Key Simpson Witness Admits Contradictions

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Rosa Lopez, the Salvadoran housekeeper whose testimony has occupied the murder trial of O.J. Simpson for nearly a week, admitted under cross-examination Thursday that she has given contradictory statements and that her recollections of some times, dates, conversations and other events are cloudy.

Lopez--who mostly remained calm on the stand but who fidgeted at times, twitching one leg and glancing around the courtroom under a persistent cross-examination by Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden--also acknowledged that she is not sure at exactly what time she saw Simpson's car outside his house, only that she saw it sometime shortly after 10 p.m. on June 12.

In fact, Lopez's recollections of times and dates were often fuzzy: About 50 times Thursday, she answered Darden's questions with the words "no me recuerdo, senor," Spanish for "I don't remember, sir."

Prosecutors pounced with particular vigor on one of the conversations that Lopez had difficulty remembering. Near the end of the court day, Darden cited a former employer of Lopez and asked whether the housekeeper told her in August that "O.J. Simpson is a great guy, and I'll testify to anything, any time."

"I don't remember," she answered.

"You're not denying having made that statement then?" Darden continued, his voice rising slightly and his tone suggesting his disbelief.

"It's that I don't remember if I said that or not," she answered.

"So you could have said that?" he asked.

"I don't know, sir," she said.

That testimony and other challenges to Lopez's credibility create a quandary for defense lawyers: The jury has not been present to hear her account this week, but Simpson lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. told jurors in his opening statement that she would take the stand. If she does--or if the defense seeks to introduce the videotape of this week's testimony--jurors will hear the questions about her truthfulness and memory. But if she does not, it may raise doubts in the minds of the jury as to why such a potentially significant witness was not called--an omission that prosecutors would surely mention in their closing argument.

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Lopez is important because she is the only person to have come forward with testimony that bolsters the defendant's alibi. Prosecutors believe that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were killed about 10:15 p.m. and that Simpson drove his Ford Bronco to and from the scene of the crime. Lawyers for Simpson, who has pleaded not guilty, have countered that their client was at home chipping golf balls or possibly napping at that time.

That makes Lopez's observations on the night of murders important, particularly her statement that she saw Simpson's car parked outside his house at 10:15 p.m. or 10:20 p.m. If true, that would back the defense contention that Simpson was home at that crucial time. On Thursday, however, she was less precise.

"All I said was that it was after 10," she said.

"So you don't know how long after 10?" Darden asked.

"No, sir," she responded.

Darden began his long-awaited cross-examination with an aggressive attack on her credibility, but his approach alternated throughout the day, veering from pointed lines of questioning to gentle prodding. As the day progressed, he and Lopez sparred, usually without rancor but occasionally in more spirited exchanges.

At one point, for instance, Darden asked her not to disclose an address listed on a piece of paper that he handed her. She read it silently, but then Darden mentioned the address in a question to her, prompting Lopez to scold him.

"See, you mention all over the world," she said, speaking in English. "You're so bad."

A chastened Darden slapped himself on the hand.

Later, when Darden asked her to provide the court with her true name, Lopez balked.

"Why do you want my correct name?" she asked.

"This is a court of law," Darden said, speaking slowly and looking directly at her. "And I'm a lawyer, and I'm asking the questions."

Newspapers in El Salvador have reported that Lopez has used a number of different names, but she explained in court Thursday that the names were drawn from different sides of her family. That is not uncommon in Latin American countries, however, and many immigrants also find that their names are jumbled by officials when they enter the United States.

Although it covered an array of topics, Darden's questioning was focused largely on ferreting out statements by Lopez that might cast doubt on her truthfulness and on possible incentives to lie. He elicited Lopez's acknowledgment that she liked Simpson, and that she disliked his ex-wife because Nicole Simpson once allegedly slapped her housekeeper.

Cochran and F. Lee Bailey, another of Simpson's lawyers, told reporters outside court that they did not consider any of the contradictions in Lopez's testimony to be significant. Many of the discrepancies, they said, were attributable to language difficulties.

"I think she is believable and credible on all the important issues on this," Cochran said.

Prosecutors vehemently disagreed and spent all day attempting to dismantle Lopez's testimony. Initially, Darden questioned Lopez about testimony she gave last week in which she appeared to deny having filled out unemployment insurance forms.

"I was given the applications, but I haven't filled them out," Lopez said during her initial appearance on the stand Friday, adding that she understood she was not eligible for insurance because she was planning to leave the country. "Because I want to leave, that is why I have not taken them in, sir."

On Thursday, however, Darden confronted her with a completed unemployment insurance form and asked her about the apparent discrepancy.

"When you told us last Friday that you hadn't filled out your unemployment forms, that wasn't true, was it?" Darden asked over objections by Cochran. "That was a lie, correct?"

Lopez said it was not, blaming the misunderstanding on the fact that she had more than one set of forms and that she had completed some forms but not others. As Darden pressed on, Lopez appeared to become confused and eventually admitted that she had in fact filed for unemployment.

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The attack on her unemployment records was followed by a reprise of a cross-examination that Darden effectively used last week to raise questions about whether Lopez really intended to flee to El Salvador. In that session, Darden confronted Lopez with evidence that she had not booked a flight for El Salvador, as she had testified.

Eager to have her repeat that testimony in this session--which is being recorded in case the Simpson attorneys decide they want to present Lopez's testimony but cannot coax her into the country to take the stand in person--Darden returned to the subject of the phantom plane reservations Thursday. As she did last week, Lopez acknowledged that her initial testimony about making those reservations was false.

After those early points, Darden's questioning drifted to a variety of topics, probing, for example, the conversations that Lopez had with Simpson's lawyers and investigators. At one point, Lopez agreed with Darden that one of Simpson's investigators, Bill Pavelic, had suggested slightly different times for some of her observations on the night of the killings,but she denied that he had planted those ideas with her.

A transcript of Pavelic's July 29 interview with Lopez--a copy of which was obtained by The Times--does suggest that Lopez followed the private investigator through a number of leading questions, including some on the topic of what time Lopez saw Simpson's car. At one point, Lopez told Pavelic that she took her employer's dog for a walk at about 10:15 p.m., and Pavelic responded by suggesting that it could have been 10:30 p.m. Lopez agreed with his suggestion.

Darden asked Lopez repeatedly about being coached, and suggested that Simpson's lawyers were attempting to direct her testimony in court Thursday. On one occasion, Cochran gestured as Lopez was speaking, but he angrily denounced a television report suggesting that he was attempting to signal to the witness.

In fact, Cochran said he was trying to get the attention of the court reporter. The reporter supported that claim when Cochran asked her about it in court.

As Darden questioned Lopez over several hours, Cochran objected repeatedly, sometimes stating the reason for his objection in open court. That too angered Darden, who accused his counterpart of using his objections to send signals to Lopez about how she should answer.

Throughout the day, Darden's cross-examination drifted to tangential issues that may undermine her credibility. Under questioning from Cochran, for instance, she had insisted that she had only been visited once by police; according to her, Detective Mark Fuhrman came to her employer's door on the morning after the murders and questioned her briefly.

Lopez testified that Fuhrman told her that another officer would return to question her further, but she said no officer had ever followed up. On Thursday, however, Darden showed her a photograph of Detective Otis Marlow, a recently retired LAPD veteran who the prosecutor said had interviewed Lopez on June 28, the day that police served a search warrant at Simpson's home.

Darden said that Marlow had asked the housekeeper about her observations on the night of the murders but that she had said she neither saw nor heard anything of significance. Lopez denied ever speaking to the detective, but prosecutors are preparing to call him to counter her testimony. Marlow was waiting at the courthouse Thursday in case he was needed.

According to law enforcement sources, Marlow met Lopez by chance on June 28 when the detective came to the home of her employers to question the couple. During that session, Marlow asked Lopez a few general questions about the night of the killings, and sources said she volunteered a few details. Marlow did not ask her about Simpson's white Bronco, nor did she mention it, the sources said.

Marlow did not file a written report on the conversation, the sources said.

In fact, they added, the veteran robbery-homicide detective forgot their meeting until he saw Lopez's photograph during televised news reports on Cochran's opening statement. Although he could no longer recall her name, the sources said, he contacted the investigating officers and told them what he remembered concerning the meeting with Lopez.

Marlow has since retired from the LAPD, and currently works as an investigator for Los Angeles County's alternate public defender.

Marlow was just one of several potential witnesses that Darden signaled are waiting in the wings to rebut Lopez's testimony. Among others, Darden mentioned a friend of hers who may say that Lopez told her the two of them could get money if they testified to seeing Simpson's car parked outside his house on the night of the killings.

When first asked whether she had told a friend that they could be paid $5,000 each for their testimony, Lopez said she could not remember. Pressed further, however, she acknowledged that it would be difficult to forget such a conversation, and then said she was sure she had never said any such thing.

Darden also questioned Lopez's insistence that she had never spoken to any reporters from various tabloid publications, including the National Enquirer. Time and again, Lopez denied ever speaking with the paper or ever trying to sell her story.

But David Perel, general editor of the Enquirer, disputed some of Lopez's account, saying that she did speak with reporters from the paper--first on June 13 and later in more far-ranging interviews--but adding that she never asked for money, nor was she offered any.

Lopez gave a different account to a reporter from Channel 7 who approached her that day, however. In a television clip played in court Thursday, Lopez tells the reporter that she heard either voices or noises--the exact word is difficult to discern because of her accented English--on the Simpson estate on the night of the murders.

Darden showed the clip to Lopez moments after she had testified that she had never talked to reporters about hearing voices. She said she had been trying to tell the reporter about noises, not voices.

Lopez is scheduled to return to the stand this morning, when cross-examination will continue.

Times staff writers Henry Weinstein, Tim Rutten and Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this story.

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