Key Simpson Defense Witness Contradicts Self

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A potentially key defense witness struggled on the stand Friday, contradicting herself again and again--raising doubts about her credibility and creating problems for defense attorneys who need her to bolster O.J. Simpson's alibi on the night of the murders he is accused of committing.

The witness, housekeeper Rosa Lopez, did succeed in convincing Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito that she was ready to flee the country for her native El Salvador and she nearly forced the trial into an unusual late-night session. Ito brought the jurors, who had not been present for Lopez's testimony, to the courthouse Friday evening, but canceled the session after Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark, a single mother with two young children, complained that she could not attend.

That left Ito with the problem that Lopez might leave before court could be reconvened. But he headed that off by extracting a tearful promise from her that she would stay in the country at least until Monday.

"I will do it for you, Your Honor," she said.

When trial resumes Monday, Lopez will testify out of order, forcing an interruption in the prosecution's case and raising risks for both sides as they prepare to question a crucial witness with little preparation.

The Lopez testimony occupied the entire court day Friday, but behind the scenes, defense attorneys were faced with another possible setback: Sources said Ito tentatively has decided to remove another juror from the panel--a 46-year-old African American man who sported a San Francisco 49ers cap during the recent jury field trip to Brentwood. Sources said the man, about whom prosecutors have long expressed reservations, failed to disclose a past incident of domestic abuse on his extensive jury questionnaire.

Those sources denied that he had made a bet on the outcome of the case, as a recent television report alleged, but they said the man's ouster from the panel appears imminent if Ito follows through with a decision he has tentatively shared with the attorneys.

The shifting composition of the jury has been a source of much speculation and commentary, but Friday's events were dominated by the testimony of Lopez, who could prove key to the case.

Simpson has pleaded not guilty to the June 12 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman.

In attempting to spell out why Simpson could not have committed the crimes, attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. announced during his opening statement that a witness would take the stand to say she saw Simpson's car parked in front of his house about the time authorities say the murders were committed. Lopez is the person who Cochran has said could supply that testimony.

Although the jury was not present for Lopez's testimony, her obvious missteps threatened to undermine one prong of the defense and offered prosecutors a wealth of material with which to challenge her credibility.

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Dressed in a purple sweat suit and testifying after a short night's sleep, Lopez contradicted herself on several points. Among other things, she at first said she had made reservations to fly to El Salvador today, then admitted she had not. She also initially alleged that she feared for her safety if she did not immediately leave the country, but then she was confronted with evidence that she had booked a round-trip ticket to El Salvador just three days ago--suggesting that she intended to return to the United States.

Under questioning from Cochran, Lopez said she was planning to leave for El Salvador today to flee news reporters who she said have hounded her since her name first became linked to the Simpson case. Breaking down in tears at one point, Lopez, who testified through an interpreter, said her daughter told her she was no longer welcome at her house.

"She told me that if I came to testify, she didn't want me in her home," Lopez said.

"Did that make you sad?" Cochran asked, as Lopez dabbed at her eyes with tissue.

"Very," she replied.

Lopez's testimony struck a nerve with some television viewers. The court received job offers, as well as offers of food, cars and other gifts for the former housekeeper, who said she gave up her job because of the pressure on her. Carl Jones, Lopez's lawyer, said his office was similarly deluged.

But prosecutors focused on her testimony, not her plight. And in the process, they found a number of inconsistencies that raised questions about whether she was telling the truth.

Lopez said, for instance, that she had packed her bags and was ready to catch a plane for El Salvador. She added that she already had made plane reservations for the trip, saying she planned to leave tonight.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden, who led the prosecution's questioning of Lopez, announced during his cross-examination that prosecutors had uncovered evidence casting doubt on that sworn testimony.

"Miss Lopez, we just called the airline," Darden said after consulting with his colleague, Deputy Dist. Atty. Cheri A. Lewis. "They don't show a reservation for you. Can you explain to the court why you just told the court that you have a reservation?"

"Because I am going to reserve it, sir," Lopez answered. "As soon as I leave here, I will buy my ticket, and I will leave."

Darden jumped on that inconsistency, however, referring to her testimony that she had made a reservation as a lie. He and Lopez traded sharp remarks as he pressed her on that point, eventually eliciting her admission that she had not been truthful in her first account about the reservations.

As the day continued and Darden kept up the pressure on Lopez, other inconsistencies emerged: At first Lopez said her niece had paid for a plane ticket so she could appear in court Friday; then she acknowledged that Cochran had paid for the ticket.

Even more damagingly, Lopez said in a Feb. 17 declaration that she feared for her safety and intended to leave the country imminently and not return. In fact, however, a travel agent took the stand Friday and said Lopez made round-trip plane reservations Feb. 21 for a journey to El Salvador.

Lopez also first said she was planning to leave California for another state immediately after she finished testifying Friday; then she said she planned to fly from Los Angeles to El Salvador tonight.

"How are you going to leave from LAX (Saturday) night if you are going to be in another state?" Darden asked.

Lopez said she planned to leave Los Angeles after testifying and then return today to travel to El Salvador. Later, Cochran allowed her to elaborate on that answer by asking whether she had any place to spend the night in Los Angeles.

"Because of this case, you have no place to stay, is that correct?" Cochran asked.

"Yes," she responded.

Despite Cochran's attempts to bolster Lopez's credibility, the day was a rough one for the defense, forcing Simpson's lawyers to weigh how best to proceed with a witness who will certainly come under withering cross-examination when she takes the stand Monday.

Ito was struck by the contradictions in Lopez's testimony, commenting at one point to Darden: "It is a contradictory record. You're right about that."

Prosecutors took aim at the contradictions and urged Ito not to grant the request for a special examination of Lopez--which could have been recorded on videotape for use in the event that she fled rather than responding to a subpoena. Darden argued that Lopez had not told the truth in the past and therefore should not be trusted when she said she was prepared to leave for El Salvador.

"She promised to tell the truth," Darden said. "And she did the exact opposite."

Because of that, Darden urged Ito to reject the request for a special examination of Lopez, either on videotape or in front of the jury in the middle of the prosecution case.

But Ito said he feared that if he denied the request to question Lopez now and she disappeared, he might deprive Simpson of an essential witness and a fair trial. The safe course, Ito said, was to allow the special questioning. With that, he summoned the jury from its hotel.

Ito told the lawyers that he was prepared to go until midnight, if necessary, to take Lopez's testimony. But, with the jury already en route, Clark said she could not stay that late, and Ito said he would not force her to abdicate her child-care responsibilities for the sake of the hearing.

That left Ito with two choices: Either getting Lopez to promise that she would stay in the country until she could be questioned or putting her in jail to ensure that she would be available.

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At her lawyer's urging, Ito agreed to allow Lopez to address him directly. At first, she burst into tears and said she only wanted to leave for El Salvador as soon as possible. "I wish in my heart that I could go tomorrow to my country," she sobbed.

But then, after Ito urged her to promise him that she would not flee over the weekend, she agreed--with one caveat: "I don't want any reporters at the hotel where Johnnie takes me to," she said, referring to Cochran by his first name, as she had throughout her testimony.

"I'll do my best," Ito replied, drawing a few laughs from the courtroom, where bleary-eyed reporters and other observers had braced for a long night.

Lopez's promise not to flee the country over the weekend ended the need to hold a late-night court session, but by then the panel already had assembled at the courthouse. After consulting with the lawyers, Ito decided to briefly explain to them that they would not be needed after all.

The jurors, normally a nattily dressed group, showed up in casual clothes, looking slightly bewildered at being summoned for trial just as the dinner hour approached. But they broke into smiles as Ito vaguely explained the situation.

"Sorry for embarrassing you," Ito said, as he scanned the panelists' attire. "I appreciate your good humor with all of this."

Although the defense won the right to question Lopez in front of the jury and in the midst of the prosecution case, Nevertheless, legal experts questioned the value of Lopez's testimony, how valuable her testimony will be when she takes the stand, given the success that prosecutors had in undermining her credibility Friday.

"It is not a good omen of things to come for the defense," said defense lawyer Gigi Gordon. "This isn't the kind of witness I would want to hang my case on."

Experts said Darden's success at catching Lopez in a misstatement about whether she had plane reservations was the most devastating setback for the defense.

"It was amazing," said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson. "It's rare that you catch a witness red-handed in a baldfaced lie."

Levenson added: "This is one of the big dangers of what Johnnie Cochran did in his opening statement. People said he over-promised, and it may be coming home to roost. Rosa Lopez has been neutralized. "

The troubles with Lopez were only the most obvious problem for the Simpson defense team Friday. Behind the scenes, sources said, the defense may be about to lose a juror who had sent a number of signals suggesting that he might be supportive of the defendant.

That juror has a brother who works for the San Francisco 49ers, the last team Simpson played for. The juror wore a 49ers cap during the recent tour of the crime scene, and he lingered over photographs of Simpson while inside the former football star's Brentwood home--despite Ito's order that jurors ignore the pictures.

Prosecutors took note of the man's conduct, but that was not what has led to Ito's tentative decision to drop him, sources said.

According to the sources, the juror had a conversation with a colleague that could be interpreted as predicting the outcome of the case. But the more definitive basis for the challenge to his remaining on the panel, sources said, is that he failed to disclose a past experience with domestic violence on his extensive jury questionnaire.

The sources added, however, that a televised report stating that the man had placed a bet on the case's outcome was incorrect. If the juror is replaced, he would be the fourth ousted since 24 panelists and alternates were sworn in to hear the case.

The others have been excused for a variety of reasons and sometimes despite the efforts of defense lawyers to keep them on the panel.

The potential loss of this juror would be an especially difficult blow for the defense, which was pleased that prosecutors did not initially object to the man's inclusion on the jury panel. But defense lawyers and the team's jury consultant say they are equally confident in the 12 alternates picked to fill in for jurors who are excused.

Times staff writers Henry Weinstein and Tim Rutten contributed to this article.

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