Scheck argue, observers can count on the debate being long, personal and mean.

Last week, Scheck asked that Ito sanction his counterpart for failing to turn over DNA evidence and for waiting too long to begin some tests. Kahn responded by accusing Scheck and his partner, lawyer Peter Neufeld, of deluging the prosecution and its labs with frivolous requests intended only to gum up the testing process and to make it impossible for prosecutors to present their case.

When Kahn offered one concession, Scheck dismissed it as “ice in winter.” And when she accused him of trying to subject DNA tests to his own analysis, he responded by denying it and by noting that she continually mispronounced his name--she calls him “Scheckt.”

By all appearances, Ito has not taken a particular liking to either of the DNA litigators. He has upbraided Scheck for his long-windedness and for raising irrelevant issues. And he openly expressed his frustration with Kahn when she struggled to produce a satisfactory explanation for why certain DNA tests were not initiated for months after the June 12 murders.

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“There was no delay,” Kahn argued.

“The delay seems apparent,” Ito responded archly, glaring down from the bench.

Despite Ito’s evident disdain for the squabbling between Scheck and Kahn--he called it unhelpful and annoying--their conflict has barely begun. The two lawyers will occupy center stage in early November when they square off to argue the admissibility of DNA evidence in the case. That hearing could determine the course of the entire trial, and virtually no one expects either Kahn or Scheck to become suddenly conciliatory before then.

“You can’t turn it off and on,” said Harland W. Braun, an experienced criminal defense lawyer and former deputy district attorney. “You react intuitively. You fall back on your instincts.”

Once the DNA hearing is concluded--which both sides hope will be sometime before Thanksgiving--Kahn and Scheck will at least temporarily recede to the sidelines, to be followed by the four lawyers who will dominate the trial and whose courtroom personalities are as different as their intensity is alike.

All four--Cochran, Shapiro, Hodgman and Clark--are expected to play significant roles in the trial. And some issues or witnesses are likely to pit them in varying combinations. So far, the matchups have generally shaped up as Shapiro vs. Clark and Hodgman vs. Cochran.

In fact, when Hodgman was out sick last week, Shapiro offered to even up the sides by sending Cochran home. Instead, Ito elected to give both sides the day off.

Shapiro and Clark have occupied center stage in the Simpson case since the preliminary hearing, when they led their respective sides in front of a transfixed national television audience. Both instantly became household names: For weeks, their style of questioning, ability to argue, even their hairstyles were grist for analysis and the topics of conversations from coast to coast.

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Shapiro was praised for deftly handling witnesses during the preliminary hearing; Clark for relentlessly and successfully arguing against the defense’s attempts to suppress evidence seized in a series of searches of Simpson’s home and cars.

At the same time, both lawyers came under nit-picking scrutiny for everything from their courtroom manner to the way they dress. On the last subject, at least Clark seems to have heard the critique, as observers have noted that she has projected a kinder, gentler image in recent court hearings. She toned down her sharp edges even further last week when she spoke to prospective jurors for the first time, lowering her voice and gently coaxing answers from some of the jury candidates.

“Are you nervous?” she asked the first prospective juror. When the woman replied that she was, Clark added: “Me too.”

Few who have watched Clark’s unyielding courtroom performances believed that, and it was all defense attorneys could do to keep a straight face. “We’re all wondering how long she can keep up this personality transplant,” one of Simpson’s lawyers said later.

Almost from the first session, Shapiro and Clark were at each other’s throats: Before Simpson’s preliminary hearing had begun, Shapiro wrested a grudging concession from Clark that police had not found a bloody ski mask at the scene of the crime--a discovery reported “exclusively” and erroneously by a local television station.

That confrontation seemed to set the stage for their subsequent battles, and in the past three months, the two lawyers have gone from aggressive adversaries to bitter antagonists. Each has accused the other of grandstanding for the courtroom camera. Each has charged the other with misrepresenting evidence and even with defying the judge.

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Last week, Shapiro asked Ito to sanction prosecutors for failing to introduce their jury consultants to prospective jurors; Clark, trembling with anger, responded by asking Ito to report Shapiro to the State Bar.

“Are both sides finished?” an exasperated Ito asked after that exchange. (He declined to take action against either.)

Still, members of the defense team chortle over Shapiro’s willingness to take on Clark.

“I’m going to match up Shapiro and Clark wherever I can,” said Cochran, the defense team’s premier trial lawyer and its emerging central figure. “Bob really gets her angry.”

Where the Clark-Shapiro faceoff seems motivated by genuine dislike and the Scheck-Kahn contest is fueled by a pair of tough-minded foes, the matchup between Cochran and Hodgman is a dispute of an entirely different sort.

Those two men are the case’s most experienced trial lawyers and also are its closest professional friends. Cochran, a former high-ranking member of the district attorney’s office, hired Hodgman as a prosecutor in 1979 and has publicly praised his former subordinate’s formidable skills.

Where Clark and Shapiro have accused each other of lying, stalling and cheating, the exchanges between Cochran and Hodgman are marked by genteel expressions of mutual respect.

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During one recent session, Hodgman complimented Cochran and his staff for meeting informally with him to discuss evidence sharing, a process that Hodgman said was working well. Recently, Cochran pulled his former associate aside to assure him that no matter how contentious the case gets, he expects to emerge from it with his high regard for Hodgman intact.

“The others will come and go,” Cochran said of the other attorneys. “They may never see each other again. But Bill and I will be back here. We’ve known each other a long time, and we’ll know each other for a long time after this is over.”

Although Cochran and Hodgman like and respect each other, longtime associates of both say their easygoing veneer should not be misinterpreted. Both are fierce advocates. And neither is fond of losing.

As Cochran put it: “We’re deadly serious about our sides.”

They have faced each other across a courtroom before: Cochran won an acquittal for actor Todd Bridges in 1990 on charges of shooting a drug dealer, a case that Hodgman prosecuted. That trial was aggressively fought by both lawyers, associates say, but ended without rancor between Hodgman and Cochran.

Still, Hodgman is not inclined to let Cochran get away with anything just because they admire one another: When Cochran used his questioning of prospective jurors to suggest that a hung jury was nothing to be ashamed of, Hodgman accused his counterpart of trying to place a “subliminal message” in the minds of jurors. He reminded them that they should be flexible and should listen to their fellow jurors in their effort to return a verdict.

“We’re going to fight really hard, but at the end of this we’re going to respect each other,” Cochran said. “I don’t know if you can say that about the other lawyers in this case.”

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