Rising in defense of his famous client after prosecutors concluded their closing arguments, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. told jurors that O.J. Simpson was innocent of murder and that acquitting him will send a loud message to police in Los Angeles and across the nation that they cannot violate the laws they are sworn to uphold.
“Your verdict in this case will go far beyond the walls of [the courtroom],” said Cochran near the beginning of the defense closing argument in the double-murder case that has gripped Los Angeles and the nation for more than a year. “Your verdict talks about justice in America, and it talks about the police and whether they’re above the law.”
Cochran’s closing argument--which began in soft-spoken terms but peaked with him nearly shouting to a spellbound jury Wednesday night--traced what he called a “journey to justice.” As the day progressed, he mixed soft indignation with sharp criticism and even a snippet of rhyme, delivered after he donned a knit cap and asked jurors whether such a garment would have effectively disguised Simpson, as prosecutors have suggested.
“He was going to put on a knit cap and some dark clothes, and he was going to get in his white Bronco, this recognizable person, and go over and kill his wife. That’s what they want you to believe,” Cochran said.
Putting on the cap, Cochran remarked: “If I put this knit cap on, who am I? I’m still Johnnie Cochran with a knit cap. . . . O.J. Simpson in a knit cap from two blocks away is still O.J. Simpson. It’s no disguise. It’s no disguise. It makes no sense.
“It doesn’t fit,” he added, sounding a theme that he repeatedly raised during Wednesday’s session. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
That argument unfolded in what could be the final week of courtroom drama in the Simpson case, and it followed the final statement by Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden, an aggressive, no-holds-barred challenge to the defense team and its famous client, who has pleaded not guilty to the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.
The two summations, delivered by onetime friends split apart by the hotly contested trial, stood as dramatic counterpoints to one another: Darden’s was forceful, focused and sarcastic; Cochran’s initially gentle, sometimes rambling, always silky smooth and, in the end, bluntly aggressive. Even their choices of lapel pins signaled their generational and stylistic differences: Cochran wore a small gold cross, Darden a red ribbon commemorating AIDS patients.
While Cochran and Darden traded arguments before an intense and interested jury, the welling drama spilled into the courtroom audience and outside the courthouse as well. Two nationally renowned athletes, decathlete Bruce Jenner and former Dodger first baseman Steve Garvey, both onetime friends of O.J. and Nicole Simpson, were in the audience Wednesday with their spouses to signal their support for her relatives.
Outside, a pair of bomb scares kept the swelling press corps on its toes, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block said his staff had decided that it would “activate our emergency operations center when a verdict comes in on the Simpson case and probably declare a tactical alert.” Block said no staff will be added, however, unless there is a public reaction to the verdicts that warranted such a move.
Cochran began the defense’s closing argument with characteristic charisma, thanking everyone from Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito to jurors, prosecutors and court reporters. He quoted from Cicero and Frederick Douglass, spoke dreamily of a colorblind and classless society--a “common country,” in Douglass’ memorable phrase--and then moved smoothly into the case itself.
There, Cochran’s mission quickly became evident: to discredit the police and prosecution inquiry into the brutal June 12, 1994, killings. He accused prosecutors of overzealously and obsessively pressing for a guilty verdict, and he charged police with caring more about the LAPD’s image than about safeguarding the rights of a man under investigation.
“From the very first orders issued by the LAPD so-called brass, they were more concerned with their own images, the publicity that might be generated from this case, than they were in doing professional police work,” Cochran said. “It seems to us that the evidence shows that professional police work took a back seat right at the beginning.”
The crime scene was trampled, the coroner’s office was notified too late and criminalists were brought in hours after detectives first arrived, Cochran said.
Then, he added in a subtle but ominous reference to former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman: “And yes, they allowed this investigation to be infected by a dishonest and corrupt detective. They did that in this case.”
Before his argument was interrupted by the 8 p.m. end of the court day, Cochran sharpened his attack on Fuhrman, this time naming him and condemning him in the strongest possible language.
“Mark Fuhrman,” Cochran said in a loud voice, nearly shouting with indignation, “is a lying, perjuring, genocidal racist.”
Jurors, including a few whose focus had seemed to wander during the early part of the evening session, snapped back to attention. One panelist gazed at him saucer-eyed as he stormed through the final hour of his presentation.
Reminding jurors that Fuhrman had met O.J. and Nicole Simpson in 1985 when he responded to a domestic violence call at the Simpson home, Cochran said the now retired detective had determined he would get Simpson. Fuhrman, the lawyer charged, harbored that determination for nine years, and then exercised it on June 12, 1994, when he was called to respond to the double murder on Bundy Drive.
“He knew,” Cochran said, “what he was going to do on this particular night.”
Moreover, while Cochran cast Fuhrman as the most heinous of the officers in the case, the lawyer did not limit his criticism to him. Cochran also called Detective Philip L. Vannatter a liar--a contention reinforced with a chart labeled “Vannatter’s Big Lies"--and suggested that other Police Department employees were part of a cover-up.
In addition, Cochran said prosecutors knew that Fuhrman was a liar and a racist and put him on the witness stand anyway. Imitating Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark’s voice, the defense attorney suggested that Fuhrman had received gentle, protective treatment by the prosecution. That, Cochran said, was evidence that the government lawyers shared responsibilities for their witness’ lies.
Collectively, the police officers and other LAPD employees proved that the jury should not trust its “messengers,” Cochran said. And, he added, “If you cannot trust the messenger, you cannot trust the message.”
Darden Baits Simpson
Cochran rose to begin his argument after lunch Wednesday, taking the lectern from Darden, who wrapped up the prosecution’s summation in the same fashion that he began his portion of it Tuesday: with a powerful and combative challenge to the defense team and Simpson.
“We have shown you that he would have killed, could have killed and did kill these two people,” said Darden, his words echoing Simpson’s famous statement last week, made outside the jury’s presence, in which the defendant said he was confident that the jury would agree that he was not guilty.
As Darden neared the end of his argument, he pointed repeatedly to Simpson and seemed to bait him. Simpson shook his head angrily several times and consulted with his lawyers, murmuring comments to them under his breath as Darden stood a few feet away.
“He is a murderer,” said Darden, whose colloquial and relentless closing argument won him plaudits from legal analysts and lay people alike. “He was also one hell of a great football player, but he is still a murderer.”
Having started his description of the relationship between O.J. and Nicole Simpson the night before, Darden pounded out the final months of it Wednesday. “The fuse was burning,” Darden repeated over and over, dramatically emphasizing the phrase as he built toward the climax of his presentation.
Early in the day, Darden played the 911 tape of Nicole Simpson calling the police for help on Oct. 25, 1993, as her screaming husband raged outside. Several jurors frowned, one bowed her head, closing her eyes in evident concentration, and another shifted her gaze back and forth between Darden and the grieving families of the two victims.
For the Brown family, the tape was particularly wrenching, as it depicts their sobbing daughter pleading for help as their son-in-law screamed epithets at her. Her mother, Juditha Brown, sat still, her hands joined in a steeple of prayer and her eyes filling with tears as her daughter’s voice filled the courtroom. Lou Brown, Nicole’s father, bent his head stoically and handed his wife a tissue, which she held in one hand.
Tanya Brown, the victim’s sister, cried despite the consoling hugs of her boyfriend, who cradled her in both arms.
Although jurors had heard the tape before, Darden asked them to focus on certain aspects of it--points that he could raise in argument but not during the introduction of the tape into evidence.
For one thing, Darden said, it indicated Simpson’s lack of concern for expressing his fury in front of his children: They were asleep in the house at the time of the 1993 incident, as they were in 1989 when Simpson battered his wife and in 1994 when she was killed.
“The fact that the kids are in the house,” said Darden, his voice hard and contemptuous, “means nothing to this man.” And after that incident, the prosecutor added, Nicole Simpson surely knew she was going to die: “She knows he’s going to kill her at some point. She doesn’t know at the time that she’s got eight months to live.”
Darden did not spend as long describing the night of the killings, which Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark had detailed the day before. But he said the knife wounds to the two victims represented the eruption of Simpson’s rage, the explosion that resulted when the fuse finally burned down.
Each thrust relieved some of that rage, Darden said. By the time Simpson was done, he was calm again, the prosecutor added, so calm that “he just walked away.”
Witnesses Not Called
As Darden continued his argument, he launched an aggressive attack on the defense team and its lead trial lawyer, Cochran, who just a year ago was a friend and mentor to Darden. By Wednesday, there was no sign of that past affection.
Instead, the younger prosecutor hammered at Cochran’s opening statement, delivered eight months ago, reminding the jury of the witnesses that Cochran promised he would call and noting that they never made it to the witness stand, at least in front of the jury.
Rosa Lopez had been promised as a witness who would provide Simpson an alibi; after a halting and unconvincing performance during cross-examination outside the jury’s presence, the defense elected not to call her. Mary Anne Gerchas had been promised to say that she saw four men, none of them Simpson, running from the area where the crimes were committed; after she was arrested and charged with fraud, the defense dropped her as well.
Darden cited each of those disappearing witnesses along with others such as A.C. Cowlings and Paula Barbieri, Simpson’s friend and girlfriend, respectively. And he called the jury’s attention to a missing piece of Simpson’s case. If Simpson did not commit the murders, Darden asked, where is the evidence about where he was when the crimes were committed?
Cochran had promised the jury that it would hear evidence that the defendant was chipping golf balls, but Simpson never took the stand. Although prosecutors may not comment on a defendant’s failure to testify, Darden did remind the jury that it never heard evidence about chipping golf balls or other details regarding Simpson’s whereabouts.
“What you really wanted to know . . . is: Where was he at the time of the murders?” Darden said. “Right?”
Jurors did not respond audibly or visibly, but Darden answered the question himself.
“That is the kind of evidence that raises a reasonable doubt,” he said. “They didn’t do that.”
Even more significantly, the prosecutor said, was the defense’s failure to call Dr. Lenore Walker, a nationally recognized expert on domestic violence. In his opening statement, Cochran said Walker would testify that Simpson did not exhibit the signs of a wife batterer.
But Walker never took the stand, leaving that portion of the prosecution case uncontested. “Why didn’t they call Dr. Walker?” Darden asked. That time, he left the question provocatively unanswered.
Garvey, Jenner in Audience
Wednesday’s session drew the customary coterie of celebrities to Ito’s courtroom--as well as bomb threats outside the building--but this time, two of the luminaries were former Simpson friends, Bruce Jenner and Steve Garvey, who have come to believe that their friend committed the double murder.
Kris Jenner, who is married to Bruce Jenner and is Simpson attorney Robert Kardashian’s ex-wife, was once a possible prosecution witness who had said that Nicole Simpson confided to her that she feared O.J. Simpson. And Candace Garvey did take the stand as part of the prosecution case to describe Simpson’s demeanor at a dance recital the night of the murders.
Darden mentioned her testimony Wednesday, and she sat pensively a few feet away, staring ahead as her husband tightened his arm around her. Kris Jenner also sat with her husband, stiffly watching as the prosecutor wound together the strands of his case.
“There’s an immense sadness because of having known him and seen someone who was obviously a self-made man . . . and now to see him really at the depths of society,” Steve Garvey said outside court.
“You can see it in his eyes,” Garvey said. “The great athletes, you can read their emotions in their eyes. . . . If we were to look into each other’s eyes, he would know that I know he did it.”
‘Where’s the Fuse Now?’
As Cochran tried to dissuade jurors from adopting that impression, he seemed to find an attentive audience. Several took notes, particularly as the defense lawyer took aim at the prosecution’s timeline for the killings and its description of the reason for the thumps that Brian (Kato) Kaelin reported hearing on the night of the murders.
The timeline, Cochran said, was riddled with inconsistencies and weakened by the testimony of defense witnesses. Together, they established that Simpson could not have committed the murders and still be home in time to meet an airport limousine shortly before 11 p.m. that night. And the thumps, Cochran said, mysteriously sounded “more like a signal” than someone stumbling into an air conditioner in the darkness, as prosecutors had argued.
Cochran also displayed his own defensiveness, however, as he attempted to downplay Darden’s accusations about witnesses he promised but did not call to the stand.
“He had the audacity to stand up here and say, ‘Well, they didn’t call Lenore Walker,’ ” Cochran said. “We didn’t call Lenore Walker because it wasn’t necessary.”
The prosecution contention that Simpson was a brooding, obsessive ex-husband who killed Nicole Simpson because he had failed to control her was belied by the evidence, Cochran said. In contrast to Candace Garvey’s description of Simpson as brooding during the dance recital, Cochran played a videotape that showed him after the event, smiling and hugging his son and greeting family members.
Simpson, sitting at the defense table, smiled as that tape played and as a photograph of him and his daughter was displayed to the panel.
“Where’s the fuse now, Mr. Darden?” Cochran demanded.
The photograph and tape, Cochran added, “put the lie to that theory” of domestic violence forming the motive for the killings.
Throughout his argument, Cochran, with increasing force and anger, derided the prosecution case. He referred to the prosecutors as “Dr. Clark” and “Dr. Darden” for their interpretations of expert testimony. And he dismissed their case as specious, cynical and speculative.
As he has for more than a year, Cochran said his client was an “innocent man, wrongfully accused.” And the prosecution’s attempt to prove otherwise, he insisted, strained credibility.
“If they tried to sell this story to ‘Murder, She Wrote,’ ” Cochran argued, “they would send it back and say it was unbelievable.”
Times staff writer Kenneth Reich contributed to this article.
* ROLE REVERSAL: Some courtroom celebrities are friends of the defendant or victims, others are preparing for acting roles. A18
* SUBSTANCE AND SYMBOLS: In the courtroom drama, final arguments are the grand soliloquies. A18