A Salvadoran housekeeper who has emerged as a central witness on behalf of murder defendant O.J. Simpson testified Monday that she saw Simpson's car in front of his house about the time prosecutors believe he was two miles away killing his ex-wife and her friend.
Rosa Lopez said she took her employer's dog for a walk shortly after 10 p.m. on June 12, the night that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were knifed to death in Brentwood. Simpson has pleaded not guilty to the crimes, which prosecutors believe were committed about 10:15 p.m.
Testifying without the jury present but with a videotape recorder capturing the event, Lopez described what she said she saw outside Simpson's Rockingham Avenue home on that cool June evening. Lopez said she glanced at a clock in her room and saw that it was 10 p.m. before she put on some water for tea, grabbed the dog's leash and headed outside. Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Simpson's lead trial attorney, asked what she saw outside.
"Were you able to see any cars parked out there?" he asked.
"Yes," Lopez responded.
"What cars were you able to see, if any?" Cochran continued.
"The Bronco," Lopez answered.
Lopez's testimony is potentially of huge significance to Simpson, because it bolsters his alibi on the night of the killings. Simpson's lawyers have said their client was home chipping golf balls in his front yard and possibly napping during the period that prosecutors allege the crimes were committed.
With so much possibly at stake in the Lopez testimony, the two sides have fought furiously over her appearance. They debated how and when she would take the stand, and before she was allowed to testify Monday, another disagreement erupted over whether prosecutors had been provided with statements of hers in the possession of the defense team.
At first, defense lawyers said they had only one statement, given in August. Then, after being pressed by prosecutors, they admitted there was an earlier statement, taken July 29 but never shared with government lawyers. Then, at the end of the court day, defense investigator Bill Pavelic said he had tape-recorded the July 29 session, despite assurances earlier in the day by defense attorneys that Lopez had never given a taped statement. No tape ever has been provided to the prosecution.
Those revelations stoked an already intense debate over evidence-sharing. Even before learning that there might be a tape of Lopez describing her observations, Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark asked that defense lawyers be severely sanctioned for what she said was an "effort to sandbag the prosecution, to blindside us."
The revelation of a tape recording or notes of the July 29 session only redoubled the prosecution's complaints.
Smiling in disbelief and staring intently at the judge, Clark stood off to one side as Pavelic acknowledged that he might have notes and a tape recording of his July 29 interview with Lopez. Clark did not get a chance to respond to that admission, but Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito promised her that there would be a chance to discuss that issue first thing today.
At a news conference after the court day ended, Clark said Pavelic's comments about the existence of the tape would strengthen the prosecution's request that the defense be punished for its behavior, an argument that the government lawyers plan to make in court today.
"That's going to make the request (for sanctions) even more strident," Clark said. "I think the judge will be even more upset."
Ito, who had been promised that all materials already had been shared with the prosecution, gruffly responded to the latest revelation.
"Tomorrow morning, I'm going to order you to come to court with those items," Ito said to Pavelic, a former Los Angeles Police Department detective who was brought into the Simpson case by attorney Robert L. Shapiro just two days after the murders and who has worked on it since.
"I shall do my best to get those items," Pavelic responded.
"No," Ito said. "Don't do your best. Have them here tomorrow."
"I shall have them here tomorrow," a chastened Pavelic answered.
Lopez, who struggled on the stand last week and was caught in several contradictions by prosecutors, appeared far more collected during her questioning Monday by Cochran. She smiled slightly as the questioning got under way, and was cooperative with Cochran as he politely elicited her account of her observations June 12.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden often objected during Lopez's testimony, and Ito often sustained the objections.
Simpson's lawyers have not produced anyone other than Lopez to bolster her account about spotting Simpson's car in the street that night, but if the jury believes her, it would strongly support Simpson's contention that he could not be the murderer.
But Lopez's credibility is certain to come under attack by prosecutors, who are expected to cross-examine her at length today. Before Monday's hearing began, Clark referred to Lopez as a liar, and during a session Friday, Darden aggressively ferreted out contradictions in Lopez's explanation regarding her alleged plans to leave the country.
By the time Friday's session had ended, even Ito, who rarely ventures opinions about witnesses, had noted that her testimony contained a number of contradictions.
Nevertheless, the judge had ruled that she would testify out of order, appearing before the jury this morning to tell her story so Simpson would not be denied her account in the event that she leaves for her native El Salvador and refuses to return if called to the stand during the defense case.
Ito arrived Monday expecting that the questioning would be conducted, but prosecutors lodged a last-minute objection, saying that calling her to the stand in the midst of their case would disrupt their presentation and deny them a fair trial. They filed a motion protesting the plan to have Lopez testify before the jury Monday, and they convinced Ito that he should employ the videotape technique instead.
Cochran was furious, asking Ito not to let himself be "snookered" by the prosecution. The lawyer accused Clark of saying Friday that she needed to care for her two young children that night--and thus could not be present for proposed evening testimony by Lopez--as a ruse to delay the housekeeper's appearance on the stand. An indignant Clark retorted that she was "offended as a woman, as a single parent, as a prosecutor and as an officer of the court."
Ito ruled in her favor, as he generally does when the defense and prosecution clash.
Defense attorneys fumed about Ito's change of mind, but some legal experts praised him.
"It's to his credit that he made a reasoned decision," said Gigi Gordon, a Santa Monica criminal defense lawyer, "rather than being worried about people criticizing him for changing his mind." As a result of that last-minute switch, Lopez's testimony was recorded on videotape--to be used only if she flees to El Salvador. Defense attorneys were concerned that if a special examination were not held and she failed to return, they would forever lose her testimony.
That account's most obvious benefit for Simpson is Lopez's alleged 10:15 p.m. sighting of the car on the evening of June 12. But other elements of her testimony also are potentially valuable to the defense.
She said Monday, for instance, that she had seen Simpson's car about 8 p.m. and again the following morning, and that it appeared to be parked in the same, slightly haphazard way both times. That suggested that it was not moved between those times, again bolstering Simpson's contention that he did not drive to the murder scene in that vehicle, as prosecutors allege.
Moreover, Lopez said she heard voices on Simpson's property sometime around midnight. By then, Simpson was en route to Chicago. Defense attorneys have alleged that Simpson may have been framed for the murders, and the presence of unidentified people on his estate after he left might strengthen that argument.
Testifying Monday, Lopez said she heard Simpson's dog barking and crying shortly before 1 a.m. on June 13. That was about the same time she recalled hearing the voices, which she said she could hear for "a long time" that night.
But Lopez has not always given precisely the same version of what she saw and heard that night, according to prosecutors. Clark said that in the July 29 statement prepared by Pavelic, for instance, there is no mention of Lopez seeing Simpson's car outside his house about 10:15 p.m., arguably the single most important element of her account for Simpson. That is the report not given to prosecutors until Monday.
The information about Lopez spotting the car at that key time first surfaces in a report taken several weeks later, Clark said. That was the only report provided to the government team, which has repeatedly and sometimes successfully argued that defense attorneys are violating the law by not sharing information with their counterparts.
Carl Douglas, one of Simpson's defense lawyers, acknowledged that the defense had failed to turn over the earlier statement but said that he too was surprised to discover the report and stressed that defense lawyers had brought it to the court's attention.
"This was not intentional," Douglas said. "It was not willful."
The July 29 report was taken just one week after Cochran and Douglas joined the defense team, and Douglas suggested that part of the reason for the lapse might have been a breakdown in communications among the lawyers.
The second report also is notable for a piece of information that it does not include, lawyers on both sides said. Lopez allegedly told the defense investigator that another housekeeper, whom she named only as Sylvia, could back up her version of events, but that housekeeper's name does not appear in the later report.
Douglas said it had been omitted because Sylvia was in the country illegally and Lopez wanted to protect her. But Clark accused the defense of deleting her name because she would not corroborate Lopez's version of events. As the court day ended Monday, Darden introduced a witness named Sylvia Guerra and asked Ito to order her to appear in court today.
Ito did. Darden also asked that Lopez be directed not to contact Guerra overnight. Ito declined to make that order, but he did remind Lopez before she left the stand that she was not allowed to discuss her testimony with anyone other than her lawyers.
While the attorneys wrangled over Lopez's testimony, defense attorneys continued to lay the groundwork for one of their main lines of assault on the prosecution case: the anticipated testimony of Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman, who could take the stand as early as this week.
Fuhrman was only assigned to the Simpson case briefly, but he testified during last summer's preliminary hearing that he found a bloody glove outside Simpson's estate. That glove is a potentially key piece of prosecution evidence: It matches one found at the murder scene, and DNA tests of blood on the glove suggest that the stains could have come from the two victims and the defendant.
In a motion filed Monday, Simpson's team sought access to LAPD records that might relate to Fuhrman. They want to know if Fuhrman made comments suggesting that he knew Nicole Simpson and if he ever possessed a swastika or other symbol that might suggest racism. They also want to see any Police Department files reflecting the LAPD's efforts to determine whether Fuhrman could have removed a bloody glove from the crime scene and taken it to Simpson's house.
Ito already has reviewed Fuhrman's Police Department records and ruled that nothing in them is relevant to the case. Before he did that, the LAPD had completed its interviews with police officers who were at the crime scene the night of the murders about whether Fuhrman could have planted evidence.
As The Times reported last fall, LAPD officials concluded that it would have been all but impossible for Fuhrman to have carried out such a deception.
The other allegations against Fuhrman--that he possessed fascist paraphernalia and that he boasted of a relationship with Nicole Simpson--long have been rumored and have been investigated by the defense and others. But so far, at least, no evidence has surfaced to support either allegation.
Robert Tourtelot, Fuhrman's lawyer, repeatedly has denied that his client is a racist and has said Fuhrman met Nicole Simpson only once, when the officer responded to a 1985 domestic-abuse call at Simpson's home.
The next time Fuhrman saw her, according to Tourtelot, was when he saw her body in the early morning of June 13, after he and other detectives were called to the murder scene.
Assuming she obeys Ito's order not to leave the country, Lopez will return to the witness stand today . Before court adjourned Monday, she told Ito that she had a ticket to fly to El Salvador this morning, but the judge ordered her not to leave, telling her that his clerk would coordinate the change in travel plans.
Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this article.