Jurors Get First Look at Grim Autopsy Photos : Simpson trial: Several fight for composure; some look away. Display is positioned so defendant cannot see it.
The jury in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson saw for itself Tuesday the brutal consequences of the June 12 attack that he is accused of committing, grimacing and reeling as autopsy photographs of Nicole Brown Simpson were displayed just a few feet from the panel.
Sitting next to his friend and lawyer, Robert Kardashian, Simpson rocked back and forth gently, his brow slightly furrowed, and looked away from the coroner as he described the photographs. At his request, the pictures were displayed in such a way that Simpson could not see them, but he worked his jaw slowly and winced at the coroner’s clinical description of the slash wound that killed Simpson’s ex-wife, severing arteries and nicking her spinal cord.
One juror covered her mouth as the pictures were displayed; another breathed deeply. A few tried to avoid the photographs, staring instead at the lawyers and fighting for composure. The demonstration lasted about half an hour, but it will continue today with more photographs of Nicole Simpson and of Ronald Lyle Goldman, the two victims.
When Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Kelberg asked the coroner to demonstrate how Nicole Simpson’s injury could have been inflicted, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran grabbed the prosecutor by the hair, pulled his head back and drew a ruler across his neck. Simpson looked away. Jurors, relieved to be looking at something other than the photo board, stared intently.
In addition to showing the photographs, Sathyavagiswaran bolstered a key element in the prosecution case with his testimony about the nature of the stab wounds.
“The same, single-edged knife could have caused the injuries on both decedents,” he said. Although Sathyavagiswaran added that a double-edged knife could have caused some of the wounds, he stressed that he saw no wounds that could not have been caused by a single-edged weapon, about six inches long and three-quarters of an inch wide.
Sathyavagiswaran also conceded a number of mistakes by his staff in the collection of evidence and performance of the autopsies, a point that Kelberg repeatedly pushed him to describe in detail. In fact, Kelberg said, Deputy Medical Examiner Irwin L. Golden was responsible for more than 30 mistakes, an estimate that Sathyavagiswaran reluctantly acknowledged.
But as he did last week, Sathyavagiswaran insisted that none of the mistakes undermined his office’s ultimate conclusions about the case. And his testimony about a single knife possibly being responsible for all the stab wounds dovetails with the prosecution theory that a single assailant, Simpson, was responsible for the June 12 murders of Nicole Simpson and Goldman.
Simpson has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers have vigorously asserted their client’s innocence.
It was a new panel in the ever-shifting jury that heard the latest disclosures in the Simpson case. The newest jurors are two African American women, both in their 20s, who until Tuesday sat next to each other in the jury box, chatting during breaks and appearing to strike up a friendship. Both are high school graduates--one completed a year of college--and both work for the government, one as a postal employee, the other for a community hospital.
The new panelists were drawn from the rapidly shrinking pool of alternate jurors, whose ranks began at 12 and now stand at just two--with at least two months of trial left. As with other shifts in the jury, the latest move altered the demographic balance of the panel, increasing the number of women and blacks on the panel.
As it stands now, the jury includes 10 women and two men. It is made up of nine African Americans, two whites and one Latino.
When their numbers were called out by Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito’s clerk Tuesday, each of the two new jurors quietly gathered up her things and moved to her new seat, leaving behind the block of now 10 empty chairs where alternates once sat.
Courtroom spectators silently watched the shuffle, the latest in a trial that has dropped jurors so rapidly that many observers now consider it unlikely that the current jury, carefully selected last year after months of questioning, will finish the trial intact.
Ito, who rarely addresses issues involving the jury publicly, hinted at the mounting problem Tuesday with a brief quip to the panel. As the jurors returned from lunch, one stumbled and fell, causing a loud commotion outside the courtroom. Once the panel was seated, Ito smiled at the jurors and said: “I need for all of you to stay healthy.”
Jurors and spectators laughed.
Bracing for the Photos
Although Tuesday’s testimony was mostly dry, tension built in Ito’s courtroom as the session drew to a close and prosecutors prepared to introduce the much-anticipated autopsy photographs of the two victims.
Both Simpson and the families of the victims had braced for the impact. And the preparations for the case’s most graphic evidence--Ito has described some of the pictures as “horrible”--prompted two separate legal debates that the judge was forced to consider before the jury could see them.
Ito had indicated that he was not inclined to display the pictures to courtroom spectators, a decision that infuriated some members of the press corps covering the trial. On Tuesday, several veteran reporters fumed as lawyers debated whether to allow members of the press to see the pictures.
“This is unconstitutional,” said Joe Bosco, one of several writers working on books about the case. “It’s unthinkable, unimaginable and flatly wrong.”
Despite arguments from Kelli Sager, a lawyer representing news organizations, Ito at first declined to let the press or audience see the pictures.
“The difficulty that I have with this,” Ito said, “is that I have to also take into consideration the feelings of the victims’ families, and what little dignity is left that we can accord to the victims themselves. And to display [the photographs] publicly in such a manner is highly distasteful to me.”
Later, Ito’s clerk told Sager that the judge would allow six reporters to look at the photographs once Sathyavagiswaran has finished his testimony. But for Tuesday’s session, the photographs were set up on an easel facing toward the jury and away from the audience and the defense table--a precaution foiled by the easel’s careless placement, which allowed one reporter and one courtroom artist to see the panel and brief the rest of the press corps once court had recessed for the day.
Nevertheless, Sathyavagiswaran’s clinical description of the injuries to Nicole Simpson, especially the deep gash across her throat, resonated through a silent, emotional courtroom.
Using a pointer and standing just a few feet from the jury box, Sathyavagiswaran traced that gash from the left side of Nicole Simpson’s throat to just below her right ear.
“What will be the reaction of the body” to such a wound? Kelberg asked.
“Bleeding, and you could have sudden loss of supply to one side of the front of the brain,” the coroner replied. “You could have seizure and then ultimately you could die because of the rapid bleeding.”
He chillingly added that there were no wounds around the margin of the major cut, suggesting that Nicole Simpson could not resist when the knife was drawn across her throat. Over defense objections, Kelberg asked whether Nicole Simpson could have been unconscious when her throat was cut. That, the coroner said, would be consistent with her wounds.
“My opinion is that Miss Brown was on the ground, face down, when this wound was inflicted,” he said. “My opinion is that the head was extended backwards and the knife was used to cause this incise slash, stab wound from the left to the right.”
Jurors Return, Prosecutor Rebuked
That testimony ended Tuesday’s session, one that began with the jury seemingly in good spirits despite the dismissal of two colleagues, a turbulent episode capped by an unusual and unsuccessful legal appeal. On Monday, Justice Paul A. Turner of the state Court of Appeal denied the defense request for a halt in the trial, and on Tuesday the appeals court dismissed the defense claim that Ito had abused his discretion in ousting juror Willie Cravin.
In Ito’s courtroom, however, defense attorneys pressed the matter outside the jury’s presence, asking for a hearing on their claim that the district attorney’s office is targeting African American jurors for removal. Prosecutors have denied that, but Ito set the defense motion for a hearing June 16.
Jurors were not told of the wrangling, and as they returned to court, a few of them smiled at each other and laughed quietly among themselves.
The jury is carefully shielded from news about the case, their newspapers and television viewing censored to prevent coverage from reaching them. In court Tuesday, however, Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark tried to sneak a look at the morning paper describing the prior day’s legal wrangling--a frantic day of activity that included the emergency defense appeal to block Cravin’s ouster.
Members of the courtroom audience are strictly forbidden to read newspapers in court, but Clark brought a copy anyway. She drew a withering glare from Ito when she rustled the pages. Chastened, she put it away.
But a few minutes later, she opened the paper again, hiding it beneath her desk and trying to read it. This time, a sheriff’s deputy quietly approached her with a warning. Clark put away the paper for good.
The New Jurors
The jury’s new members were drawn at the outset of Tuesday’s hearing, their numbers picked from a hat by Ito’s clerk.
During the jury selection process, one of the new panelists had said she looked forward to jury service because it would give her a vacation from working at the post office--”anything to get out of work,” she said under questioning by a prosecutor. She also described her father’s abuse of her mother.
“When I was younger my father used to, you know, beat on my mother and stuff like that, you know, when I was a kid,” she said in response to a question posed by Ito. “I was between maybe 4 and 5 years old at the time.”
Domestic abuse is an important underlying issue in the Simpson case, as prosecutors allege that Simpson killed his ex-wife in a final and brutal attempt to control her. The juror said that her own experience would not affect her judgment in the trial, but added that her father’s abuse of her mother had made her angry with him and had made her stronger.
“As an adult, I don’t go for any man being abusive to me,” that juror wrote in the questionnaire completed by each of the panelists.
Despite her personal experience with domestic violence, that panelist was selected as an alternate juror, where she has stayed for the past six months. Since being selected, she has become the subject of quiet attention because the judge and lawyers one day discussed at sidebar her apparent inattention to the proceedings.
The other new juror, a hospital worker who lives in Gardena, had been less effusive in her questionnaire, but said she was surprised to learn that O.J. Simpson was a suspect in the June 12 murders.
“I thought it was awful for anyone to be accused of such a horrible crime,” that juror said.
Asked by Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman whether that meant that she thought Simpson had been falsely accused, she responded that she did not.
“I just felt bad for anyone who had been accused of such a crime,” she said. “If it was me, if I knew I was innocent, I would feel bad that I was accused of such, and people would look at me.”
The autopsy photographs capped Tuesday’s session, coming at the end of a long day in which jurors mostly were subjected to a detailed description of autopsy procedures and terms.
Much of that questioning was intentionally defensive, as Kelberg attempted to elicit from the coroner testimony about the various mistakes that the Simpson team is expected to highlight. Sathyavagiswaran testified that lab technicians failed to X-ray the bodies, did not check off a box on a form indicating that fingernail scrapings were taken from Nicole Simpson, did not make a palm print of her left hand, overlooked several tears in Goldman’s shirt and pants and mislabeled some evidence containers.
All told, those mistakes suggested a less-than-stellar performance by the coroner’s office, and defense attorney Robert L. Shapiro has long telegraphed his intent to make those mistakes a central element of Simpson’s defense. The Simpson team has said that sloppy evidence handling undermined the prosecution case against the former football star from the beginning, and jurors seemed to take careful note of the coroner’s admissions Tuesday.
But Sathyavagiswaran downplayed the significance of the mistakes.
“We try very hard not to make mistakes,” the coroner testified. “When we do make mistakes, we accept them, we review the report and correct them.”
For most of the day, Sathyavagiswaran’s testimony was intended to lecture jurors on the basics of forensic pathology--explaining such dry points as the technical terms for the top and bottom of the human body. Nevertheless, the coroner’s testimony was sprinkled with references to the victims in the Simpson case, and each one triggered a reaction from the trial’s central participants.
Even before the photographs were displayed, Simpson and others in the courtroom appeared obviously distressed by the sometimes graphic testimony.
When Sathyavagiswaran testified about studying Nicole Simpson’s underwear, her ex-husband rocked back slightly in his chair and exhaled.
And just a few feet away, members of the Goldman family reeled as the coroner described the extensive bleeding that Ron Goldman suffered in the June 12 attack.
According to Sathyavagiswaran, Goldman bled so profusely that there was not enough blood left in his heart to take a sample. Hearing that testimony, Ron Goldman’s father, sister and stepmother huddled close together on the courtroom bench. Fred Goldman took off his glasses and leaned forward, holding his wife’s hand and his daughter’s. None of them spoke.
* THE SPIN: Judge Ito’s veil of secrecy over Simpson trial jurors is not only futile--it’s unnecessary. B1
* TV BAN WEIGHED: Two L.A. County supervisors said they will try to ban TV cameras from any retrial of O.J. Simpson. B2
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Under the new schedule instituted by Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito this week, court for the Simpson trial will be in session 6 1/2 more hours per week. That figure includes the shorter lunch break--from 90 minutes to 60--already imposed by the judge.
* MONDAY: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
* TUESDAY: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
* WEDNESDAY: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
* THURSDAY: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
* FRIDAY: 9 a.m. to noon
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