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THE O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL

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UCLA law professor Peter Arenella and Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson offer their take on the Simpson trial. Joining them is defense lawyer Gigi Gordon, who will rotate with other experts as the case moves forward. Today’s topic: Detective Phil Vannatter on the hot seat.

PETER ARENELLA

On the defense: “Of course, O.J. was a suspect when police went to Rockingham. But Detective Vannatter’s denial of the obvious lends credence to juror suspicions that there must be something quite sinister at play. Since the jury doesn’t know that the police insisted on this story to justify their warrantless search of O.J.’s estate, they might believe that Vannatter is covering up more serious police misconduct. The defense’s conspiracy theme just got stronger.”

On the prosecution: “The prosecution’s spin on Vannatter’s comments: No big deal. His remarks ‘always suspect the husband’ and ‘O.J. was a suspect,’ don’t deserve to be taken seriously. But, if the jury does take them seriously, it will wonder why both Vannatter and Mark Fuhrman lied. And if Judge Lance A. Ito believes Vannatter lied, he may reconsider the defense’s motion to suppress evidence taken from Simpson’s estate in a search justified by the lie.”

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LAURI LEVENSON

On the defense: “This case has everything--from a detective who took the Fifth to Mafioso witnesses called to impeach another veteran detective. Initially, the defense attack on Vannatter looked promising. They called an FBI agent to testify that Vannatter had made a sarcastic remark about O.J. always having been a suspect. But the ‘good fellas,’ brothers Fiato, clarified the record: Vannatter may have been fooling around when he made the remark.”

On the prosecution: “Loose lips sink ships. Prosecutors are probably wondering why Vannatter chose to let off steam about the Simpson case by chatting with Mafia informants. Wasn’t there anyone else he could talk to? The last thing prosecutors needed was another defense opportunity to attack the LAPD’s credibility. Their approach--’just kidding’--only goes so far, and they must now worry about whether jurors will think the Mafia had something to do with this case.”

GIGI GORDON

On the defense: “Animals rarely bite the hand that feeds them. So it was no surprise when the Fiato brothers slithered sideways on the defense. But O.J.’s lawyers shouldn’t care what the Fiatos said: The defense had an FBI agent saying he heard part of a conversation Vannatter said he didn’t remember. And the agent said Vannatter described O.J. as a suspect from the start. But in a case where the jurors have an overflowing cup, did that extra drip make a difference?”

On the prosecution: “The prosecution was in a no-win situation with the Fiato brothers because they couldn’t attack the credibility of witnesses who have been tame pets of law enforcement. But the prosecutors managed to win anyway, because the Fiatos have been in tough spots before and know how to testify. Jurors may believe the defense chose to take some idle remarks out of context, and if so they’re scratching their heads in wonderment as to what this was all about.”

Compiled by HENRY WEINSTEIN / Los Angeles Times

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