Weeks of flaring tempers and increasingly caustic courtroom exchanges in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson peaked Thursday with the judge citing Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden for contempt, then backing down after Darden grudgingly apologized.
“It appears that the court is correct, that perhaps my comments may have been or are somewhat inappropriate,” Darden said after a recess in which he consulted with other lawyers in the district attorney’s office and after Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito rejected a request to end the trial for the day. “I apologize to the court. I meant no disrespect.”
Ito accepted the apology and conceded that he too had overreacted. “I apologize to you for my reaction, as well,” Ito said. “You and I have known each other for a number of years and I know that your response was out of character and I’ll note it as such.”
The exchange highlighted an otherwise slow day in the trial--one delayed for several hours while Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark attended to a personal matter. Although Clark did not disclose the nature of that problem, Ito has previously said that he is concerned about the grueling pace of the trial and he announced Thursday that he is scaling back the court hours, beginning next week.
Once the proceedings were under way Thursday, defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. resumed his cross-examination of Los Angeles Police Detective Tom Lange, one of the lead investigators in the case. Like the exchanges between the lawyers, that examination was prickly--in contrast to the mostly even-tempered questioning over the past several days--particularly when Cochran tried to question the detective about comments attributed to one of Simpson’s children and to elicit information about Faye Resnick, the self-described best friend of murder victim Nicole Brown Simpson.
O.J. Simpson has pleaded not guilty to murdering Nicole Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman on June 12.
Prosecutors objected repeatedly as Cochran questioned Lange about a conversation between a police officer and 9-year-old Sydney Simpson in the early morning hours after the murders. Sydney Simpson allegedly told an officer that she had heard her mother arguing with someone on the night of the murders, but Clark objected to Cochran questioning Lange about that conversation since the detective was not present for it.
Her objections grew even more strident when Cochran began probing about Resnick. Defense lawyers have suggested that Resnick, an admitted drug user who checked into a rehabilitation facility shortly before the murders, might have been connected to the murders. They have alleged, for instance, that the killer or killers might have come to collect a drug debt from Resnick and run instead into Nicole Simpson and Goldman, touching off a fight that left the two victims dead.
Authorities scoff at that theory, noting that it does not account for DNA tests that show blood with Simpson’s genetic characteristics at the scene of the crime or blood with characteristics of the victims at his house and in his car. But defense lawyers attribute those test results to sloppy investigators or a police conspiracy, and they argue that authorities overlooked evidence that might have cleared Simpson in their rush to build a case against the former football star.
Attempting to bolster that contention Thursday, Cochran was in the middle of asking Lange whether Resnick had been living at Nicole Simpson’s condominium in the weeks before the murders. As he was speaking, however, the judge interrupted and called the lawyers to a conference at the sidebar.
Darden was obviously agitated and, according to a transcript of the sidebar conference, erupted when Cochran suggested that the prosecutors did not know how to try a case.
“Is he the only lawyer that knows how to try a case?” Darden asked, his voice rising as he gestured animatedly with his hands.
“I’m going to hold you in contempt,” Ito warned.
“I should be held in contempt,” Darden responded. “I have sat here and listened to . . .”
“Mr. Darden,” Ito interrupted again. “I’m warning you right now.”
“This cross-examination is out of order,” Darden fumed.
With that, Ito ended the conversation, stomped back to his seat and asked the jury to leave. Once the panel was gone, Ito spoke to Darden from across the bench.
“Mr. Darden, let me give you a piece of advice,” Ito said, his voice shaking slightly. “Take about three deep breaths, as I’m going to do, and then contemplate what you’re going to say next. You want to take a recess now for a moment?”
After a long pause, Darden responded: “I don’t require a recess, Your Honor.”
“I’ll hear your comment at this point,” Ito said. “I’ve cited you (for contempt of court). Do you have any response?”
“I would like counsel, Your Honor,” Darden responded.
Ito, who had hoped for a quick apology, was visibly taken aback by that answer, and bristled at Clark’s attempts to stand up for her colleague. Clark tried to explain that Darden had not meant to defy Ito’s ruling that he should stop speaking, but had simply been overcome by his anger at Cochran’s line of questioning.
Darden, an aggressive and respected veteran of the district attorney’s office, sat silently through Clark’s defense of his actions, never rising to offer an apology even when Ito made clear that he wanted one.
“When I invited counsel to take three deep breaths and think very carefully about what they’re going to say to the court next, that’s an opportunity to get up and say: ‘Gee, I’m sorry, I lost my head there. I apologize to the court. I apologize to counsel,’ ” Ito said. “When you get that response, then we move on. When you tell the court you want to have an order to show cause (for why the contempt proceeding should go forward), that’s a different response. That says you want to fight. You want to fight some more with the court, you’re welcome to do so.”
With that, Ito called a 10-minute recess, encouraging prosecutors to use the time to think hard about what they wanted to do next. When they returned, Darden at first still was unrepentant, despite the prodding of Gerry Spence, a defense attorney in the audience who gruffly urged Darden to apologize--a remark that drew a rebuke from Ito.
Clark asked for the hearings to be recessed for the day, but Ito refused, prodding her instead to apologize for Darden’s comments. She resisted, and eventually Ito called the attorneys to the sidebar again, where they conferred for several minutes, Darden shaking his head as the other lawyers lectured him. Clark occasionally laughed nervously.
After that meeting broke up, Darden and Ito traded apologies at last, although Darden added that he still wanted to take up some lingering concerns with the judge.
“I did have some concerns, concerns I would like to take up with the court when the court is available to hear my concerns,” Darden said. “I apologize.”
Without responding directly to that request, Ito accepted the apology and offered his own.
That cleared the way for the trial to resume--although the remaining questioning of Lange was anticlimactic compared to the fireworks that preceded it.
The courtroom theatrics left the participants stunned and slightly giddy. As he left court, Cochran, a longtime colleague and admirer of Darden, shook his head in amazement.
“You guys saw what happened,” he said as he got into his car. “It was an incredible day. I’m happy, and I’m going home.”
As dramatic as the confrontation between Darden and Ito was, however, it took place outside the presence of the jury. While the panel was in the room, the two showed no obvious signs of frustration with each other.
The only hint of the conflict that the jury heard was when a chart was knocked over later in the day and nearly struck the court reporter. “You folks are determined to make today exciting,” Ito quipped, drawing laughter from the audience.
In his testimony Thursday, Lange conceded that Nicole Simpson’s dog had not been examined until nearly two weeks after the killings, an admission that Cochran elicited as part of his overall contention that the investigation of the murders was sloppy and incomplete.
That theme emerged in other ways as well: Lange admitted, for instance, that there was no cut in the glove found at the crime scene that would correspond to one on Simpson’s finger. Prosecutors have long dismissed that argument, however, stating that they believe the glove was pulled off in a struggle between Goldman and Simpson and that Simpson was cut once the glove was off.
Ito also allowed Cochran to question Lange about a videotape that shows officers and other authorities milling around the crime scene while the bodies are being removed. Prosecutors had objected, saying the tape distorted the position of the officers because it was shot with a telephoto lens, but Ito said jurors could see three of four segments. On the tape, a police criminalist can be seen without gloves, raising further questions about the integrity of the crime scene.
Earlier, the detective acknowledged that he had never spoken to Simpson’s young daughter about the argument that she allegedly overheard on the night of the murders. Instead, Lange said, he asked members of Nicole Simpson’s family, specifically her sister Denise Brown, to question the girl about what she had heard.
Lange repeatedly tried to explain why he had approached the task that way, but Cochran upbraided him and insisted that the detective answer the questions posed to him, not offer other information. Clark will have the opportunity to elicit the detective’s explanation when it is again her turn to question him.
Ito has publicly expressed concern about the toll that the case may be taking on the health and nerves of the attorneys involved, and Thursday he unveiled a more relaxed court schedule that will prolong the Simpson trial but result in shorter workweeks for the attorneys.
Recently, one of the prosecution lawyers, Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman, was sidelined with a stress-related ailment. When he returned, Ito apologized to him and shouldered some of the blame for Hodgman’s illness.
Under the new schedule, the formal court day will end at 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday and will conclude at noon on Fridays.
While acknowledging that the case has been stressful, some legal experts questioned the wisdom of trimming back the court hours in a trial with a sequestered jury.
“I am distressed by the fact that the judge appears to be shortening the day because this will simply extend out the trial and work as an even greater imposition on the jurors,” said Southwestern University School of Law professor Myrna Raeder. “Unfortunately, lawyers in long complex cases have to deal with stress, but most people like longer court hours to ensure that the trial will be completed as expeditiously as possible.”
Outside the courtroom, meanwhile, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said he believes the Simpson jury will reach verdicts against the defendant but pledged to retry the case if the trial ends in a deadlock--regardless of the split or the cost to taxpayers.
“We’re talking about two brutal murders,” Garcetti told reporters at the Downtown Criminal Courthouse. “I believe the evidence is very, very strong, very compelling. I know it’s expensive. I don’t take that lightly. The taxpayers, my family, my friends, everyone has to pay. But we’re here to seek justice.”
In fact, authorities continue to investigate the June 12 murders even as they present their case in court. Thursday, lawyers for two possible witnesses, Simpson’s maid and his secretary, filed motions to quash subpoenas for their telephone records. A hearing has been set for March 3 on that issue.
Court resumes with half of today to be devoted entirely to a problematic defense witness. Defense attorneys have said that Rosa Lopez, a maid who lived next door to Simpson, can bolster their client’s alibi by testifying that she saw his car outside his house at about 10:15 p.m., when prosecutors say the murders were being committed.
Prosecutors say Lopez cannot be trusted, but defense attorneys want her testimony preserved in part because they fear that she may soon leave the country. She threatened to do so recently and gave lawyers the slip.
Today’s session will give the lawyers a chance to question her without the jury present and will allow Ito to decide how her testimony can be used.
Jurors will return on Monday, when Lange will be back on the witness stand for the fifth day. Cochran still is questioning the police detective, and Clark will have another chance to query him as well.
Once Lange is finished, Brian (Kato) Kaelin, who lived in Simpson’s guest house, is expected to take the stand.
Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this story.