Scheck Moves From Sidelines to Center Stage
When New York law professor Barry Scheck shared center stage with Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. on Thursday, it marked the culmination of a year in which he moved from a narrow, specialized spot on O.J. Simpson’s defense team to a starring role.
“This case has turned Barry into a household name,” said Southwestern University law professor Myrna Raeder. “Barry has a brilliant mind and it’s not simply that he can talk about DNA. He is carrying the entire scientific case on his back in closing arguments,” added Raeder, who also is a DNA expert.
The pugnacious Scheck came to national prominence during a withering eight-day cross-examination of LAPD criminalist Dennis Fung in April. By the time Scheck was done with him, Fung was reeling and Scheck had staged a seminal event in the defense’s assault on the prosecution’s “mountain” of physical evidence.
By late May, after Scheck had raised further questions about the prosecution case during his cross-examination of LAPD criminalist Colin Yamauchi, defense lawyer Gigi Gordon compared Scheck to a termite relentlessly gnawing away at the foundation of the prosecution case.
By Thursday, Scheck had supplanted F. Lee Bailey, perhaps the most prominent member of the “Dream Team” before the case started, and Robert L. Shapiro, the polished Century City lawyer who became so famous early in the case that his photograph was flashed on the screen at a Rolling Stones concert.
Scheck’s clear presentation Thursday provided an artful complement to Cochran’s emotional appeal to the jurors, Gordon said.
“It’s the will and the way,” Gordon said. “Johnnie went for the jurors’ hearts to give them the will to acquit and Barry showed them the way. In essence, he told the jurors they didn’t have to get to the prosecution’s ‘mountain of evidence’ because we--the defense--have blown up the road leading to the mountain by exposing the lack of integrity of their evidence.”
Scheck ridiculed the way the evidence was gathered and the people who gathered it. He invoked the image of the LAPD lab as “a black hole” and asserted that everything that came out of it was polluted.
“The core of the prosecution’s case is built on perjurious testimony of police officers, unreliable forensic evidence and manufactured evidence. It is a cancer at the heart of this case,” he said, pacing back and forth in front of the jury, shaking his head, looking alternately shocked and scornful.
At another point, Scheck assailed the credibility of key evidence about socks found in Simpson’s bedroom by comparing it to finding a cockroach in a bowl of spaghetti.
“Do you then take every strand of that bowl of spaghetti to look for more cockroaches or do you just throw it away and eat no more?” he asked, suggesting that the defense had exposed such fundamental problems that jurors should reject the entire prosecution case.
After a three-hour assault on the integrity of the prosecution’s evidence, Scheck concluded with a sweeping thrust. He told the jurors that if they rendered a guilty verdict, “no one is safe. The Constitution means nothing. This cannot, will not and shall not happen in this country with you good people.”
The invocation of moral principles along with technical points came as no surprise to San Francisco defense lawyer Harold Rosenthal, a friend of Scheck’s since they met at law school at Berkeley in 1971.
“Barry is a passionate man who has an incredible capacity for becoming involved with ideas on a visceral level and, because he can connect with ideas that way, he is very good at communicating that understanding to his students or to jurors,” Rosenthal added.
“He’s passionately concerned with constitutional rights and always identified intensely with the underdog,” Rosenthal said.
Indeed, after graduating from law school in 1974, Scheck worked on a project seeking to expose abuses in federal grand juries and then spent three years as a Legal Aid lawyer representing poor defendants in the Bronx.
In 1978, Scheck was hired to run the clinical program at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School in Greenwich Village. It is now praised as one of the best in the country.
At the clinic, Scheck and longtime colleague Peter Neufeld created the Innocence Project, which has used DNA testing to free a dozen people previously convicted of crimes. “That record is simply incredible,” said Cardozo professor Lester Brickman.
But some of his longtime associates were surprised--even angry--when Scheck joined Simpson’s glitzy “Dream Team.”
“He’s defined himself as a political lawyer, not just as a hired gun criminal lawyer,” said Ellen Yaroshefsky, associate clinical professor at Cardozo. “So when he first got involved in a case where some progressive lawyers thought the defendant was a classic wife batterer, those people believed Barry was on the wrong side. He took grief from that,” said Yaroshefsky, who said she was one of the critics.
To some, the Simpson case seemed out of character for Scheck, who lives with his social worker wife and two children in a Brooklyn apartment. But Yaroshefsky said he saw the trial as an important test case to protect the way scientific evidence is used in the courtroom.
“For the last eight years, he’s been involved in ensuring the scientific reliability and the integrity of DNA in the courtroom,” Yaroshefsky said. “That’s exactly what he’s done in the Simpson case and in cases where we’ve used DNA to prove that people are not guilty.”
The same diligence that Scheck brought to his teaching and the Innocence Project brought him to the fore in the Simpson case, said Los Angeles defense lawyer Gerald L. Chaleff.
“When Johnnie Cochran sees a talented, hard-working individual, he utilizes him. Obviously, as the case went on and the scientific issues became more important, his role in the case increased.”
From the start, Scheck has had a distinct presence in Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito’s courtroom. He has frequently quarreled with the judge and the prosecutors.
Even some of Scheck’s fans think he talks too much. “His only weakness is that he doesn’t know when to stop,” said UCLA Law School professor Peter Arenella. But Arenella quickly added that “it is no accident that Johnnie Cochran chose Scheck to share center stage with him Thursday because he is the real superstar on the Dream Team.”
“Scheck may hold the keys to O.J.'s jail cell in his capable hands because Cochran’s heated rhetoric about the ‘twin demons of deception’ and the jury’s responsibility to ‘end the cover-up’ and repudiate police racism by acquitting O.J. can only work if Scheck’s attack on the integrity of the DNA evidence succeeds.”
After Scheck finished his summation Thursday, Cochran praised him while obliquely alluding to Scheck’s East Coast roots and approach that has offered a distinct contrast to Cochran’s silky charm.
“Barry may be from Brooklyn, but he’s become a Californian,” Cochran said in his final address to the jury. “He’s a very valued member of our defense team.”