Simpson Defense Plans to Offer Other Scenarios : Trial: Opening statement will present theories in effort to create reasonable doubt, undermine DNA evidence.
Lawyers for O.J. Simpson are preparing to offer jurors a menu of alternative theories purporting to explain the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, and may suggest that drugs or money, rather than domestic abuse, could have motivated the killings, defense sources said.
According to sources familiar with the defense strategy, Simpson’s lawyers will not point the finger at another suspect but will suggest that police focused so early and so intently on the former football star that they overlooked other plausible scenarios that would explain the killings.
That approach, which lead Simpson trial attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. said will be a cornerstone of his opening statement this week, takes advantage of a standard California jury instruction that Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito has agreed to use and that could work to the defense’s advantage.
It also works in conjunction with the main thrust of the defense strategy--undermining the prosecution’s scientific evidence. And it dovetails with the defense contention, unsupported thus far by any witnesses, that police could have manufactured evidence against Simpson in order to bolster their case against him.
Strategies were still developing at week’s end, but among the theories that defense attorneys may float:
* Nicole Simpson and Goldman might have been killed in a dispute over drugs--though the defense will not necessarily try to show that either of the victims was a drug user, sources say.
* The deaths may somehow be tied to the unsolved murder of a young Hollywood music promoter whose throat was slashed on June 30, 1993.
* The intended victim of the stabbing attack could have been Goldman, not Nicole Simpson. If so, the defense will argue that police have misdirected their efforts from the start.
Underlying each of those theories is a longstanding defense contention: that at least two assailants were responsible for the crime, accounting for several stray but disputed pieces of evidence. According to sources, investigators discovered a row of blood drops across Nicole Simpson’s back in a pattern that could imply that the body, which was found curled in a fetal position, had been moved--perhaps suggesting that the killer had an accomplice. They claim the blood was not tested, raising additional questions.
Also, a few footprints at the scene appear to some defense team members to be slightly different from the rest. Although the footprint evidence is said to be ambiguous, some defense team members believe that it could help their case, especially because police have not located the shoes that they believe Simpson wore.
Defense lawyers coyly decline to comment publicly on the specific theories they might air even as they confirm that they probably will allude to other interpretations of the crime. Simpson has pleaded not guilty.
“I would expect that you will hear about other possible theories,” Cochran said. “I don’t think we’ll try to solve this case, but we’ll point out that the police did not look at anything but this one possibility, that O.J. Simpson was the murderer.”
Prosecutors are braced for the defense to float alternative explanations of the crime. Sources inside the government camp say they are prepared to belittle the defense theories as absurd and to stress that physical evidence--especially DNA test results of blood from the crime scene, Simpson’s car and his home--all point to him as the culprit.
According to prosecutors, the reason the LAPD focused intently on Simpson from the start and the reason that he is being prosecuted for the crime has nothing to do with conspiracies or sloppiness--it is because the evidence points to him and no one else as the killer.
Speaking to prospective jurors in December, Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark specifically urged them to be wary of what she called “oddball theories.”
“Are you guys going to require me to prove that the Mafia didn’t do it, the Colombian cartel didn’t do it?” Clark asked the panelists. “Or can I just try the case before us now?”
Simpson’s lawyers, of course, are less quick to dismiss those scenarios as “oddball theories.” And their desire to allude to alternatives in court is partly motivated by a California jury instruction informing jurors that if they are confronted with circumstantial evidence that could reasonably point to two possible verdicts--guilty or not guilty--they must choose the latter.
However, the instruction adds: “If, on the other hand, one interpretation of such evidence appears to you to be reasonable and the other interpretation to be unreasonable, you must accept the reasonable interpretation and reject the unreasonable.”
In a conference with lawyers from each side Thursday, a source said, Ito said he would read that instruction to the jury before opening statements are delivered. Defense attorneys were elated by that decision and hope that the other theories of the crime will carry enough weight to persuade jurors that their only option is to acquit.
“The law is clear,” said one defense source. “If the prosecution theory is no better than another theory, the jury has to acquit O.J.”
Of all the theories floated by the defense, the notion that the murders were drug-related has been the most broadly hinted at. In court earlier this month, Simpson lawyer Gerald F. Uelmen fought the admission of domestic abuse evidence, partly by arguing that the June 12 killings look more like a drug murder than a domestic abuse killing.
“If we had to put a label on this case . . . the label we would put on it is that it bears all of the earmarks of a drug-related homicide in which the frequency of multiple victims, the use of knives, the use of stealth, is much more frequent than it is in the case of domestic violence,” Uelmen said.
There is no known physical evidence to support speculation that the murderer or murderers were involved in the drug trade. No drugs were found at the scene.
Several criminologists, including Paul Goldstein of the University of Illinois and Jeffrey Fagan of Rutgers University, said no definitive research has been done on what a “drug hit” looks like. “I’m not aware of any effort to look at the type of weapon” used in drug killings, Fagan said.
A former Drug Enforcement Administration agent said drug killings frequently involve torture, taped hands and mouths, and frequently the use of guns. “Bullets insure that dead men tell no tales,” said Thomas V. Cash, former regional director of the DEA in Florida and the Caribbean. None of those elements were present in the murders of Simpson and Goldman.
In addition to the problems that experts have with that theory, suggesting that Nicole Simpson might have been murdered in a drug killing is potentially dangerous ground for the defense, which does not want to be perceived as sullying the character of Simpson’s ex-wife. But a defense source said that lawyers might introduce the drug killing notion in a different way: by suggesting that Faye Resnick, author of a book about Nicole Simpson’s final months, was using drugs in her friend’s house in the period preceding the murders.
Resnick has admitted entering a drug rehabilitation facility just before the murders. Raising the specter of her drug use as a motive for the crimes could have the dual advantage to the defense of muddying the character of a Simpson critic while raising an alternative theory for the murders. According to defense sources, Simpson’s camp may suggest that the killer or killers could have come to Nicole Simpson’s condominium looking for Resnick, perhaps to collect a debt, and ended up in a confrontation with the murder victims.
Resnick could not be reached for comment. Her spokesman, Michael Viner, president of the firm that published her book, scoffed at the idea that Resnick’s conduct could have precipitated the killings.
“It’s patently absurd,” Viner said. “In terms of their aspersions on Faye Resnick, they (the defense) haven’t been caught in the truth yet. . . . Faye’s cocaine problems were of short duration. She was never a heavy drug user even when she was using.”
Some legal experts are also skeptical.
“I find it hard to believe that someone killing for a particular purpose--like an unpaid drug debt--would stab someone many times because the end there is to kill the person, not to make them suffer, whereas in domestic disputes the suffering is a very large part of it,” said Miami criminal defense lawyer Roy Black, who successfully defended William Kennedy Smith on rape charges.
“I represented a guy once who killed his girlfriend,” Black recalled. “He stabbed her 57 times with a butcher knife in the middle of the street. I thought that was the classic jealous rage homicide.”
To successfully persuade jurors that the murders might have been a drug killing, Simpson’s lawyers will need to go beyond vaguely suggesting that idea, legal experts said.
“You can’t just say it looks like a drug murder,” said Los Angeles defense lawyer Leslie Abramson. “You have to show a reason drug killers would be there . . . Maybe they have evidence that Faye Resnick ran afoul of bad people and they were looking for her. That’s something. Is there more? If they try to go down that road they must have something more. Johnnie Cochran is not stupid.”
A number of similarities to an unsolved 1993 knife murder in Hollywood offer the defense team another opportunity to float theories and raise doubts. On June 30, 1993, an underground music promoter named Brett Cantor was found dead in his Hollywood home, his throat slashed and his body punctured with knife wounds.
Cantor promoted music at a nightclub that Nicole Simpson frequented and where Goldman had worked part time, according to sources close to that case.
Investigators working for Simpson happened upon the Cantor case in their research, and defense lawyers were given a copy of the LAPD “murder book” laying out the status of that investigation. Could the same person have murdered Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman? Again, there is no hard evidence to suggest a link, but merely raising the idea could provide jurors with an alternative theory of the murders.
Miami defense lawyer Neal R. Sonnett, a former president of the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that if the defense can present a credible theory it might work because “juries like to play detective.”
“They’re always interested in hearing some evidence,” he added, “that might give them another place to look and reinforce reasonable doubt.”
To encourage that, defense lawyers must provide jurors with a reason to question the prosecution version of the case, and a central premise of their explanation is that Nicole Simpson was the intended victim. Prosecutors believe that Simpson killed his ex-wife as the final act in an abusive relationship that dated back 17 years.
Under their theory, Goldman was killed because he came upon the murder scene to return a pair of glasses belonging to Nicole Simpson’s mother--a happenstance that authorities believe caused Simpson to mistake Goldman for a suitor of his ex-wife and that led to Goldman’s death.
By assuming that Nicole Simpson was the primary target, police focused on people who might have had a motive to kill her, defense sources say. But, they add, different suspects might have emerged if the authorities had approached the crime as an attack on Goldman that Nicole Simpson inadvertently witnessed.
Rather than focusing on O.J. Simpson and his turbulent relationship with his ex-wife, investigators might have aggressively sought out potential enemies of Goldman, defense sources say. And that in turn might have produced a different list of suspects.
Like the other theories, that one suffers from a lack of evidence. But it could raise doubts and provide jurors with at least a plausible alternative to the prosecution theory.
That would be especially true if defense lawyers can poke holes in the prosecution case. They already have signaled their plans for doing that, and they have marshaled a formidable array of experts to back them up.
According to sources, possible defense witnesses include renowned criminalists Henry Lee and Michael Baden and DNA expert Edward Blake. Another DNA expert, Kary Mullis, and domestic violence specialist Lenore Walker also may be asked to testify for the defense.
Backed by them, the Simpson team will challenge the specifics of the prosecution evidence and the theory that the government lawyers have built around it.
In particular, they will challenge the notion that the murders were an act of domestic violence--a theory that points inexorably to Simpson as the culprit. Previewing that attack this month was Simpson lawyer F. Lee Bailey, who questioned a prosecution witness by pointing out that the former football star does not show some signs of being a classic batterer. Many of Bailey’s questions were based on a checklist developed by Walker.
And as they have done since the case began last summer, defense attorneys will challenge the collection and handling of evidence--an attack that they hope will knock out the underpinnings of the prosecution’s scientific case, particularly its DNA evidence. Experienced defense lawyers say Simpson’s team may score points there.
“How could the LAPD have possibly used trainees to collect the evidence in this case?” Abramson asked. “The bottom line is the evidence is only as good as it is pure and the experiments only as good as they are performed. It’s the garbage-in, garbage-out theory.”
Prosecutors have had plenty of time to steel themselves for that argument as well. They have amassed dozens of samples of physical evidence and performed an array of tests on the blood samples collected from the crime scene, as well as from Simpson’s home and car. By subjecting the samples to various types of tests, prosecutors hope to show that their case does not rest on any single test or type of test.
Instead, they will argue that all the results point to one conclusion: that O.J. Simpson killed his ex-wife and her friend in a bloody and vicious assault.
If jurors agree and conclude that the defense theories are little more than shreds of speculation stitched together for obvious strategic advantage, O.J. Simpson will likely spend the rest of his life in prison. But if the defense undermines the prosecution theory and presents at least one equally plausible alternative, America’s most famous murder defendant could be home by the Fourth of July.
* THE SPIN: Key issue is whether spousal abuse is prelude to murder. B1