With heads sometimes down, faces drawn and eyes averted, the jury and alternates in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson weathered a second series of grim autopsy photographs Wednesday as prosecutors used the images to bolster their case that a single, right-handed, knife-wielding assailant murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.
Testifying in soft tones about one set of injuries at a time, Los Angeles County Coroner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran painted a vivid, if still incomplete, picture of how the murders could have been carried out.
According to the coroner, Nicole Simpson may have been struck on the head--possibly with a fist or the blunt end of the knife. She may then have slumped to the ground incapacitated, Sathyavagiswaran said. The prosecution theorizes that the killer next may have turned his attention to fight and kill Goldman before returning to Nicole Simpson, stabbing her four times in the neck. The killer then, Sathyavagiswaran said, delivered a coup de grace, pulling her head back from behind and slicing her throat nearly from ear to ear.
Simpson, who has pleaded not guilty to the June 12 murders, spent the session trying to avoid the testimony as studiously as possible. While Sathyavagiswaran clinically detailed the wounds to Nicole Simpson, her ex-husband and accused killer rocked in his chair, occasionally breathed heavily and sought consolation from one of his lawyers, Carl E. Douglas, with whom he whispered and exchanged notes.
Simpson rarely even glanced at the back of the display board that included the photographs. The board was repositioned Wednesday so that the pictures were out of the audience's view as well as Simpson's. The newly positioned board cut off much of the audience from the proceedings because the configuration put the easels between some spectators and the jury.
As a result, some spectators seemed distracted Wednesday, in contrast to the riveted attention they showed when the photographs were first presented a day earlier.
According to Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito, six spectators went too far, violating his prohibition on gum-chewing and eating. He threatened to eject them for the balance of the trial, then relented after calling one alleged culprit--reporter Kimberly Maroe of KCAL-TV--into his chambers, reminding her of the rule and then publicly embarrassing her by playing a videotape of her chewing gum in the courtroom.
"Take that as fair warning," Ito said gravely when the tape concluded. Three more alleged gum-chewers have been summoned to the judge's chambers this morning.
Even without being able to see the photographs, for some spectators the grim recitation of the wounds was deeply emotional. Members of Goldman's family stoically endured the testimony from their customary seats in the front row behind the prosecution team, while relatives of Simpson sat across the aisle.
"You try to prepare for this," said Simpson's sister, Carmelita Duro, who appeared weary and depressed during a break in Wednesday's hearing. "But there's no way you can."
Nicole Simpson's family has attended the trial regularly, but they have not been in court for the description of her brutal murder.
Sathyavagiswaran, who has been testifying since Friday, told the jury that a right-handed assailant with a single-edged knife could have administered four knife wounds to Nicole Simpson's neck. And he testified that the assailant probably administered those injuries while standing face-to-face with the victim.
Simpson blanched at that testimony. Leaning forward in his chair, he jotted a note to Douglas--writing it with his right hand.
On the other side of the courtroom, Sathyavagiswaran stood in front of the jury box and demonstrated how the injuries to the left side of Nicole Simpson's neck could have been inflicted. At the request of Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Kelberg, the coroner showed the jury by thrusting his right hand, balled into a fist as if holding a knife, at the prosecutor's throat.
Jurors paused in their note-taking while the coroner performed that demonstration. When he finished, a few of the panelists picked up their pads and recorded their observations.
As the testimony continued into the afternoon session, some jurors appeared to grow less uncomfortable with the grisly photographs, settling back into their chairs and carefully listening to the coroner's graphic description of how he believes the murders were carried out.
Ito reminded the jurors that they could ask for a break if the evidence or photographs became overwhelming, but none took him up on that offer.
Re-Creating a Murder
The coroner's testimony was technical and repetitive at times, but from it emerged a detailed picture of how authorities believe the double homicide may have unfolded.
An assailant, according to Sathyavagiswaran, confronted Nicole Simpson and stabbed her repeatedly in the neck, delivering at least one thrust that could by itself have killed her without immediate medical attention. Wounds to the back of her left hand suggest that she might have raised that hand in surprise but did not succeed in warding off the blows.
Cuts to her scalp could have been made by the same knife, Sathyavagiswaran added, though he conceded that those wounds were too shallow for him to say for sure.
The badly cut Nicole Simpson then may have been knocked unconscious with a blow to the head, the coroner said. That blow could have come from a closed fist or the blunt end of the knife, or her assailant might have pushed her head into some other object.
She fell to the ground, the coroner said, dropping face forward, her right hand crumpling beneath her cheek. At that point, the attacker apparently paused, a break that the coroner was able to infer because the bruise on her head took time to develop and could not have done so after her throat was cut and her blood pressure dropped to zero. The pause was at least a minute and perhaps longer, Sathyavagiswaran said, a gap that strengthens the prosecution's case that the murder was premeditated.
Kelberg asked if the assailant could have used that break to subdue and kill Goldman, whose body was found just a few feet away but whose wounds the coroner has yet to describe. Sathyavagiswaran said that could have been the case.
Under that scenario, once Goldman was dead, the assailant may have returned to finish off the unconscious Nicole Simpson, by then already lying in a deepening pool of her own blood. The attacker, authorities say, knelt or stood on her back, pulled back her thick blond hair and slashed her throat so deeply that arteries and veins were severed and even her spinal cord was struck by the six-inch knife blade.
"A right-handed person inflicts this injury; at least, a person used his right hand to inflict this injury," Sathyavagiswaran said. "The upward angle [of the wound] will fit this scenario."
Death followed quickly after that slashing wound: "I would say she died within a few minutes, probably less than a minute or so," the coroner testified.
The rest of the killing scene described Wednesday emerged from Sathyavagiswaran's detailed analysis of other injuries to Nicole Simpson.
The close proximity of the stab wounds on her throat, for instance, suggested that her movement was restricted while those thrusts were delivered, the coroner said. And the fact that the knuckles of one hand were clean, even though her hand was lying in blood, indicates that her hand was lying on the ground, knuckles down, when her throat was cut, Sathyavagiswaran said. That bolstered his opinion that she already was incapacitated when killed.
The absence of other injuries also was telling, Sathyavagiswaran added. Nicole Simpson's palms, for instance, showed little evidence of injury. The coroner said that suggested she was not able to muster much resistance to her attacker.
"When you see a paucity of defense wounds," he said, "it would signal . . . that the person was rapidly incapacitated and unable to defend herself."
The testimony of the county's chief coroner has unfolded on two tracks, as Kelberg has used his questioning to illustrate the brutality and nature of the crimes as well as to head off the expected defense challenge to the coroner's investigation, particularly the work done by Deputy Medical Examiner Irwin Golden.
Before the jury was brought in Wednesday morning, Kelberg--who has spent several days eliciting Sathyavagiswaran's acknowledgments of mistakes Golden made in the Simpson case autopsies--asked the judge to prevent the defense from posing questions about errors that Golden allegedly made in the past.
Kelberg said that unlike the mistakes in the Simpson case, Golden's performance on three other autopsies was disputed and irrelevant. In two of the cases, aired on a television program criticizing the medical examiner, Golden did not make the mistakes he was accused of committing, the prosecutor said. In the third, Golden admittedly did err, noting that a dead man had a thyroid gland when it had been removed years earlier, but Kelberg argued that the case had no bearing on Golden's performance in the autopsies now being examined.
Robert L. Shapiro, one of Simpson's lead attorneys and the one handling issues and witnesses related to the autopsies, responded by suggesting that prosecutors were being hypocritical.
"Mr. Kelberg is in an ironic position," Shapiro said. "Yesterday he . . . conducted what I thought was a very effective, or would have been a very effective, cross-examination of the incompetence of Dr. Golden. Today, he's talking about the competency of Dr. Golden."
Shapiro asked for wide latitude in questioning but failed to respond directly to the prosecutor's objections to the use of the three cases at issue. Citing the defense's lack of objection and the threat of opening side issues to the Simpson case, Ito ruled that Golden may not be questioned about two of the cases.
The judge did find, however, that both sides can question the medical examiner about his error in the case of the man's thyroid, since that bears upon the issue of Golden's thoroughness, which he said was relevant to the Simpson case.
Golden is not expected to testify until next week.
As the defense prepares to present its case in court, possibly beginning next month, Simpson's lawyers are confronted with several potential problems.
One witness, Rosa Lopez, already has given testimony preserved on videotape in case she refuses to return from El Salvador to testify in person, but her credibility came under sharp attack during Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden's cross-examination.
On Wednesday, another once-touted defense witness, Mary Anne Gerchas, suffered a setback of her own when she pleaded guilty to three felony charges for defrauding a hotel, writing a bad check and stealing jewelry. In his opening statement, Simpson attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. told the jury that Gerchas had seen four men, none of them Simpson, rushing away from the scene of the crime.
Since that time, prosecutors have called Gerchas a liar and an unreliable witness, and Simpson's attorneys have dropped her from their witness list. Now, as a result of her guilty plea, Gerchas faces a maximum sentence of six years and four months in state prison, according to the district attorney's office.
But while it may have lost Gerchas, the defense apparently has added another possible witness.
Faye Resnick, whose friendship with Nicole Simpson was detailed in a splashy book released last fall, said Wednesday that she has been subpoenaed by the defense. Simpson's lawyers have suggested that Nicole Simpson might have been the victim of a drug killing and that Resnick could have been the intended target, an allegation that Resnick and people close to her have dismissed as ludicrous.
Although Resnick has made clear that she believes Simpson committed the killings, prosecutors elected not to call her as part of their case. But Resnick said she was served Sunday with a subpoena from Simpson's team and has been directed to be available to testify on July 3.
Testimony in the trial resumes this morning with Sathyavagiswaran back on the witness stand. He has yet to describe the injuries or to present the photographs relating to Goldman's death, a topic he could reach in today's testimony.
Times staff writer Jeff Leeds contributed to this article.
* A MOOD OF SKEPTICISM: Many in courthouse wonder if the system is working. B1