O.J. Simpson's widely publicized chance to reclaim an image marred by the murder charges that hung over his head for more than a year ended in a last-minute fiasco Wednesday, with Simpson backing out of a scheduled TV interview hours before it was to air because he feared it would be a "confrontation" rather than a "conversation."
According to Tom Brokaw, the anchor of the NBC "Nightly News" and one of two network journalists scheduled to conduct the session, Simpson's attorneys pulled out of the appearance after balking at topics that the network was preparing to broach--including pointed queries about Simpson's whereabouts on the night of the murders and about his relationship with his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson.
Simpson's lawyers said they were not aware of specific questions that were planned, but acknowledged that they were concerned about signals they were getting from NBC about the nature of the interview and the format for the program in which it would air.
"It was agreed that this would be a conversation, not a confrontation," Simpson said in a statement read by his lead trial lawyer, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. "Because of pending litigation, there would be some questions that I could not obviously address at this time."
In an interview with a New York Times television writer, Simpson said he had backed out of the NBC session because his lawyers "told me I was being set up. They felt the interview was going to be tantamount to a grand jury hearing."
Simpson did not discuss details of the murders, according to the New York Times, but reiterated his claims of innocence and acknowledged that he had been wrong to "get physical" with his wife during a 1989 altercation. He disputed reports that he was broke and that he was set to marry girlfriend Paula Barbieri, and he said he was willing to meet with battered women.
The abrupt cancellation of the NBC interview came after Simpson's attorneys unanimously recommended against going through with the interview, according to Cochran, who said he and his colleagues were concerned about the implications for three pending wrongful death suits against the former football star. Cochran called it "folly" for Simpson to address questions about the case while he had civil litigation pending.
But Simpson's decision, while legally prudent, was a public relations disaster, emboldening critics who called him a coward for backing out of the interview and raising new questions about his reluctance to field questions about murders that he has always denied committing.
"If he were innocent, we'd be seeing something else today," said Tammy Bruce, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, which had protested the scheduled interview with Simpson, a convicted batterer. "We've had enough of this pathetic display of bravado."
In an interview shortly after the scheduled appearance was canceled, Brokaw said Cochran had indicated to the network that his client would not answer questions about the timing of events on the night of the murders. As it happened, Brokaw said, those were the first questions that he and colleague Katie Couric intended to ask.
"We were prepared to begin with the many explanations for Mr. Simpson's whereabouts between 9:36 and 10:54 p.m. on the night of June 12, 1994," said Brokaw, adding that he intended specifically to ask Simpson why Cochran had told the jury that his client was chipping golf balls that evening when Simpson never mentioned that to police.
That night, according to testimony, Simpson told a limousine driver that he overslept, implying that he had been taking a nap. Then, after he was acquitted of murdering Nicole Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, Simpson called in during CNN's "Larry King Live" and said he had been packing to leave for Chicago when the limousine driver saw a tall, black person head into the front door of his house.
The same driver, however, testified that the lights in the house were off until the shadowy figure entered.
Brokaw said one of his questions was: "Were you preparing for a trip in the dark?"
Brokaw, who said he prepared for the interview by reading trial transcripts and other documents related to the case, added that he and his colleagues had prepared "an extensive section of the interview on his relationship with Nicole."
Former Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said he also prepped Brokaw.
Simpson would have been asked about past instances of domestic abuse and about his self-description as a "battered husband," Brokaw said, adding that he intended to turn to Simpson and say: "Mr. Simpson, you beat the hell out of your wife."
But Simpson's lawyers, mindful of their client's continuing legal troubles--he faces three wrongful death lawsuits filed by relatives of Goldman and Nicole Simpson--decided Simpson would be better off not fielding questions in front of a national television audience, even one tuned in to the network that employed Simpson as a football commentator for years.
"Why give them free discovery?" defense attorney Carl E. Douglas asked.
Experienced civil lawyers agreed that the most prudent course was to withdraw.
"I believe that any reasonable lawyer who was defending Mr. Simpson would not want him to go on television and be interviewed when he has yet to give any testimony under oath," said Larry Feldman, a prominent Santa Monica lawyer. "There was no benefit for him to give a one-hour interview to the press with these cases pending. I'm shocked that he was going to do it."
Simpson Changes Heart
According to sources within the Simpson defense and inside NBC, the initial agreement to do the interview was reached directly between Simpson and NBC executives and was not reviewed first by Simpson's lawyers. In part, that was because Simpson worked for years at NBC and remains close friends with Don Ohlmeyer, the network's West Coast president, who attended Simpson's welcome home bash after last week's acquittals.
Sources close to Simpson said he hoped his friendship with Ohlmeyer and his association with NBC might ensure gentle treatment by the network.
One member of the defense team said Simpson had been "somewhat naive" in thinking "he would just tell his story on NBC."
The negotiations for NBC's aborted scoop began shortly after the verdict. Ohlmeyer approached NBC President Bob Wright last Friday about Simpson's interest in doing an interview, sources said. Simpson's advisers had been trying to put together a pay-per-view deal for him, but distributors said they would not carry it.
In an interview Wednesday, NBC News President Andrew Lack said Ohlmeyer told Wright that Simpson had said he wanted no payment and that NBC could make no profit off the interview.
Wright responded that if there were no restrictions on the interview, then Simpson should talk to Lack, the news division president said. Ohlmeyer contacted him later on Friday, and Simpson and Lack discussed the interview by phone Sunday.
"He was very anxious to talk," Lack said. "There was never any confusion about what questions we were going to ask. The only problem was whether he was free to answer them. He also made it very clear that he didn't want to be cross-examined by a bunch of lawyers."
But Simpson was angered that NBC claimed credit for the decision to run the interview without commercials--a move that Simpson said he had insisted upon--and members of his legal team were concerned about the implications for the civil cases and about certain aspects of the format. Specifically, Simpson's lawyers said they were worried about NBC's decision to follow the interview with an hourlong segment featuring legal analysts.
"One of the problems with the format was it would not just be the American public listening to Tom and Katie talking to O.J.," said Peter Neufeld, one of Simpson's attorneys. "There would have been a half-dozen spinmeisters telling the public how to react to it. Those same pundits distorted much of the evidence during the trial, and that caused some of the reaction to the verdicts. Who knows if that wouldn't have happened again?"
Cochran vehemently opposed the interview from the beginning, and stepped up his objections after catching wind of the areas that Brokaw and Couric intended to explore.
Lack said Cochran called him Tuesday night and expressed reservations about the interview going forward as scheduled. Although the news executives said specific questions were not discussed with Cochran, it was clear that Simpson would be asked about the timeline on the night of the murders and other facts about the trial.
"Mr. Cochran expressed some concern about the line of questions," Lack said, "and I said, 'Johnnie, our understanding from the beginning was that we would be free to ask any questions we want. Your client made it clear to me that any and all questions would be fair game,' " Lack said, adding, "I said, 'If he's unable to answer all of the questions you would get from any serious news organization, then we do have a problem.' "
Sources close to the defense said Simpson has never performed well in practice sessions set up to prepare him for the possibility of testifying. Cochran has denied those comments, but joined with other lawyers on the team in advising Simpson not to take the stand.
Prosecutors had all but dared Simpson to take the stand during his trial. When Simpson was allowed to speak to Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito outside the jury's presence, an irate Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark suggested that he take a seat in the witness box.
"May he take a seat in the blue chair, and we'll have a discussion?" she asked sharply.
Simpson ignored that suggestion, electing to send the case to the jury without ever telling his side of the story--and without facing cross-examination.
On Wednesday, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said Simpson had the same rights as any citizen to speak out and be heard, but added: "There's no doubt in my mind or in the minds of most people that they would have preferred Mr. Simpson to speak from the witness stand under oath, understanding every defendant has the right not to testify if he or she chooses not to."
Asked if he was surprised that Simpson backed out of the interview, Garcetti said: "I don't think anything about this case surprises us."
'Public Relations Nightmare'
The prospect of Simpson appearing on national television to address charges that he had declined to discuss under oath ignited a major public controversy, with NOW and others protesting the scheduled interview and calling for a boycott of NBC sponsors.
On Wednesday, Bruce said that pressure helped force NBC to take a tougher approach to its interview--which, in turn, caused Simpson to back out. She dismissed the Simpson team's contention that the reason for the cancellation was the pending civil litigation; after all, she said, those suits were filed in June, and their status had not changed since last week, when Simpson agreed to the interview with NBC.
"This interview was something that was intended to be beneficial to all parties, Simpson and NBC," Bruce said. "They're underestimating our intelligence if they don't think we know that."
In his statement, Simpson seemed to allude to the public pressure and acknowledged that it might have affected NBC's approach to the interview.
"It has become clear that NBC has, perhaps in an attempt to appease diverse public viewpoints, concluded that this would be a time and an opportunity to retry me," Simpson said.
In a Wednesday morning phone call with Simpson and Cochran, NBC's Lack said Simpson "expressed concern that clearly an atmosphere was developing" in which, Simpson and his attorneys believed, NBC would face Simpson "as prosecutors, not journalists, cross-examining him."
"I said, 'This is a TV studio, not a witness stand tonight,' " Lack recalled. "But our job as journalists is to ask you the tough questions you know are on everyone's minds."
At that point, according to Lack, Simpson said: "I want to do the interview--I wish I could. But I have nine lawyers telling me it's inappropriate for me to go forward with the interview."
Former Dist. Atty. Reiner said he helped Brokaw prepare for the session and agreed that it would have been rough on Simpson.
"Tom was prepared for the interview of his life," Reiner said of Brokaw. "Tom was just loaded. He read every word of Marcia Clark's closing argument. Every fact in the case is somewhere in that argument. For a research tool, it's a great place to start. Simpson would have been in for the time of his life."
The decision to drop the interview means Simpson will duck that confrontation. But it damaged his efforts to recapture his public image and set back his campaign to win a broad public vindication to accompany his legal acquittals.
"If O.J.'s intending to repair his public image, he's taken a big step backward," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor. "I guess he didn't have enough time to memorize a script."
Michael Sitrick, chairman of the Century City-based Sitrick and Co., a financial public relations firm, called the cancellation "a public relations nightmare."
But the Rev. Jesse Jackson, speaking at the offices of the Brotherhood Crusade, said he was pleased that Simpson had elected not to speak.
"Now is the time for O.J. Simpson to spend time with his family and try to bond with the grandparents of his children," Jackson said.
"People need some distance from all of this," he added. "It's a time for healing and a critical time for O.J. to work through all the legal actions he still faces. He should try to appeal to some women's group and discuss domestic violence."
The attorney for Nicole Simpson's family, meanwhile, applauded the cancellation of the interview, which she said was tasteless for Simpson to have granted.
"I believe that if Mr. Simpson wanted to give his side of the story he should have testified in the criminal case under oath and under penalty of perjury," said Gloria Allred, who represents the Brown family. "I found it appalling that he wanted to grant an interview to NBC where he would be talking without being under oath."
Simpson's immediate plans are unclear. His lawyers said they will concentrate on the civil cases, which are being handled by Robert C. Baker, a distinguished civil attorney who was the national president of the American Board of Trial Advocates in 1994.
And Baker said Wednesday that while he expects Simpson not to speak out publicly for now, the former football star will someday address the still-unanswered questions about the murders.
"I don't think it's time to retry him," Baker said. "All those questions will be answered . . . at a time when the civil litigation has been terminated."
Times staff writers Greg Braxton, Duke Helfand and Frank Williams in Los Angeles and Jane Hall in New York contributed to this report.