A day after unloading a torrent of accusations of domestic abuse by O.J. Simpson, prosecutors withdrew 18 of those allegations Thursday, acknowledging that they should not be admitted into evidence.
The move drew a blistering response from defense lawyers, who accused the government of smearing Simpson’s reputation and then backing off the allegations once the world had learned of them.
“I just don’t think it’s a proper way to try to shape public opinion,” Robert L. Shapiro, one of Simpson’s lead attorneys, said outside court. “To come in one day and make sensational allegations and come in the next day and withdraw a third of them--it’s outrageous.”
Despite withdrawing the allegations, Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Darden hinted that they may resurface before the case is over: “We have not retreated from use of any of the evidence in this case. We expect to admit most if not all of that evidence at trial.”
The prosecution move meant that some of the most inflammatory allegations raised Wednesday--accusations that Simpson had battered Nicole Simpson during sex, locked her in a wine cellar after beating her for hours and threatened to cut the heads off any boyfriend of his ex-wife who drove one of his cars--have been excised from the list of incidents described in court and prosecution papers.
Although the prosecution maneuver drew howls of protest from the defense camp and was criticized by some experts, others said prosecutors had scored some points by initially airing all the accusations and by continuing to seek the admission of several others.
Criminal defense lawyer Harland W. Braun said that while the prosecution approach allowed the judge and public to hear a long litany of alleged abuses, abruptly withdrawing so many of the allegations also carries risks. “It does make them look less professional,” he said.
Other legal experts said the government’s aggressive campaign to introduce any domestic abuse evidence may produce some strategic benefits by providing a coherent theory for the crime, by sullying Simpson’s reputation and by dramatically raising the stakes for the former football star if he chooses to testify--a question that has loomed in the case for months.
“On the one hand, it makes it much more likely that he’ll testify because he has much more to explain if this evidence comes in,” said Barry Levin, an experienced criminal defense lawyer and former Los Angeles police officer. “On the other hand, it makes testifying much more difficult.”
For Simpson, testifying is complicated by the enormous attention focused on the case and by the decision to sequester the jury, experts said. Jurors may give up six months of their lives to serve on the trial, and could feel let down if Simpson never takes the stand in his own defense.
“I think jurors always wonder why it is when someone doesn’t testify,” said Charles Weisselberg, a USC law professor. In some cases, defendants have difficulty appearing in public and answering questions, but Simpson has lived his life on a public stage, making it unlikely that jurors would easily accept that as an explanation for him not taking the stand, Weisselberg added.
Gerald F. Uelmen, one of Simpson’s lawyers, acknowledged in court that the domestic violence issue raises the stakes for his client in deciding whether to take the stand. “That, of course, is a risk we’re well aware of,” he said.
The extensive prosecution list of alleged domestic violence episodes means that if Simpson were to testify that he and his wife had a good relationship, prosecutors would have broad leeway to introduce evidence to the contrary, possibly including some of the same episodes that they withdrew Thursday.
Among the other incidents that prosecutors said they will not pursue for now--but which they said they will attempt to hold in reserve--are allegations that Nicole Simpson complained to friends after her divorce that her ex-husband was following her and hiding in the bushes near her home. Most of the incidents withdrawn Thursday were taken from a memo written by Nicole Simpson in preparation for her divorce proceedings, but others came from witnesses, including at least one whose credibility had come under attack.
Despite their decision to at least temporarily withdraw some of the allegations, prosecutors continue to seek admission during their so-called “case in chief” of six physically violent incidents alleged to have occurred in the 17-year relationship between O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson. The former football star has pleaded not guilty to the June 12 murders of his ex-wife and Ronald Lyle Goldman.
Among the alleged incidents that prosecutors hope jurors will hear are accusations that Simpson smashed his wife’s car in 1985, that he beat her in 1989, that she called for help as he tried to break down her door in 1993 and that she told a battered women’s shelter five days before her death that Simpson was stalking her.
One allegation that prosecutors withdrew was based on statements by an actor named Eddie Reynoza, who said Simpson had threatened to cut the heads off his ex-wife’s boyfriends if they drove his cars. Reynoza, however, also claimed to have evidence during the Michael Jackson investigation--alleging that Jackson molested children and that he would never return to the United States, among other things. Jackson has never been criminally charged and is in the United States.
Reynoza’s connection to the Jackson case, reported in The Times, was overlooked in much of the television and wire service coverage of Wednesday’s hearing, and defense attorneys demanded that prosecutors publicly clarify that his statements were no longer part of the allegations against Simpson.
The discussion of the Reynoza allegations during Wednesday’s hearing particularly incensed defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who represented Jackson during the child molestation case and the civil suit that arose from it. Cochran said prosecutors should have been aware of Reynoza’s credibility problems and should never have included his allegations in their motion or in their courtroom presentation, which was broadcast on national television.
“This proves that these unsubstantiated charges should not be relied upon before they are tested in court,” said Cochran, who was especially critical of Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman, one of the prosecutors in the Simpson case who also was involved in the Jackson investigation. “You would think that an office like the D.A.'s would investigate these charges before making these accusations.”
Jurors in the case should be unaffected by this week’s maneuvering because they were sequestered before the explosive hearing on alleged spousal abuse began.
Simpson, who had appeared animated and incredulous during Wednesday’s hearing, was far more subdued during Thursday’s session. Early in the proceedings, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lydia Bodin rebuked him, asking Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito to order Simpson to stay quiet while she spoke. Simpson immediately stopped speaking, and Ito did not intervene.
From that point on, Simpson sat mostly silent, though he occasionally conferred quietly with his lawyers. Late in the day, however, he wheeled around to face members of his ex-wife’s family when one of his lawyers asserted that Nicole Simpson had once called Simpson’s father a derogatory name.
Members of the Brown family did not make eye contact with Simpson when he turned to look at them. Denise Brown, Nicole Simpson’s outspoken sister, carried a book with her into court Thursday. Its title: “The Domestic Assault of Women.”
In arguing that Nicole Simpson was battered by her husband, prosecutors alleged that her feelings of helplessness were compounded by O.J. Simpson’s friendly relationship with officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, some of whom, prosecutors said, used Simpson’s pool and tennis court during the period that the department responded seven or eight times to domestic abuse calls at the Simpson home.
Thursday, LAPD officials said they were looking into those allegations. Police Cmdr. Tim McBride, a department spokesman, said officials are “reviewing the comments that were made in court.”
Daryl F. Gates, department chief during the 1980s, said no complaint ever came to him about West Los Angeles officers socializing with Simpson. But Gates said that if officers were using Simpson’s pool and tennis court--or were soliciting his help for charity functions--during the same period that patrol officers were responding to domestic violence calls at the house, that would have been “highly inappropriate.”
Gary Greenebaum, a member of the Police Commission, echoed those concerns and called for a departmental investigation. “The allegation of such activity is deeply disturbing and the suggestion that such partiality has taken place is certainly against departmental policy,” Greenebaum said.
As prosecutors argued for the admission of spousal abuse evidence Thursday, they also for the first time specifically explained their theory of why Goldman was killed. They believe Simpson killed his ex-wife because he could no longer control her, but their theory for the motive behind Goldman’s murder has never been explicitly discussed in court, except to say that they believe Goldman happened upon the murder scene and that Simpson knifed him to death.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Hank Goldberg, who has appeared periodically during the Simpson case to argue legal issues for the prosecution, said Goldman was savagely knifed to death because Simpson mistakenly believed he was Nicole Simpson’s boyfriend.
Goldman’s murder “becomes understandable if you understand the jealousy,” Goldberg said. “To him, this was a . . . potential suitor (who) was meeting someone that he had a possessory interest in. And that explains why he killed him and the brutality of it.”
Prosecutors have argued vehemently over the past two days that evidence of abuse by O.J. Simpson should be presented to the jury because they believe the murder was the final act in Simpson’s escalating attempts to control and manipulate Nicole Simpson. When those attempts failed, they argue, Simpson resorted to murder.
Simpson systematically attempted to strip his wife of her dignity, her financial independence and her self-respect, Goldberg argued: “When there wasn’t anything else to take away from her, he took away her life.”
To bolster their claims, government lawyers called the only witness of the hearing on the spousal abuse issue, a highly regarded expert on relationship violence named Donald Dutton.
Under questioning from Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Gordon, another member of the prosecution’s team of domestic abuse specialists, Dutton described the profile of a batterer. He testified, for instance, that abusers do not exercise control only through physical violence.
Economic control, public humiliation and other types of behavior also are typical of batterers, Dutton said. Prosecutors say Simpson practiced all those things against Nicole Simpson throughout their relationship.
But Dutton was sharply cross-examined by F. Lee Bailey, a famed trial lawyer who so far has played a small courtroom role in the Simpson case but who has actively worked behind the scenes with the defense team. Bailey posed a series of hypothetical questions to Dutton, wresting from him admissions that some of Simpson’s behavior toward his wife was atypical of a person who abused his spouse.
Bailey noted, for instance, that in the wake of a 1989 incident in which Simpson slapped and punched his wife, the football Hall of Famer wrote a note pledging to invalidate the couple’s prenuptial agreement if he ever struck her again. Nicole Simpson never again accused Simpson of battery, even though doing so might have freed her from the agreement and entitled her to millions of dollars, Bailey said.
Ito said he hoped to rule on the admissibility of the spousal abuse evidence by next Tuesday, adding that he would deliver a point-by-point ruling on which incidents jurors may consider. The judge also said opening statements in the case are not expected to begin before Jan. 19 or 20.
Court resumes today with a scheduled hearing on the prosecution’s objections to admission of evidence regarding the background of Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman, who testified during the preliminary hearing that he found a bloody glove outside Simpson’s home hours after the bodies of Goldman and Nicole Simpson were discovered.
Simpson’s lawyers have accused Fuhrman of being a racist police officer--a contention drawn in part from files that he submitted in connection with a failed effort to get a stress pension from the Police Department. In those files, Fuhrman is quoted using racial epithets, and prosecutors say allowing the jury to hear those remarks would unfairly cause them to doubt Fuhrman’s testimony.
Times staff writer Ralph Frammolino contributed to this story.