O.J. Simpson's civil lawyer, gearing up to fight two wrongful-death suits, Thursday asked a Santa Monica judge to impose a gag order on everyone connected with the cases, arguing that all pretrial proceedings--including questioning of the former football star--should be kept secret.
Attorney Robert C. Baker argued that the public does not have a right to know details of an upcoming deposition, in which lawyers representing Ronald Lyle Goldman's parents and Nicole Brown Simpson's estate are expected to grill Simpson as they try to build a case against him.
Simpson was acquitted on criminal charges of murdering his ex-wife and Goldman. But the victims' families have pressed their cases in civil court, trying to peg Simpson as a killer despite the swift not-guilty verdicts handed down by jurors earlier this month.
Because the constitutional right against self-incrimination extends only to criminal matters, Simpson cannot invoke the 5th Amendment during the civil trials. He must testify--and, as a prelude, answer questions during fact-finding depositions, which usually take place in a lawyer's office. If he fails to respond to the interrogations, he loses the cases by default.
In papers filed Thursday, Baker argued that publicizing Simpson's statements during the depositions would make it "practically impossible to obtain an impartial jury." Therefore, he said, the deposition transcripts should be sealed, and lawyers and litigants on both sides should be barred from commenting.
"This court is faced with the daunting dilemma of permitting justice, but precluding exploitation of such justice by the media," Baker wrote. If Simpson's remarks hit the press, he added, they could "not only taint the jury pool, but also could adversely affect the witnesses."
Attorney Michael A. Brewer, who represents Goldman's mother, Sharon Rufo, said he would "vigorously oppose" Simpson's move to seal the depositions. But lawyers for Goldman's father and Nicole Simpson's estate said they had not yet decided whether to fight the proposed gag order. No depositions will take place until Superior Court Judge Alan B. Haber resolves the issue after a Nov. 15 hearing.
Haber is scheduled to hear arguments on several other motions that day as well. Simpson has asked that the two suits against him be consolidated into a single action. Already, Goldman's parents, Fred Goldman and Rufo, have combined their wrongful-death claims.
Simpson's lawyer also has requested a judicial order banning the victims' families from videotaping the deposition. Taken down verbatim by an official court reporter, depositions are frequently videotaped as well--and sometimes played during trials to point up contradictions in a witness's remarks or to bolster live testimony.
The lawyers representing Goldman's parents, who are divorced and retain separate counsel, said they will push hard for a videotaped deposition. "We want to preserve Mr. Simpson's demeanor as he answers questions we've been waiting to ask him for more than a year," Brewer said.
Representing Fred Goldman, veteran civil attorney Daniel M. Petrocelli has filed a motion to prevent the district attorney's office and Los Angeles Police Department from returning to Simpson various evidence collected from his home and car during the criminal investigation. That evidence--ranging from fibers scraped off Simpson's Ford Bronco to size 12 sneakers seized from his closet--may be used during the civil trial, so it should be turned over to a neutral custodian instead of handed back to the defendant, Petrocelli argued.
"The defense made a major point in the criminal case about contamination and corruption of evidence, and we want to be sure they need not have the same worries in this case," Petrocelli said. "We want the evidence preserved intact, so it doesn't get damaged or lost."
Backed up by a team of lawyers from the firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, Petrocelli will try to succeed where a dozen veteran prosecutors failed and convince jurors that Simpson "willfully, wantonly and maliciously" killed Ron Goldman, a 25-year-old waiter who was found slashed to death in Brentwood on the morning of June 13, 1994.
Although he will deal with similar evidence, Petrocelli said he will not present a rerun of the marathon criminal trial, with its exhaustive presentations on DNA, hairs, fibers and barking dogs.
"We try cases completely different than the criminal [prosecutors]," Brewer agreed. "The one benefit from having already [completed] the criminal case is that prosecutors have done a lot of the investigation."
Brewer said he intends to question several people from the criminal trial, as well as Simpson himself. He is sending deposition subpoenas to Simpson's guest house tenant, Brian (Kato) Kaelin; Simpson's adult children, Arnelle and Jason; his best friend, Al Cowlings; and his lawyer and friend Robert Kardashian. "We want to move forward as quickly as possible," Brewer said.
The Goldman and Rufo lawsuit against Simpson is tentatively set for trial on April 22 in Santa Monica. A trial judge will not be selected until the case begins.