First Officer on Scene Testifies at Simpson Trial
The first officer to come upon the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman told jurors in the O.J. Simpson murder trial Thursday that the crime scene was secured and that more than a dozen officers were on hand by the time detectives arrived to investigate.
On cross-examination, however, Officer Robert Riske acknowledged that he had not received special training in how to protect a crime scene and conceded that some potentially intriguing details about Nicole Simpson’s property were not photographed on the night of the killings--a cup of partially melting ice cream, for instance, and lighted candles in the master bathroom.
Simpson attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. elicited those statements as he launched a vital aspect of the defense case by attempting to show that the investigation was bungled and evidence compromised.
While Riske spent the day on the witness stand, a potentially important defense witness, Mary Anne Gerchas, was arraigned on charges of grand theft and fraud. Her lawyer, William Graysen, suggested that the filing of charges was motivated by a desire to discredit Gerchas’ possible testimony. Cochran had maintained that she would say she had witnessed four men--none of them Simpson--leaving the scene of the crime around the time of the murders.
Meanwhile, the prosecution team was rejoined by Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman, sidelined last month suffering from what he called stress, exhaustion and “lack of eating.” Hodgman said he suffered lightheadedness and tightness in his chest, not chest pains, just before he was rushed to a hospital. Re-emerging to the applause of the press corps covering the Simpson trial, Hodgman said he would remain on the team as the case manager but would no longer appear in court.
“I’m basically doing fine,” Hodgman said. “I’m going to have a new role.”
In court, Riske spent the day on the witness stand. He was called by the prosecution in part to show that investigators, particularly Detective Mark Fuhrman, could not have absconded with a bloody glove and carried it to Simpson’s house without others noticing them.
Because the Simpson defense has suggested that possibility, Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark painstakingly questioned Riske about his observations that evening and about his efforts to keep evidence from being tainted.
“Did you touch any of the evidence?” Clark asked.
“No,” Riske responded. “I was trying to preserve the integrity of the crime scene.”
Riske said he and other officers had carefully avoided compromising the evidence. For instance, Riske said he sidestepped Nicole Simpson’s body on the way into her house, avoiding stepping in the large pool of blood around her and walking through bushes rather than using a walkway that was stained with bloody footprints.
Riske also said that yellow crime-scene tape was stretched around the murder scene soon after he and other officers arrived. That kept passersby from wandering into the scene of the crime and compromising evidence, Riske said.
But Cochran zeroed in on other aspects of Riske’s account, noting, for instance, that the officer called his supervisor on Nicole Simpson’s telephone without mentioning the call in a brief report about his actions that night. Using Nicole Simpson’s phone eliminated any possibility of redialing the number of the last person who had called her, Cochran said. In addition, Riske said he picked up the phone without gloves and without dusting it for fingerprints.
Although those admissions were embarrassing, their overall effect on the case is harder to discern. There has been no evidence presented suggesting that the killer entered Nicole Simpson’s house, though defense attorneys say the lack of any such evidence may be because officers never seriously explored the possibility.
The dramatic centerpiece of Riske’s testimony was his account of finding the bodies. Directed by a witness to the scene, Riske said he first saw the body of Nicole Simpson--an observation highlighted Thursday by the display in court of shocking photographs of her bloody corpse in the black cocktail dress she wore to dinner on the night she was killed.
Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito prevented that picture and equally graphic ones of Goldman from being shown on television. But when the photographs of Nicole Simpson were projected on a screen above the witness box, her mother got up and walked out of the room. Her father, Lou Brown, stayed a bit longer, his head bowed. But when a close-up of his murdered daughter--her blond hair seemingly soaked in blood-- was shown, he too marched out of the courtroom.
Neither of Nicole Simpson’s parents returned Thursday.
Goldman’s family stayed throughout, but his sister cried softly as photographs of his crumpled body were shown to the jury even as a picture of him smiling handsomely was tilted toward the audience.
Simpson mostly avoided looking at the photographs, which were displayed off and on throughout the day. At one point, he sat slack-jawed, breathing through his mouth while Clark grilled the officer about them. Simpson looked briefly at the photographs, but then quickly glanced away and wiped his hand across his face.
Riske, a patrol officer with less than five years experience, spent all day on the stand, his flat monotone contrasting with the grisly details he supplied about the crime scene. He was subjected to several hours of cross-examination by Cochran, an experienced trial lawyer who has a long history of suing the Police Department.
During one break with the jury out of the room, Ito turned to the officer to make small talk, and noted that Riske had spent a grueling full day of testifying. “Probably the longest day of your life,” Ito said. Riske chuckled appreciatively.
Under questioning by Clark, the officer told jurors that he had discovered no evidence of a struggle inside Nicole Simpson’s condominium and had found her two children asleep inside. He said he woke them up, asked them to get dressed and took them out the back door so that they would not see their mother’s body.
Most important, however, was Riske’s description of the evidence he saw--a bloody glove, a watch cap, footprints and a row of blood drops, the main elements of the prosecution’s case linking Simpson to the crime scene. Officers had noticed all of that evidence before Fuhrman or other detectives arrived, Riske said, testimony that could undercut the defense’s theory of a frame-up.
Fuhrman, who testified at the preliminary hearing that he found a bloody glove outside Simpson’s home, has become the central character in the defense’s attack on the police investigation. Simpson’s lawyers have accused him of being a racist and have suggested that he planted the glove.
Last summer, The Times first reported that Police Department officials had conducted an internal inquiry and concluded that it would have been all but impossible for Fuhrman to have taken a glove from the crime scene and planted it at Simpson’s house. Police sources said the department based the conclusion in part on the fact that many officers were on hand and had secured the scene by the time Fuhrman arrived.
But while those reports long had been in the press, Thursday’s appearance by Riske marked the first time that any witness has relayed the same information to the jury.
Clark used her questioning to head off other defense attacks on the investigation as well. Cochran said in his opening statement that he expects a couple to testify that they walked by Nicole Simpson’s house about 10:25 p.m. and did not notice any bodies or blood, testimony that could support the defense contention that the murders occurred after 10:30 p.m.
That would be important to Simpson’s cause because it would suggest that he did not have time to commit the crimes and still be home to meet a limousine just before 11 p.m.
But Clark asked Riske whether the light in the area was bright enough for him to notice either body without being directed by the witnesses who first saw Nicole Simpson.
“It was very dark,” Riske responded.
After defense objections, Clark continued: “How difficult was it for you to see the body?”
“We didn’t see it at all until we were directed by the witnesses,” Riske said.
Although most of Riske’s testimony was helpful to the prosecution, one answer appeared to take Clark by surprise. When she asked if he had been trained in securing crime scenes at the Police Academy, he responded that the subject only had been “glossed over” there.
That allowed Cochran to suggest that Riske’s training was haphazard, a theme Cochran amplified by eliciting Riske’s admissions that he also had never been trained in protecting DNA evidence. DNA test results form an important bulwark of the prosecution case. Blood drops discovered at the scene match Simpson’s, while blood found in his car and at his estate matches that of both victims, prosecutors contend.
“I thought Marcia Clark got hit right between the eyes,” said Michael Nasatir, a Los Angeles defense attorney. “Her question was a routine, ordinary question, ‘What was your training on securing a crime scene at the Police Academy?’ His reply that they sort of ‘glossed over’ it was devastating.”
As he questioned Riske, Cochran also attempted to suggest that evidence might have been moved despite the officer’s insistence that he and his colleagues took great care not to tamper with the items at the scene. To demonstrate that, Cochran produced photographs showing that a bloody glove and envelope were shot in two different positions.
But in a debate outside the presence of the jury, Clark said one set of pictures was taken before the bodies were removed and the second set was taken afterward. She accused Cochran of “deliberately trying to mislead and confuse this jury” by suggesting that the officers had tampered with the evidence.
After listening to that argument, Ito ruled that Cochran could not display the photographs, at least in questioning Riske.
Riske still was on the stand as the court day concluded, and is to return next week for further questioning by both sides. Legal analysts said both sides gained some ground with his testimony Thursday--prosecutors scoring points for establishing the care with which the investigation was handled and defense attorneys raising some questions about that care.
“I think Marcia delivered a very well-prepared, organized version of the events,” said Jill Lansing, a Los Angeles defense attorney. “It was a very professional presentation and, I suspect, the feeling it created spilled over onto the jury’s view of the event itself.”
But, she added: “At the the end of Johnnie’s presentation, you had a very different feeling about the officer and about how the crime scene was protected.”
No trial sessions are scheduled Friday or Monday, but Ito is preparing to take the jury on a field trip to the crime scene and to Simpson’s Brentwood mansion. The judge has not announced when that trip will take place, but has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect jurors’ anonymity. Even the airspace over Brentwood will be restricted during the tour.
As the court day ended Thursday, Ito cryptically told the jury, “I’ll see you when I see you.”
Times staff writers Tim Rutten and Nancy Hill-Holtzman contributed to this story.
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