Autopsy photos are the nuclear weapons in a district attorney’s emotional arsenal, and now the prosecutors in O.J. Simpson’s double murder trial want approval to fire theirs, asking Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito to let them place in evidence the grisly autopsy photographs of the naked victims’ lacerated, blood-drained bodies.
Defense lawyers are expected to vigorously oppose the move because, as former Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner noted, “the real reason they (prosecutors) want the photos in is obvious. They hope they will inflame the jury.”
The prosecutors’ motion, unsealed Wednesday, also reflects the prosecutors’ desire to discredit the defense contention that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were killed by more than one assailant.
Perhaps more significant, it underscores the prosecutors’ continuing anxiety over the adequacy of the initial autopsies performed by Deputy Los Angeles County Coroner Irwin Golden, who testified at the preliminary hearing that there could have been more than one weapon used.
“The autopsy photographs clearly depicting the stab wounds and other injuries, along with relevant crime scene photographs, will be particularly probative to establish that one person and one knife could have caused this carnage,” according to the prosecution motion prepared by Deputy Dist. Attys. Cheri A. Lewis and Brian R. Kelberg. “Extensive medical testimony” also will be introduced to buttress the single assailant theory, they added.
“This motion shows how imperative the prosecution feels it is that all the evidence demonstrate that the murders were committed by one person with one knife,” said defense lawyer Gerald L. Chaleff.
“Whenever autopsy photos are introduced, defense attorneys object because of their gruesome nature and, often, doubtful relevance,” Chaleff said. “Anybody who has seen autopsy pictures will tell you that they have a tremendous impact on any viewer. . . . I’ve done hundreds of murder cases and I still am affected by such photos.”
The prosecution motion stresses that the jurors were questioned extensively on their ability to view such photos without losing their ability to be fair. In support of their position, prosecutors cited a California appeals court decision that said “a juror is not some kind of dithering nincompoop brought in from never-never land and exposed to the harsh realities of life for the first time in the jury box.”
Indeed, during the past decade, the California Supreme Court “has gone a long way in paving the way for prosecutors to fully use autopsy photographs to depict the wounds,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling Norris, a veteran homicide prosecutor whose cases include the 1984 conviction of Bobby Joe Maxwell, the so-called Skid Row Stabber.
Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said she thought it was likely that Ito would admit at least some of the photographs, stressing that California trial judges are given broad discretion in these areas. She said that Ito could attempt to mitigate the potentially inflammatory effect of such photos by limiting how large they could be or how long jurors could look at them.
Some legal observers were a little surprised that the motion was filed at all because autopsy and crime scene photos are routinely admitted with the testimony of the coroner or the investigating police officer. “I have never seen the prosecution affirmatively file such a motion because they normally get the photos admitted so easily,” said Santa Monica defense lawyer Gigi Gordon.
“The prosecutors clearly want to get across to the jury, and the public, their version of how these murders were committed by another method than their heretofore ‘star witness'--Dr. Golden--testified to at the preliminary hearing,” Gordon said.
In fact, the motion asserts that the photographs will be especially helpful “where Dr. Golden’s initial report either fails to describe the wound or injury or does so in an incomplete way.”
According to the motion, Golden has repeatedly amended his original autopsy report after viewing the pictures prosecutors now want to enter in evidence.
Carl Douglas, one of Simpson’s lawyers, was highly critical of the prosecution motion and argued that it is intended to allow the district attorney to prevent Golden’s impeachment by the defense’s own expert witnesses. “The significant factor not contained in their motion,” Douglas said, “is that Dr. Golden reached his current level of enlightenment after discussing his original findings with defense witness Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Barbara Wolf. Those conversations are what instigated the changes in his report.
“I’m not sure they should be allowed to use these gruesome, gory photos to clean up Golden’s flawed initial report, but that is what they clearly want do.”
But some analysts insisted that no amount of revision can increase the ultimate precision of Golden’s original findings.
“The ability of autopsy surgeons to distinguish one knife wound from another is very generalized. It’s very rare that you can take a knife wound and say that it was created by one blade to the exclusion of other blades,” said Norris, who became familiar with the issue during the Skid Row Stabber trial.
Along the same line, San Diego defense lawyer Elisabeth Semel said that only rarely do pathologists need photos to demonstrate their observations. Most of the time, she said, “drawings or anatomical models serve the same purpose without risking the inflammatory impact on the jury.”
The nature of that impact is in dispute, however.
“In some sense, these photos rob the victim of the dignity to which we are all entitled in death,” said defense attorney Chaleff.
On the other hand, Reiner said, the photos humanize victims who are in some sense abstractions to the jury.
So far, the autopsy reports have not been publicly released, which is highly unusual. In January, Ito sealed the reports in response to a prosecution request. Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman asked for the sealing order after CBS News filed a California Public Records Act request seeking to obtain the reports from the coroner’s office.