THE O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL
UCLA law professor Peter Arenella and Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson have offered their take throughout the Simpson trial. Today they are joined by former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, Denver’s Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Silverman, law professors Paul Rothstein of Georgetown and Karen Smith of Southwestern and defense attorneys Gerald L. Chaleff, Gigi Gordon, Jill Lansing, Harland W. Braun, Albert De Blanc, Jr. and John Burris. Today’s Topic: The end at last.
PETER ARENELLA: Three lessons learned from the Trial of the Century: 1) Racism still infects our institutions, and its impact on our lives generates different visions of what constitutes ‘truth and justice.’ Time will tell whether Simpson jurors can find common ground. 2) Adversarial trials only examine two versions of the truth--O.J. is guilty and the police did nothing wrong or incompetent and corrupt police framed an innocent man. Left unexamined is a third possibility--O.J. is guilty, but serious misconduct occurred. 3) High-profile trials are aberrations because plea-bargaining resolves 90% of criminal cases. But this ‘show trial’ illustrates how much justice rests on the defendant’s ability to pay for the best defense.
LAURIE LEVENSON: It’s been a wild ride. Prosecutors began and ended with a mountain of physical evidence. From DNA fingerprints to a trail of expensive shoerpints, they linked O.J. to the murders. The gloves almost didn’t fit, but evrything else did, especially their explanation that the one-time hero committed the heinous crimes because of his fatal attraction to Nicole. But there were landmines, everywhere. Just as in closing arguments, the defense raised every possible obstacle. They fought the forensics, albeit with flying DNA and a conspiracy second to none. In the end, their strongest weapon was Johnnie Cochran--a lawyer with thunder in his voice and a willingnes in his heart to play the race card, no matter how high the stakes.
GERALD L. CHALEFF: Each side gave the jurors hooks to hang their hats on, if they want to find in their favor. Prosecutors presented a moutain of scientific evidence and the unanswered question: If not O.J., who? However, they were plagued by incompetent or deceitful witnesses. The defense always was on the offense, attacking the scientific evidence at every turn--at times with incredible effect. But they, too, had their glitches, including witnesses who provided devastating evidence for the prosecution. Thus, they fell back on the notion that since Simpson’s persona rendered him incapable of murder, he was being framed by racist and dishonest police. Will the jury decide this case with their hearts or their minds?
GIGI GORDON: Over all, the defense did the better job because they made the prosecutors fight the battle on ground of their choosing. It was a little like the colonists and the Redcoats--lure them into the trees and snipe at them. Marcia Clark, Chris Darden et al--with their red coats and brass buttons--wandered right into the defense forest and never quite found their way home. Whatever the jury decides, that’s what happened. They thought this battle would be fought by their rules and the defense, like good guerrilla fighters, improvised. What we have here is Barry Scheck as a kind of legal Che. In more conventional terms, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office simply was ‘out-lawyered'--again.
JILL LANSING: If their evidence was a prosecutor’s dream, their witness problems were a prosecutor’s nightmare. Add to this a folk-hero defendant and his talent-laden lawyers and you have the phenomenon we have witnessed for the past year. While the defense passionately urged jurors to look at evidentiary and social ills, the prosecution pleaded for a reasoned focus on scientific evidence and a memory of two senseless deaths. For many, the results are inescapable. The only problem is that this self-evident truth seems to differ radically depending on whose eyes are viewing the evidence. Whether these 12 individuals will reach agreement may be a test of far more than just Simpson’s guilt or innocence.
HARLAND W. BRAUN: Three prosecutorial mistakes defined the case: 1) Taking the case downtown, so Gil Garcetti could benefit from greater publicity. 2) The police lie that officers went to Rockingham simply to notify Simpson and not because he was a suspect. They were stuck with that lie because, without it, their search was illegal. 3) Knowing that Mark Fuhrman claimed he was a racist, while LAPD claimed he was just a liar, proscutors gambled and put him on the stand. On the other side, genius is when preparation meets opportunity. The defense was ready and Fuhrman was the opportunity. Finally, the defense blunted the scientific evidence enough to win the symbolic case, which was: Don’t let Fuhrman beat Simpson.
ROBERT PHILIBOSIAN: The final arguments mirrored the cases presented by both sides. The prosecution neatly wrapped up the scientific evidence through the unrefuted evidence pyramid, complemented by the emotional tug of the domestic violence testimony. The defense trumped its own race card through Johnnie Cochran’s zealous oratory and downplayed the effects of the scientific evidence. The defense’s endless and unprecedented objections during rebuttal also mirrored their tactic of tossing hand grenades into the prosecution’s case, constantly trying to knock it off track. But many of their bombs blew up in their own hands, as Marcia Clark turned their own witnesses’ testimony against them in her brilliant rebuttal.
ALBERT DE BLANC: Marcia Clark and Chris Darden were outstanding in their rebuttal arguments. Darden was especially effective with his soft, heart-to-heart discussion, as if he were talking to 14 friends. Overall, his argument was compelling and persuasive. Clark was the voice of reason and did a detailed point-by-point analysis of the core evidence, suggesting to the jury that they put substance ahead of style and evidence ahead of rhetoric. Her unrefuted evidence pyramid was a brilliant way to close. Johnnie Cochran was spectacular. He clearly had the jury enraptured, especially when it came to Fuhrman. Now the question is: will jurors embrace Cochran’s appeal to their hearts or Clark’s appeal to their heads.
PAUL ROTHSTEIN: There is a lot of evidence pointing to O.J.'s guilt, and there is considerable evidence suggesting at least some LAPD corruption and incompetence. That’s what makes it a very difficult case. The jurors are likely to debate most about whether that incompetence and corruption could raise substantial doubt about most of the evidence. One key problem for the prosecution: Clark came to the realization too late--in fact the final paragraph of her rebuttal--that she must leave the memory of a hero unsullied. Jurors might believe that O.J. could fall from the straight-and-narrow but they want to have their memory of the good O.J. The spousal abuse testimony may run counter to the idea that he ever was a good guy.
In large part the trial was embarrassing to those of us in the criminal justice system. But the closing aguments made all of us proud--the finest moments for the attorneys, especially Darden, who has been the object of criticism. But it was unfortunate when he said he was glad he didn’t have the jurors’ job. A prosecutor has to convey his utmost confidence in the correctness of a guilty verdict, and he may have given jurors an easy out. And the prosecutors are haunted by many unneccessary problems they created--the timeline, embracing Fuhrman, not introducing stalking evidence, not putting on the Bronco chase. At one point, Darden said ‘let’s cut to the chase,’ and I wondered what are the jurors thinking?
KAREN SMITH: In many ways, I don’t know what the defense would have done without Fuhrman. He gave their story a villain. Without Fuhrman it wouldn’t have been as easy to say ‘you can’t trust this evidence.’ Among the many open questions, I wonder if the defense still thinks it would have ben such a mistkae for O.J. to testify. After all, prosecutors could say at the end ‘where was O.J.?’ And there was only so much Cochran could say about that. If O.J. testified, he would have taken a beating on domestic violence, but he still could have said something about where he was. Jurors who want to believe him could simply say ‘I find his answer credible.’
JOHN BURRIS: Prosecutors were were totally blinsided by Fuhrman. That was inexcusable. They embraced a man they should have known had a sordid past because they knew what he said about his racism in his old pension case. They tried to rehablitate a snake, and that’s dangerous. That in many ways poisoned their entire case. Still, their commitment to the case was clear. They had an air of confidence that they had the right guy. That’s important, and they really pushed that in closing. Defense lawyers were masterful in directing the case away from O.J. Given what they had to work with, they were superb in creating reasonable doubt. They made a good decision not calling O.J.
Compiled by Tim Rutten and Henry Weinstein / Los Angeles Times