Pathologist for Defense Rebuts Work by Coroner : Simpson trial: Baden questions procedures and findings about timing and method of murders.
Lawyers for O.J. Simpson turned Thursday to an eminent pathologist who often testifies for prosecutors as they sought to discredit the work of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office and to raise questions about how and when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were killed.
Dr. Michael Baden, a former New York medical examiner who bills $1,500 a day and sports a resume so long it took nearly an hour to present to the jury, gently but firmly took issue with many aspects of the coroner’s work in the Simpson case.
He noted that he and his associate were the first to point out a bruise on Nicole Simpson’s head. He also testified that he never saw blood on a sock seized from Simpson’s bedroom when he looked at it nine days later, bolstering a defense claim that blood was planted on that sock. And he said that neither victim suffered any injury that would have prevented them from screaming, evidence that could strengthen the defense’s contention that multiple assailants committed the crime.
Under cross-examination, Baden colorfully fought off the efforts of Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Kelberg to undermine his testimony. Baden had testified that the county coroner’s testimony about “possible” ways the murders could have been committed should not be taken seriously. Kelberg challenged that notion, but Baden did not relent.
“It’s possible that it happened by a bushy-haired stranger who is right-handed from behind, yes,” Baden said forcefully, smiling and rocking in his chair. “But it’s also equally consistent with a baldheaded midget from the front who is left-handed.”
Kelberg, who came to court with five boxes of transcripts and other materials, fared better near the end of the day as he questioned Baden about cuts and scratches on Simpson’s hands a few days after the murders. Baden testified that Simpson, who has pleaded not guilty to the double murder, had told him he first cut his hand before leaving for a trip to Chicago and then had cut himself again when told about Nicole Simpson’s death.
But Kelberg presented Baden with photographs of the broken glass from the hotel room and elicited Baden’s acknowledgment that there was no sign of blood anywhere in the pictures.
Many jurors took note of that point, but it also may have cleared the way for Simpson’s attorneys to introduce other photographs of bloody sheets and towels recovered from the Chicago hotel room. Lead Simpson trial lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., in fact, called Kelberg’s use of the Chicago material “the coroner’s equivalent of the glove experiment,” a mocking reference to the prosecution’s failed attempt to fit Simpson with the gloves recovered from the crime scene and his Rockingham Avenue estate.
A preeminent but controversial medical examiner, Baden testified that he had billed about $100,000 so far in the Simpson case, but defense lawyer Robert L. Shapiro sought to blunt any challenge to Baden’s credibility by eliciting his detailed testimony about work he has done for prosecutors, including the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. Baden said he charges public agencies the same rate, and noted that he had just finished testifying in a Los Angeles case on behalf of the district attorney’s office.
Jurors--back from a day off and faced with a likable, demonstrative witness--took extensive notes and seemed to follow the morning’s testimony closely. Although their attention lagged by day’s end, the panelists watched carefully during Shapiro’s questioning, even as Baden recited his credentials.
In fact, Shapiro milked Baden’s resume to great effect, eliciting, among other things, the medical examiner’s participation in the investigation of several historic cases with racial overtones: the murders of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers and the killing of Ron Settles, a black football player who died in Signal Hill police custody.
The lawyer who represented Settles’ family was none other than Cochran. As Baden recounted a few details of that case, Cochran leaned forward, his chin in one hand, listening intently and smiling at the witness. Nearly every jury member seemed to take note, scribbling in their pads practically in unison.
Although the King and Medgar Evers assassinations are far better known, the subtle reminder of the Settles case may be even more significant for the defense team in the Simpson case, since it revolved around a harrowing theme of police misconduct. Simpson’s lawyers have argued that a combination of official bumbling and police conspiracy is responsible for much of the evidence against their client.
Challenging the Coroner
As Baden waded into the substance of his testimony, he criticized the performance of the coroner’s office, faulting investigators for failing to inspect Nicole Simpson’s refrigerator, for discarding her stomach contents and for overlooking such details as the blow to her head.
Without directly faulting county Coroner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, Baden also questioned a number of details in the coroner’s testimony. Baden testified that some of the coroner’s findings could not be backed up “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty.”
Among those were Sathyavagiswaran’s testimony that the killings could have been carried out by a single, tall assailant wielding a single-edged knife. Baden did not rule out any of those descriptions, but said the evidence did not conclusively point to any of those conclusions.
“Dr. Lakshmanan did answer questions that I felt were possible, but in my opinion it doesn’t help the finders of fact, because anything is possible,” said Baden, a burly, gray-haired man whose smooth rapport with Shapiro was evident.
“Can you tell, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, how many killers were involved in this case?” Shapiro asked.
“No,” Baden answered.
“In your opinion, can anybody tell how many killers were involved in this case?” the defense attorney asked.
“The medical examiner can’t,” Baden said. “The medical examiner from the nature of the injuries and the crime scene . . . cannot tell how many assailants there were.”
Continuing to focus on the disputed elements of the coroner’s testimony, Shapiro asked: “In your opinion, can the medical examiner in this case tell whether or not the killings resulted from a single- or double-edged knife?”
“The medical examiner,” Baden replied, “can say that a single-edged knife was involved, but the medical examiner cannot say how many knives were involved and whether or not a number of the wounds were caused by double-edged blades, so the medical examiner cannot tell how many weapons and whether they were single- [or] double-edged.”
As Baden rebutted the coroner’s findings regarding Nicole Simpson’s murder, her ex-husband squirmed in his chair, breathing through his mouth and occasionally drinking water from a plastic cup. Simpson seemed to relax when the questioning turned to the circumstances involving Goldman’s death, but Kim Goldman, the victim’s sister, wept quietly in the front row of the courtroom. An assistant from the district attorney’s office handed her a box of tissues, and Judge Lance A. Ito urged Shapiro to move along.
Before he did, however, Shapiro used his questioning to raise another longstanding defense contention: that the killings were committed after 10:30 p.m. on June 12, 1994.
The time of death is important because Simpson’s whereabouts are accounted for just before 11 p.m., when he met an airport limousine at his Brentwood home. On Thursday, Baden said five to 10 minutes could have elapsed between the infliction of a wound to Goldman’s throat and of wounds that punctured his lung.
“If Ronald Goldman began a struggle with his assailants at 10:40 p.m., within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, can you tell us when the stab wound to the chest would have occurred?” Shapiro asked, basing his time on the testimony of a witness who said earlier that he did not hear dogs barking before that hour--testimony contradicted by other accounts that placed the barking as early as 10:15 p.m. or so.
“My opinion would be at least five minutes, more likely around 10 minutes after the neck started to bleed,” Baden answered.
“So,” Shapiro continued after one other exchange, “what is the earliest time he would have been cut in the chest, in your opinion?”
“In my opinion,” Baden said, “10:45.”
Fight for Fuhrman Tapes
Even as Baden was presenting the latest defense evidence to the jury, attorneys were wrangling outside the panel’s presence about another dimension of the defense case: the potentially inflammatory audiotapes of LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman.
The defense waged a protracted effort to secure a set of tapes in which Fuhrman talks to a professor and screenwriter named Laura Hart McKinny and repeatedly uses the word nigger. On the witness stand, the detective had emphatically denied using that word during the past 10 years, so the tapes could offer the defense a stunning piece of evidence to suggest Fuhrman’s willingness to lie under oath, if Ito agrees that the jury should hear them.
Defense attorneys still have not listened to the tapes, but even before they could get copies Thursday, prosecutors tried to preempt them by serving a subpoena on McKinny’s lawyer, Matthew Schwartz, who brought a carton of the tapes to court just before the lunch break.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden said prosecutors were entitled to them, an assertion that Cochran and other defense team members brusquely dismissed.
Members of Simpson’s legal team said they had found the tapes and had been responsible for having them produced in court--a task that required them to go to a North Carolina appellate court after a trial judge in Winston-Salem initially refused to enforce their subpoena for the material.
“These are our tapes,” said Carl E. Douglas, one of Simpson’s lawyers. “We are entitled to them.”
Cochran was more blunt, saying of the prosecutors: “They are insane.”
At first, Ito took possession of the material himself and said his clerk would keep the tapes until Schwartz gave him a protective order that would govern the use of the tapes once they are handed out. Schwartz did that within hours, and Ito released the tapes into the custody of Cochran and Douglas at day’s end. Both lawyers were warned not to copy or disseminate the tapes, even to their colleagues on the defense team.
McKinny has yet to appear in Ito’s courtroom, but her tapes already have caused a huge ripple in the case, and her agent has tried to capitalize on the publicity by shopping her screenplay to celebrated film director Oliver Stone, said Steve Rivers, a spokesman for Stone.
According to Rivers, McKinny’s Hollywood agent, Jim Preminger, recently sent an unsolicited copy of her script, “Men Against Women,” to Stone’s film company, Xitlan. Rivers said Stone’s partner had sent the script--"which is about women police not being able to fit in with male officers"--to a reader, a procedure Xitlan and many other film companies utilize to do preliminary vetting of unsolicited scripts.
Stone has been out of the country and has not read the script, Rivers said, adding that a tabloid report that McKinny had tried to sell the tapes to Stone was “totally untrue.”
Since first surfacing, the tapes have raised a quandary for Ito, who must decide whether the jury should hear them, and for prosecutors, who said Thursday that Fuhrman never told them about the taped interviews before taking the witness stand.
“We were not aware of the tapes,” Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said at an afternoon news conference. Garcetti acknowledged that if the tapes do feature Fuhrman uttering the disputed epithet, “it’s not going to help the prosecution.”
He added, however, that his team has yet to hear the material. Fuhrman’s lawyer, Robert Tourtelot, has said that any remarks were made in the context of a fictionalized story conference and thus do not reflect Fuhrman’s real views. Garcetti, meanwhile, stressed that he does not believe Fuhrman is a crucial part of the prosecution case.
“He’s not a key witness in this case,” Garcetti said. “We have so much evidence . . . and so many witnesses from all parts of our community.”
Reporters Still Could Testify
Although the Fuhrman tapes offer the defense its most explosive remaining issue--and one with which the Simpson team may decide to conclude its case--Cochran stressed Thursday that Simpson’s attorneys have not abandoned their controversial effort to raise questions about news leaks in front of the jury.
On Wednesday, Ito ruled that the defense could not demand the names of sources from two reporters and could not peruse internal LAPD files. But Cochran, responding to pundits who assumed that would end the defense’s pursuit of the news-leak line of argument, said the Simpson team still plans to put the two journalists on the stand to verify the accuracy of their stories--though not to identify their sources.
One of those stories, by KNBC-TV, later was proven to be inaccurate, but the defense wants the correspondent to tell the jury that she accurately reported what her sources told her. That is because the KNBC story purported to disclose results of DNA tests on a sock found in Simpson’s bedroom; no tests had been performed, but later tests produced the results that KNBC reported, a turn of events that led the defense to argue that the person who leaked the story to the station may also have planted evidence on the socks.
The second reporter whom the defense still intends to call, Cochran said, is an author who wrote a magazine article accusing an unnamed police officer as the source of the KNBC leak and stating that other journalists had been offered the same story but steered clear.
Whether either will actually have to take the stand remains in doubt, however, as lawyers for the two reporters joined with prosecutors Thursday in expressing skepticism about what admissible evidence they could possibly have to offer the jury.
Ito, who predicted that prosecutors would “fight every inch of the way,” scheduled a hearing for Monday afternoon to resolve that question.
Times staff writers Henry Weinstein and Andrea Ford contributed to this story.