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The O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL : Putting On a Show : Scholarly Kelberg Turns to Unusual Theatrics to Make Point With Jury

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He’s got the shy, rumpled look of a nerdy nebbish, but Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Kelberg plays killer like a pro. He plays victim, too, on occasion.

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And in a new twist, he hopped on a courtroom table this week to play a patient--lying on his back and flailing his legs without the slightest sign of embarrassment. For a scholarly lawyer who guards his privacy, it was quite a show.

Indeed, Kelberg’s performance in the O.J. Simpson murder trial has attracted a good deal of attention--and lately, admiration--from the legal community. Kelberg has managed to splash some bizarre theatrics into his dry, detailed questioning of medical experts.

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He grabbed Simpson’s physician to demonstrate the strength needed for a murderous attack. And he directed the county coroner to stab and slash at his neck with a ruler to show jurors how Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman may have been killed.

His most unorthodox display came Monday, when he scrambled atop the prosecutors’ table, scattering pencils, and urged Dr. Robert Huizenga to re-create the mobility tests he gave Simpson several days after the murders.

“I’ve never seen a prosecutor put his rear end to the jury,” defense lawyer Harland Braun said. “But I don’t think he meant it that way.”

Colleagues in the district attorney’s office say they’re not surprised by his antics. Kelberg, they say, is intense and focused, and always determined to win.

“He is a very dynamic, creative and intelligent trial lawyer,” Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said. Chuckling, he added: “I’ve never seen him get on a table before.”

Kelberg, 44, considers such demonstrations vital. Although he may have to sacrifice his dignity--as in the trial of an obstetrician, when he crouched on all fours and mimicked a pregnant woman--he believes the displays stick in jurors’ minds.

“It’s much easier to convey [information] to the jury through physical movement, rather than a bunch of words,” he said.

Of course, Kelberg uses words as well. Sometimes, lots and lots of them. His eight-day grilling of Los Angeles County Coroner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran drew ridicule, and yawns, from some observers.

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Accused of boring the jury with repetition, Kelberg defends himself crisply. “My examinations are not done for the purpose of hearing myself talk. . . . In my view, I am not long-winded. I am thorough.”

Later, he added: “I do have an ego, as any good trial lawyer has, but I believe I have a very good reality check on mine.”

Kelberg has spent the past decade investigating medical cases for the district attorney’s office, from euthanasia to assisted suicide to criminal malpractice. Long interested in science, he even attended medical school for three weeks in the 1970s before enrolling at Southwestern University School of Law.

“If you’re just a regular lawyer going up against Kelberg [in a medical case], you’re going to get your head thumped in,” said lawyer Gigi Gordon. “It seems he knows as much as the doctors. . . . Kelberg’s probably the only lawyer I’ve seen in the [Simpson] courtroom who scares me.”

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Ironically, Kelberg was not scheduled to join the Simpson case. But when key prosecutor William Hodgman fell sick in late January, Kelberg stepped in to handle the medical witnesses.

His lengthy examination of Sathyavagiswaran in June marked the first time in two years that Kelberg had appeared before a jury. Because the medical malfeasance cases he investigates are difficult to prove, few come to trial.

One infamous exception was the 1989 trial of Dr. Milos Klvana, a Valencia obstetrician who was convicted of second-degree murder in the deaths of eight infants and a fetus. Kelberg prosecuted the nine-month trial, and later led a drive to toughen the state’s system for disciplining doctors.

His opponent in the Klvana case, defense attorney Rita J. Baird, praises Kelberg as, quite simply, brilliant. Not only does he boast “the innate intelligence of a NASA computer,” she said, but “he’s one of the most honest and principled lawyers I know.”

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He is also intensely private. Married with no children, Kelberg says he loves relaxing on weekends--but will not talk about his hobbies. Even with colleagues, he rarely talks about his personal life. He does, however, accept jokes about his astoundingly messy office, which one prosecutor called “famous” for its helter-skelter stacks of paper.

“He is a massive pack rat,” veteran Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling Norris said. “But he knows exactly where everything is.”

Kelberg’s pack-rat proclivities apparently have impressed even Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito. During a hearing outside the jury’s presence in early July, Ito gestured to a cart stacked with thick green binders and asked, “Mr. Kelberg, are you responsible for the cart being here today?”

With mock indignation, Kelberg responded, “Once again, people have accused me unjustifiably.” Typically concerned about details, he added: “Anybody who saw my materials [during the case] knows that I use yellow pads with red and blue ink, and I don’t rely too frequently on green binders.”

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But former prosecutor Dino Fulgoni says he admires Kelberg’s work habits. “The only time I ever criticized him was for spending too much time helping other people,” said Fulgoni, now a Superior Court judge in Pasadena. “If all lawyers were like Kelberg, lawyer jokes wouldn’t even be funny.”


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