THE SIMPSON LEGACY / LOS ANGELES TIMES SPECIAL REPORT : Trial & Error: FOCUS SHIFTS TO A JUSTICE SYSTEM AND ITS FLAWS : Weighing the Necessity of Change : How One Case May Reshape Criminal Justice in America : The D.A. / "It's like a death in the family."

While the LAPD has attempted to maintain a business-as-usual facade in the days since O.J. Simpson's acquit tal, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office has openly agonized over its loss.

The pain of losing another big case the office expected to win is too fresh, and many prosecutors still cannot fathom how--after nine months of trial--the Simpson jury returned a not guilty verdict in less time than it takes to have a long lunch.

"It's like a death in the family," said Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman, the elder statesman of the Simpson prosecutorial team. "I've gone through numbness, disbelief, anger. It really hurts."

In an interview two days after the verdicts, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said that a few hours after Simpson's acquittal, he walked among his deputies on the 17th and 18th floors of the Downtown Criminal Courts Building "because I just sensed it's a time for the boss to be seen."

What he saw, he said, was that the verdicts had delivered "a body blow to everyone in the office. It hurt. There was pain involved, real pain."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Yochelson, who along with Hodgman coordinated the efforts of the Simpson prosecutors, said, "I think there is a dispiriting effect." Most of the office's lawyers, he added, "routinely prosecute cases equally as serious as this one every day in anonymity and only with the most basic of resources."

"This case stood as a symbol to many of all of the other cases being prosecuted in this county. Therefore, the loss is felt by everybody."

Some observers have predicted that by failing to stem his agency's string of losses in high-profile cases, Garcetti has placed his political future in jeopardy. The chief prosecutor has been criticized for what some in his office call "micro-management" of the Simpson prosecution.

Moreover, some of those demoralized deputies described by Garcetti and Yochelson have privately suggested they have lost faith in their boss, accusing him of mismanaging the case.

Some have gone further. In recent weeks, according to well-informed sources within the office and Downtown political circles, groups of deputies have organized to solicit candidates to run against Garcetti when he seeks reelection in March. One of those approached was prominent criminal defense attorney Gerald L. Chaleff, a former president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. who briefly worked as a prosecutor early in his career. But Chaleff is not interested in the proposition, sources say.

Other deputies hope to draft Robert C. Bonner, a former federal district judge, U.S. attorney and head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. He is now a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, one of the city's largest law firms. Garcetti is well aware of the political threat he faces. "Somebody's going to try to take advantage," he said.

At a glitzy, $500-a-ticket political fund-raiser in Westwood two nights after the verdicts, Garcetti intimated that the worst-case scenario for his reelection would be if, on top of the Simpson outcome, Lyle and Erik Menendez were acquitted in their retrial, which began last month in Van Nuys.

The brothers have admitted killing their parents in Beverly Hills in 1990. But two juries deadlocked on first-degree murder charges against them after hearing defense evidence that the pair were in fear for their lives after enduring years of psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of their wealthy parents.

That inconclusive result is often cited by critics who say the district attorney's office cannot win the "big cases."

Also cited are the 1990 acquittals, after five years of criminal proceedings, of Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son Ray in what became known as the McMartin child molestation case; the acquittals of three LAPD officers who were videotaped beating Rodney G. King, verdicts that sparked three days of riots, and acquittals on the most serious charges of three men videotaped attacking truck driver Reginald O. Denny during the riots.

Many former prosecutors are unusually critical of the agency's performance in the Simpson case, particularly because the prosecution involved 13 full-time and at least as many part-time lawyers--all of whom were working with what they termed "mountains" of irrefutable evidence against the former football star.

Vincent Bugliosi, a former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who successfully prosecuted the Charles Manson family for mass murder, said Garcetti heads an office "that can bring in a C-plus but not an A-plus" result, even though it has dedicated and hard-working trial deputies.

Beyond Garcetti's own future, many prosecutors believe that the Simpson acquittal has raised serious issues concerning their office's relationship to the criminal justice system, the LAPD and the public at large.

Hodgman, for one, is apprehensive about the case's impact on the jury system. "I'm very concerned about the dynamics of long-term sequestration and what impact it had on the jury's deliberation and verdict," he said. "I would like to know to what extent that factor came into play.

"I think the answer about this result is very, very complex. There were a variety of dynamic forces at work in this case, including the extraordinarily high degree of media interest, coupled with a celebrity defendant, coupled with cameras being allowed in the courtroom and long-term sequestration," he said. "Some of these influences were seductive and caused people to behave differently than they ordinarily would behave--jurors, witnesses, attorneys and the judge."

Hodgman took note of City Council members calling for a top-to-bottom review of the police crime lab. "I hope those entities would ask us for input. We all learn from these things. Things may not go the way you want, but it may be the catalyst for change."

In his interview, Garcetti took particular note of LAPD criminalist Dennis Fung's non-functioning refrigerator in the truck in which crime scene evidence was stored.

"There's a desperation throughout this country for the criminal justice system to work--to protect the innocent and hold the guilty accountable. There are two questions that must be asked: What do the people want and what are they willing to pay for?

"The LAPD is dramatically understaffed and doesn't have the equipment any first-class police department should have."

Other problems will linger, perhaps for some time, Yochelson said.

"The criticism that was heaped upon the LAPD, the exposure to Fuhrman, will carry over in the minds of people and make it more difficult to prosecute cases that hinge on the credibility of officers," Yochelson said.

Said one veteran prosecutor, who asked not to be identified: "Everything in this case was put under the microscope, and not everything the LAPD did passed muster."

The prosecutor added: "LAPD should have been on the alert to do things more carefully," including the handling of the crime scene. "We're in an age where police work is going to take a little more dramatic turn. Scientific evidence is so important, and you have detectives who are used to tramping through crime scenes."

But the prosecutor also said that some events in the case were explicable only by the nature of the defendant. "Here you have [tow truck driver] John Mraz ripping souvenirs out of the Bronco. To me, the celebrity factor skews things so dramatically."

Another repercussion of the case, Garcetti and Yochelson acknowledged, could be called the "where's-the-Elmo effect."

The Elmo is a sophisticated device donated for the Simpson trial that allowed lawyers to project documents, slides and video clips onto a large screen above the witness stand. Both sides also used an array of computer equipment.

Prosecutors, in addition, had access to what Garcetti estimates was hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of charts and graphics, created and provided free by a South Bay trial presentation and consulting firm.

But that is not what the average crime victim and juror will see. That point was illustrated, Yochelson said, when a Simpson prosecutor recently walked into a non-Simpson colleague's office and interrupted him before court.

"He was preparing for his case with an old poster board, Magic Marker and a hand-drawn street map, like we always do," Yochelson said. "That's what I'll be doing next month or whenever I get back to trial."

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