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THE O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL : Amid the Hoopla, Subtle Signs

The scene outside the courthouse Monday, relayed to the nation on television, had little relation to what was really going on in the O.J. Simpson trial.

Opening statements had been scheduled to begin and it brought out a news army bigger than anything seen at the Criminal Courts Building since . . . the preliminary hearing last summer.

They covered it with an intensity more suited to the 1992 riots or last year’s earthquake. In fact, I haven’t seen so many news helicopters in the air--six or seven--since the earthquake. They were waiting for “the jail shot"--the prized view of the van carrying Simpson to the courthouse.

On the ground, reporters earnestly sought the opinions of the men and women on the street. But most of the people they interviewed were jurors destined for cases other than Simpson and their main thought was getting out of the rain.

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Only KABC radio’s Ken and Barkley, broadcasting live from the front of the Criminal Courts Building, caught the spirit of the scene around them--Super Bowl Sunday or the opening of baseball season. They had Jaime Jarrin, normally the traffic reporter, sing the national anthem on the air. When he finished, a few spectators shouted, “Play ball!”

It was an exercise in journalistic aimlessness by people who are better equipped to cover war and natural disaster than the slow pace of a trial. “This building operates on an entirely different time--court time,” said Michael Harris of the Daily Journal, who has been covering the courthouse since the late ‘70s. “They (the press) have to slow down a bit.”

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The scene inside the courtroom was bad television, not what CNN had in mind all weekend when it plugged coverage of opening arguments at 10 a.m. CNN and the other television outlets were expecting dramatic speeches from both sides. Throughout the weekend, network analysts prepared us for the oratory.

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But on Monday, operating on court time, Judge Lance A. Ito and the lawyers spent the morning and most of the afternoon in a long dispute over what kind of evidence should be admitted.

Within the painstaking arguments, though, something important was going on. If you listened carefully, it was possible to detect the outlines of a daring Simpson defense.

The most audacious move involves Simpson’s physical condition.

The golfing ex-football player looks like a picture of California good health. But it appears that his lawyers may portray him not as the super athlete who sprinted through airport terminals for Hertz, but as a battered veteran of the college football and NFL wars whose permanent injuries would render him incapable of executing such a swift and brutal double murder.

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One hint of this was a motion by Simpson’s lawyers asking for permission for him to give a “brief introductory statement to the jury” before attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.'s opening remarks. This is highly unusual, as is the purpose of Simpson’s statement: “To demonstrate to the jurors physical scars, injuries and limitations.”

The second hint was the defense’s disclosure that it will call Simpson’s former trainer and two physicians as witnesses. Don’t be surprised if the docs know a lot about sports injuries.

Another daring move was the decision by Simpson’s lawyers to sign up one of America’s best-known authorities on spousal abuse, Dr. Leonore E. Walker of Denver, a psychologist and author of the book, “The Battered Woman.”

This amounted to the defense stealing a weapon from the prosecution’s hands. For the prosecutors charge that Simpson was a batterer who murdered his wife, Nicole, after 17 years of physical abuse. This violent history provides a motive, the prosecutors say.

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From her writings, Walker would appear to be a perfect prosecution witness. “The male abuser alone has the responsibility not to choose violence. No matter what the woman’s behavior, the man alone makes the choice to be abusive,” she wrote after the murders last year.

Within the last month, Walker visited Simpson in jail and is writing a report for the defense team.

Think of the possibilities of these two moves.

The docs could testify about Simpson’s bad physical condition. Walker, after analyzing the Simpson marriage, might conclude that O.J., not Nicole, was the abused spouse.

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A weakened and battered husband. The real victim.

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The prosecution fought hard to prevent Cochran from referring to these witnesses when he makes his opening statement because he had waited until the eleventh hour to disclose their names to the district attorney’s office. The resulting squabbles appeared on the surface to be a series of unfocused battles.

A friend who is a legal scholar noted that this is typical of a trial. Trials, he said, are a series of small skirmishes. It is hard to determine their importance at the time but, added together, these tiny details often decide the result.

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Monday, the scene in the courtroom was bad for television, but when the Simpson trial is over, the lawyers may record the day as an important one.


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