It is a case that prosecutors say leaves little doubt--one backed by allegations that O.J. Simpson and his ex-wife had a volatile, sometimes violent, relationship and by mounting scientific evidence that suggests Simpson was at the scene of her murder and that he tracked the victims' blood into his car and back to his home.
But "People of the State of California vs. Orenthal James Simpson" also is a case with holes: the missing murder weapon, the unanswered question of how a single assailant could dispatch two healthy adults in a residential neighborhood without attracting attention, the slip-ups by investigators that may have compromised some of the scientific evidence.
As prosecutors and defense attorneys prepare this week to deliver their opening statements in one of the most anticipated murder trials of modern times, it is that conflict--between disputed evidence and reasonable doubt--that they confront.
For in the end, the trial of O.J. Simpson may turn on whether jurors accustomed to television endings, where answers are simple and loose ends rarely left dangling, will believe that the evidence against O.J. Simpson points conclusively to guilt or whether its ambiguities add up to reasonable doubt.
How jurors resolve that issue will determine whether Simpson, one of America's most recognizable figures, goes to prison for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. He has pleaded not guilty.
A partial inventory of evidence, compiled from sources on both sides, makes clear that prosecutors will be presenting a case heavily reliant on science--DNA tests show blood with Simpson's genetic characteristics at the scene of the crime and blood matching that of the victims in his home and car. Among other things, sources say that a smear of blood from Simpson's car was subjected to PCR analysis, a type of DNA testing, and that it revealed a possible genetic match to Goldman's blood.
How, prosecutors will ask, did Goldman, a man whom Simpson did not even know, bleed in Simpson's car? And how did blood matching Simpson's end up on the walkway outside his ex-wife's house when Simpson himself, in his talk with police on the day after the murders, said he had no recollection of cutting himself there in recent days?
In response, Simpson's renowned but divided legal team is prepared to accuse the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County coroner of incompetence or worse in their campaign to put O.J. Simpson behind bars.
As it prepares for battle, however, the defense team is wrestling with internal conflicts, most notably a feud between Robert L. Shapiro and F. Lee Bailey about leaks. Lead trial lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. has attempted to mediate.
Monday, responding to remarks by Shapiro, Bailey released a statement criticizing his longtime colleague for airing the dispute, which was disclosed in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. "This case is not about Mr. Shapiro or Mr. Bailey," said the statement, released by Bailey's Boston office. "It's about O.J. Simpson, an innocent and wrongly accused man who can hardly feel well served . . . by this public outburst."
Shapiro declined to comment.
Squabbling aside, Cochran and the rest of Simpson's lawyers will defend their famous client in part by calling on award-winning scientists to criticize the handling of evidence. They will probably bolster their case with the testimony of people who saw Simpson shortly after the murders and who noticed nothing that would suggest he had just knifed two people to death.
And they may pose a challenge to the jury: Since prosecutors cannot answer all the nagging questions about the brutal Brentwood murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, is it fair to send O.J. Simpson to prison for committing them?
The main event at trial is likely to be the physical evidence, blood and hair samples that prosecutors believe link Simpson to the crime scene. Without any reliable eyewitnesses--a number of people claim to have witnessed the murders, but authorities have yet to find anyone they believe--the prosecution case hinges largely on scientific test results.
Most critical to both sides is DNA analysis done on a number of blood samples. That analysis can produce extraordinarily definitive results, narrowing the possible sources for a sample to fewer than one in a million in some cases.
Sources say DNA testing of a bloody glove found on Simpson's property revealed a mixture of blood thought to have come from both victims--and possibly Simpson as well. Blood drops leading away from the scene of the crime have been genetically "matched" to Simpson's blood using RFLP analysis, an established and precise form of DNA testing.
Simpson's lawyers have suggested that the glove could have been planted, an assertion that prosecutors vehemently dispute. As for the drops at the crime scene, they are potentially a significant problem for Simpson's camp, but Simpson did have occasion to be at the condominium since it belonged to his ex-wife and he visited his children there frequently.
One problem with that, however, is Simpson's statement to the police. According to Detective Philip L. Vannatter, who spoke with Simpson the day after the murders, Simpson told police that he could not recall how he cut his hand and that he had last been to Nicole Simpson's house five to seven days before she was killed.
"We asked him: Were you injured or anything while you were over there?" Vannatter told the grand jury last summer. "Could you have been dropping any blood?"
"And he said, 'No,' " Vannatter recalled. "He wasn't injured and he couldn't have been dropping any blood."
While those blood drops thus pose potential problems for Simpson, a different set of challenges surround the discovery of a small bloody smear in his Ford Bronco.
According to sources, that smear has been tested by a state Department of Justice laboratory in Berkeley, which subjected it to PCR analysis. The results, sources say, suggest that the sample contains blood with genetic characteristics matching Goldman's.
Unlike the drops at the murder scene, there are fewer explanations for Goldman's blood being in the car: Simpson's lawyers have said he never met Goldman.
But PCR analysis is especially vulnerable to contamination. Mishandling of the samples could produce false results, as could deliberate tampering. Experts say a PCR test could be rendered useless by even such a slight oversight as a lab technician failing to change gloves or by opening a blood vial near a sample and having it contaminated by microscopic spray from that vial.
According to sources close to the defense team, that is precisely how Simpson's lawyers intend to challenge many of the DNA tests. They have enlisted the services of Dr. Edward Blake, one of the nation's foremost DNA experts, who is prepared to testify about problems with the handling of the samples.
"I agree with many substantial criticisms that will be offered by defense experts about the methods employed by the laboratories that performed DNA testing," Blake said in a declaration.
Not all the prosecution samples have been subjected to DNA tests, but the government lawyers hope to bolster their case with conventional test results as well. Hairs were recovered from a watch cap left near the bodies, for instance, and a single hair with characteristics resembling Simpson's was found on Goldman's body. Microscopic analysis of hair is not subject to the contamination problems that complicate PCR test results, but it also is less definitive.
"The traditional hair and serological analysis will help buttress the DNA part of the prosecution case," said Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor. "If the prosecution can persuade the jury that Simpson was capable of committing these acts and had a motive for them, that will shape how the jury considers the physical evidence. But if it cannot, the questions about that evidence will loom much larger."
To explain its theory of the June 12 murders, prosecutors hope to tell the jury about a history of alleged domestic abuse by O.J. Simpson. The government lawyers have amassed a long litany of abusiveness and fear, dating from the year he met Nicole Simpson until the days just before her death.
Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito is expected to rule today on how many of the domestic abuse allegations jurors will be allowed to hear. For prosecutors, that ruling could be the crux of their case. If allowed to tell jurors about the alleged abuse, prosecutors will be able to tell what they believe is the whole story of the June 12 killings.
"This murder," Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Gordon said in arguments last week, "took 17 years to commit."
According to sources, government lawyers are particularly eager for the jury to hear about four things: a 1985 incident in which Simpson smashed his wife's car window with a baseball bat, a 1989 altercation in which Simpson admittedly slapped and punched his wife, a 1993 emergency call in which Nicole Simpson pleaded for help while a man she identified as her ex-husband tried to break down a door to her home, and a contact that Nicole Simpson made with a Santa Monica battered women's shelter five days before her death in which she said O.J. Simpson was stalking her.
There are many other instances of what prosecutors portray as verbal abuse, financial manipulation and public humiliation by O.J. Simpson, but they are less likely to be admitted into evidence. Besides, sources said prosecutors believe those four alone would give jurors a vivid picture of O.J. Simpson's conduct and Nicole Simpson's fear. As for Goldman, prosecutors believe he happened upon the murder scene and was mistaken by Simpson for a suitor of Nicole Simpson's.
Simpson's lawyers say the allegations of abuse against their client are exaggerated and that they shed no light on the murders. In only one instance, the 1989 case, did Simpson actually strike his wife, the lawyers note. After that fight, Simpson wrote to his wife apologizing and pledging to void their prenuptial agreement if he ever hit her again.
Nicole Simpson never exercised that option, and never again publicly accused her husband of battery even during their divorce.
"Was this a perfect relationship? Probably not," one defense source said. "But does that mean he killed her? No way."
Domestic violence and scientific tests form the main pillars of the prosecution case, but a host of other questions could bear upon the outcome of the trial as well.
There is, for instance, the question of Simpson's alibi. He has said he was home sleeping when prosecutors believe the murders occurred--between 10 and 11 p.m. on June 12.
A limousine driver said no one answered Simpson's telephone when the driver arrived about 10:25 p.m. to take him to the airport. About 10:50 p.m., driver Allan Park said, a 6-foot, 200-pound black person strode through the dark, across Simpson's lawn and into the front door. Moments later, Simpson answered the phone, said he had been asleep and would be right down.
There is Kato Kaelin, who recalled hearing three loud thumps outside the guest house at the Simpson estate at about 10:40 p.m. When police went looking for the source of those thumps, a detective said he found the right-handed bloody glove there. Seeking to discredit that testimony, defense lawyers have accused the detective, Mark Fuhrman, of racism and are continuing to investigate his past, including allegations that he may have had a relationship with Nicole Simpson--an assertion that Fuhrman's lawyer denies along with the other charges raised against his client.
There are the passengers and crew of the American Airlines flight that Simpson took from Los Angeles to Chicago just hours after the murders. Defense lawyers say they are prepared to call witnesses from that flight to testify that nothing seemed amiss with the former football star.
And there are the vastly different interpretations of Simpson's conduct on the day he was supposed to surrender to police. Instead of turning himself in as scheduled, Simpson and his friend, Al Cowlings, took off. After a long, low-speed, nationally televised pursuit, the two went to Simpson's home, where he eventually did surrender. Afterward, authorities found nearly $10,000 and a passport in the car--evidence, they say, that he intended to flee. But defense attorneys say Simpson was distraught, possibly suicidal, that the money was meant for his children and that the passport was identification he had gathered to use in connection with his surrender.
With those and other issues at stake, the prosecution is expected to call at least 75 witnesses to the stand. Some will offer brief testimony, but others, especially some of the scientists, could be on the stand for prolonged periods. Defense attorneys may put on testimony from another 35 or 40, for a combined total that could push the trial into the summer.
Still, the case so often described as a complex one in fact turns on relatively few questions: Did Simpson have a motive to kill either his ex-wife or her friend? Do the test results conclusively put him at the scene, or have they been compromised by investigators? And can Simpson convincingly account for his whereabouts during the crucial hour on June 12?
"This is a classic 'whodidit' case," Shapiro said Monday. "Our position is and always has been that it was not O.J. Simpson."
Times staff writer Andrea Ford contributed to this story.
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