Concluding her dramatic appearance on the witness stand in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, Nicole Brown Simpson’s sister said Monday that the defendant called his wife a “fat pig” when she was pregnant.
But Denise Brown--who publicly has proclaimed her belief that Simpson murdered her sister and who testified about two other incidents in which Simpson allegedly abused Nicole Simpson--acknowledged that she was suffering from a drinking problem at the time and could not remember exactly how much she had had to drink either night.
Tears streamed down her face as she described the incidents of alleged abuse and humiliation of her sister. Among other things, she said Simpson demeaned his wife when she was pregnant and behaved strangely at a dance recital hours before the murders--staring glassy-eyed and watching Nicole Simpson intently while the recital was under way.
As the two sides battled over competing descriptions of Simpson’s demeanor at the recital, defense attorneys introduced a videotape taken as the event was breaking up. Prosecutors and defense lawyers differed, however, on the tape’s significance.
Simpson is accused of killing Nicole Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. Prosecutors maintain that she was killed by her ex-husband as the final act in an abusive, controlling relationship and that Goldman was murdered because he happened upon the scene. Simpson has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers have accused prosecutors of belaboring the evidence of domestic violence as a way to assassinate Simpson’s character.
Brown’s testimony stretched over two days, and she struggled unsuccessfully throughout to contain her emotions, providing jurors a close look at the human toll of the murders. She also took the jury inside the Simpson marriage for the first time, and her appearance on the stand came amid testimony by other prosecution witnesses about alleged abusiveness, stalking and controlling behavior by the football great.
Their testimony ended, at least for now, the phase of the prosecution’s case devoted to exploring the relationship between O.J. and Nicole Simpson. Prosecutors are expected to move to the murder itself today, when witnesses will describe the final hours before the killings, and then present the physical evidence that authorities say implicates Simpson in the crimes.
A dozen witnesses have testified so far, but none have had the emotional impact of Brown, who cried uncontrollably Monday when describing her final farewell to her sister, murdered after an evening out with her family.
“We got up and left” a restaurant, Brown said Monday, her shaky composure dissolving. “Nicole was going to have some ice cream with the kids. We said goodby. The last thing I told her was that I loved her.”
Brown’s testimony Friday had ended on a particularly emotional note, with her crying as she described an incident in which she said Simpson threw her, her sister and a former boyfriend of Brown out of Simpson’s house. On Monday, she concluded her testimony about that incident and several other subjects, and then defense lawyers had their turn.
From the start, Brown has been a potentially inviting cross-examination target for the defense, since she denied soon after the murders that her sister had been the victim of domestic abuse. Bracing for the worst, prosecutors filed a motion early Monday asking Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito to limit defense cross-examination to relevant topics and not to permit a wide-ranging attack on her character.
But even without explicit limits from Ito, defense lawyers skirted the potential risks of challenging the murder victim’s sister. Instead, they chose a gentler approach, eliciting a few nuggets that could undermine aspects of Brown’s testimony without launching a full-scale assault on her credibility.
Broaching his cross-examination gingerly, Simpson attorney Robert L. Shapiro started by explaining to her that “I have to, as you know, ask you some questions.”
As he proceeded, Shapiro avoided confronting Brown with the earlier statements she made to reporters about the case, but he elicited admissions that she had suffered from alcoholism and had been impaired during two of the most volatile incidents she described for the jury.
Brown conceded that she had been “happy” as the result of her drinking and had been too drunk to drive after one of the incidents.
“If we use the terms sober , being one who had just consumed a minimum amount of alcohol but still would be able to drive, and drunk (at the other end of the spectrum), and intoxicated in-between, where would you put yourself on that scale?” Shapiro asked, referring to a time in which Simpson allegedly grabbed his wife’s crotch, telling others in a bar that it was “his.”
“Well,” Brown responded, “I would not have driven home.”
Brown also acknowledged that she and others had been drinking on another evening when, she said, Simpson erupted after she accused him of taking her sister for granted.
“And you have told us that you had some problems with alcohol in the past?” Shapiro asked.
“Yes,” Brown answered.
“And do you recall what your state of sobriety was that night?” Shapiro continued.
“I had had a few drinks,” she said.
After a few more questions, Shapiro asked whether Brown could feel the effects of the tequila she and the others, including Simpson, had drunk.
“Sure,” she replied. “We were all happy.”
Through his questions, Shapiro suggested that a future witness, Ed McCabe, may tell a different version of the events at the Simpson home that night. McCabe, a former boyfriend of Brown, was present during the alleged outburst by O.J. Simpson.
Although Shapiro did not say how McCabe would undercut that description, prosecutors suggested that his testimony--no matter what it is--should not be trusted. Under questioning from Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden, Brown said McCabe had handled advertising for Hertz, the car-rental company that for years featured Simpson in its ads, and that Simpson was the best man at McCabe’s wedding.
During her brief time on the stand Friday, Brown offered no details about Simpson’s appearance on the evening that he allegedly threw her out of the house. But when she resumed Monday, Darden elicited more details, including a graphic description of what she said was Simpson’s frightening behavior.
“At that time he got very upset, and he started screaming,” Brown testified Monday. “His whole facial structure changed, everything changed about him. It was a calm, quiet, normal conversation, like we were sitting here right now, and then all of a sudden it turned into--the eyes got very angry. His whole jaw . . . his whole face just changed completely when he got upset. It wasn’t as if it was O.J. anymore.”
Monday’s testimony by Brown included a few other comments that amplified her statements last week and added to the stock of alleged abuse, verbal and physical, by Simpson. She told the jury, for instance, that Simpson called his wife a “fat pig” when she was pregnant.
“Did your sister Nicole react in any way on those occasions when the defendant would call her a ‘fat pig’ or say that he hated fat women?” Darden asked.
“At one point,” Brown responded, “she didn’t care how much weight she gained, she just wanted him to leave her.”
Although much of her testimony concerned incidents that were years old, Darden’s questioning took Brown up to the day of the murders. She related that Simpson had a “very bizarre look in his eyes” when he attended the dance recital for his daughter in Brentwood. “It was a very faraway look,” she said.
Calling that look “frightening” and “spooky,” Brown also said Simpson stared at his ex-wife during the recital with an intensity that Brown found unsettling.
Shapiro challenged that description, producing a videotape of Simpson leaving the recital. On the tape, Simpson shakes hands with Brown’s father and exchanges kisses with her and with her mother. Simpson also grins broadly and appears to laugh at one point.
Although Darden characterized the smile as forced and did not object to the use of the tape by the defense, lead Simpson trial lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. said outside court that it undercut the credibility of the prosecution witnesses.
“Witnesses tend to see certain things in a certain way,” Cochran said. “The videotape does not lie.”
Although members of the audience could not hear it, Cochran said Simpson turned to him after the tape was played and said: “Thank God for video.”
On the video, Simpson also can be seen lifting his young son, Justin, and kissing him. Prosecutors suggested that would undermine the Simpson team’s contention that Simpson’s arthritis was flaring that day, making it impossible for him to carry out the murders. Shapiro countered, however, that Simpson appeared in the tape to be exclaiming in pain as he picked up Justin.
When she was shown the tape, however, Brown said Simpson’s demeanor outside the recital did not mirror the way he behaved while it was under way. Her testimony was bolstered by that of Candace Garvey, a friend of Nicole Simpson and an acquaintance of O.J. Simpson.
Garvey said she too was surprised by Simpson’s demeanor at the recital. According to her, the normally gregarious, charismatic former television pitchman was “a little vacant” and unresponsive when she and her husband, former Dodger star Steve Garvey, approached him before the event.
Garvey said she found it amazing that Simpson had been able to appear so different outside the recital when he had seemed so aloof just hours before.
“It was almost like he was simmering,” she said. “When he stared at me, I felt like he was looking right through me, and it scared me a little bit.”
The final witness of the day and of the initial phase of the prosecution case was Cynthia Shahian, another friend of Nicole Simpson, who saw her the week before the killings.
Brown, Shahian and Garvey wore gold pins similar to one that Nicole Simpson enjoyed, a signal of their loyalty to her. Other members of the Brown family and even Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark have occasionally sported the pins, a display that has angered Simpson’s attorneys.
“We’re very upset about it,” Cochran said. “But these jurors are smart.”
During her testimony, Shahian said she had come to Nicole Simpson’s condominium to go jogging and that while there her friend let her see a letter Simpson had written.
In it, Simpson wrote to his ex-wife, “On advice of legal counsel and because of the change in our circumstances, I am compelled to put you on written notice that you do not have my permission or authority to use my permanent residence at 360 North Rockingham” for any purpose.
Simpson’s lawyers called Shahian’s attention to the letter’s final paragraph, in which Simpson emphatically states that he will not allow himself to be dragged into any attempt to defraud the government of tax revenue. Noting that copies of the letter were sent to Simpson’s business lawyer and accountant, Cochran laid the groundwork for the defense contention that the letter was nothing more than a crisply worded reminder to Simpson’s former wife that she could not use his property to dodge taxes.
Prosecutors, however, hope to argue that it is evidence of Simpson’s efforts to control and manipulate her even after the end of their relationship.
Prosecutors have not completed their presentation of domestic violence evidence, but are interrupting the presentation partly because some witnesses are not immediately available and partly because Ito has forced a delay of some of the testimony while the defense investigates certain witnesses. Nevertheless, the first phase of the case won high marks from some legal experts, who said the government attorneys, particularly Darden, effectively presented evidence and testimony bolstering their contention that Simpson’s amiable public persona hid a more violent man.
“I think the prosecution is doing a good job at the early stages of building a case of family violence,” said Paul Mones, a Santa Monica defense lawyer who has handled many domestic violence cases. “But we will not know (the impact) until after the defense case and the prosecution rebuttal on this issue.”
In testimony that stretched over six days and 12 witnesses, prosecutors had few slip-ups and a number of substantive and emotional high points. They did encounter one setback Monday, however, as they projected a photograph of a bruised Nicole Simpson in court, only to concede that they did not know when the photo was taken or who took it.
After furious defense objections, Ito instructed the jurors that they were to ignore what they had just seen--a notoriously difficult proposition that Ito conceded was like trying to “unring a bell.”
As Ito admonished the jury to ignore the photograph, at least two jurors pulled out their note pads and jotted something down.
When the two sides return to court this morning, Clark is expected to take the reins, launching a phase of the case in which government attorneys will attempt to show how the crimes were committed. Among the first scheduled to testify are employees of Mezzaluna, the Brentwood restaurant where Goldman worked and where Nicole Simpson ate her last meal, Clark said.
After that, witnesses who heard Nicole Simpson’s dog barking in the neighborhood are to take the stand as prosecutors attempt to establish times of death. And once they are through, prosecutors may move to the heart of their physical evidence case, resting largely on blood, hair and fiber samples that they say connect Simpson to the scene of the crime.
Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this story.