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Defense lawyer Robert Shapiro puts his own spin on his role in the O.J. Simpson trial

<i> Legal Affairs writer Henry Weinstein was part of The Times' team of reporters who covered the O.J. Simpson case</i>

The O.J. Simpson murder case, an aberration in virtually every respect from what happens in the nation’s criminal courtrooms every day, has now brought us a commodity almost as rare as a well-financed defense--the sore winner.

Robert Shapiro and his colleagues gained an acquittal in the most watched trial in history. Yet, he’s not satisfied with legal victory. Fearing that outrage over the verdict reflects badly on him, he seems to have written this book in no small measure to persuade readers--dare I say white readers in particular--that controversial defense tactics were not his idea and that someone else deserves the blame.

In “The Search for Justice,” Shapiro provides a mostly chronological narrative of “the Trial of Century.” He contends that a verdict of acquittal was fully justified because the defense team made Swiss cheese of critical parts of the prosecution case against the former football star: “Their mountain of evidence collapsed under an avalanche of incompetence, contamination and lies.”

Shapiro, who loves to refer to himself as the defense team’s “quarterback,” says that he is proud of his work on behalf of Simpson. Clearly, he rightly can claim credit for making, in the weeks after the grisly June 12, 1994, murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman, a number of critical moves that were instrumental in his client’s eventual acquittal. Among them were hiring forensic scientists Henry Lee, Michael Baden and Barbara Wolf and a top-flight group of attorneys, who came to be known as “the dream team.” By aggressively pushing the case fast, he kept the prosecutors off balance, and his skilled cross-examination of coroner Dr. Irwin Golden at the preliminary hearing provided an early glimpse of serious problems that undermined the prosecution’s case.

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As much as anything, Shapiro’s goal seems to be to convince readers that he is the Atticus Finch of this tragic tale: a good guy who tried honorably to defend a seemingly guilty client in the best American tradition--unlike some of his colleagues, who are less flatteringly portrayed.

In particular, he chastises Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who supplanted him as Simpson’s lead lawyer, for being an irresponsible advocate, unnecessarily escalating the racial dynamics of the case; for engaging in discovery violations and over-promising what the defense could prove in his opening statement. He also derides F. Lee Bailey, his old friend turned enemy, for poor lawyering and for leaking information to the tabloids.

Since the trial ended, Shapiro has managed to wreak some measure of revenge on Bailey, helping federal prosecutors secure Bailey’s incarceration in Florida in a complicated drug case. He may have a more difficult time damaging Cochran, who became a hero among African Americans during the trial.

In his book (for which Shapiro received a $1.5-million advance) and in television appearances hawking it, Shapiro loudly deplores Cochran’s playing “the race card.” Shapiro says the defense did such a good job of creating reasonable doubt that Simpson could have prevailed without Cochran’s dramatic entreaties to the jury in his closing argument to draw a line in the sand against racist police abuse.

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Reader beware: Whatever you think of the verdict, whatever you think of Cochran, don’t kid yourself that the so-called “race card” started with him. Shapiro played that card early, as soon as he learned about some of the problems in detective Mark Fuhrman’s past. That set the tone for one of the critical issues of the case and Shapiro’s attempts to distance himself from it are unconvincing. It is dicey to try to rewrite history if you’re a lawyer and you’ve left tracks.

Keep in mind, Shapiro was no stranger to high-profile cases, having represented actor Marlon Brando’s son Christian in a murder case, as well as movie mogul Robert Evans and New York Mets outfielder Vince Coleman. In fact, Shapiro was known in the Los Angeles legal community for his ability to shape perceptions about a case.

Well before Simpson became his client on June 13, 1994, Shapiro wrote a widely cited article in a legal journal advising other lawyers on how to deal with the press. He advised his colleagues to avoid describing a homicide for which a client was accused as a “tragedy.” Instead, he suggested using a phrase like “horrible human event.” If such phrases are repeated continuously, he wrote, “they will be repeated by the media. After a while, the repetition almost becomes a fact. That is the lawyer’s ultimate goal.” Those are the words of an experienced spin doctor.

Barely a month after the murders and before Cochran joined the defense team, the New Yorker magazine, in its July 25, 1994, issue, published an article by Jeffrey Toobin entitled “An Incendiary Defense.” The story, citing unnamed defense sources, said that Simpson’s defense team, led by Shapiro, was considering “a surprising and dangerous” strategy that centered on Fuhrman, the now world-famous cop who jumped the wall at Simpson’s Rockingham Avenue estate and found a bloody glove that matched one found at the murder scene.

The article said the defense theory was that Fuhrman--a rogue, racist cop--planted the glove at Rockingham as part of an insidious attempt to frame Simpson. The same week, Newsweek published an article with the same thrust but fewer details.

For many months, Shapiro declared to me and other reporters covering the trial, not to mention Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito, that he had never discussed the evidence in the case with journalists--"on or off the record.”

Then, on Feb. 8, 1996, Shapiro abruptly reversed course. At a dinner sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Shapiro, the keynote speaker, said the two articles were the result of duplicity by unnamed reporters from the New Yorker and Newsweek, who told him, in separate conversations, that they were talking off the record. And this from a lawyer who had said he had not discussed evidence, on or off the record.

In the book, Shapiro writes that he felt as if he had been “sucker-punched” by Toobin, himself a lawyer and former student of Shapiro’s co-counsel, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. “I believed my conversation with Toobin was exactly that--a conversation between two professional people talking about strategies.” Toobin flatly denies Shapiro’s story. While it is impossible for me to write with certainty what happened, I have doubts that Shapiro was hoodwinked by two reporters on the same story with the same result. Given Shapiro’s history, his version strains credulity.

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Shapiro also wants to airbrush his role on matters other than the press, particularly race. At several points in the book, Shapiro laments how race came to dominate the case once Cochran took the lead role on the defense team. I don’t doubt that Shapiro and Cochran did clash sharply on this point. But Shapiro avoids a key issue.

Early in the trial, Bailey elicited memorable testimony from Fuhrman that he had not used the word “nigger” in the past decade. The defense already had witnesses who contradicted that testimony and later obtained tapes of Fuhrman using the vile “N-word” more than 40 times during that period. Were they supposed to refrain from using those tapes and witnesses to impeach Fuhrman? Shapiro did not separate himself from defense efforts to use the witnesses or the tapes--the most racially charged material in the trial--and even now he offers no convincing argument that the limited number of those tapes Ito allowed the jury to hear should have been kept out of evidence.

Shapiro’s memory is also selective. For example, he neglects to mention that on Oct. 27, 1994, he and Cochran held separate, well-choreographed press conferences in the Criminal Courts building accusing prosecutors of questioning black candidates for the jury more aggressively than whites. If anything, Shapiro’s remarks that day were more strident than Cochran’s: “It implies an insidious effort to try to get black jurors removed for cause because they are black, because they have black heroes, and because O.J. Simpson is one of them. There’s no other reason.”

Then there was Shapiro’s direct examination of one of the defense’s key expert witnesses, Dr. Michael Baden, a former New York medical examiner whose resume is so long it took nearly an hour to present it to the jury. During his examination, Shapiro brought out Baden’s role in the investigation of several well-known cases with racial overtones, the murders of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers and the killing of Ron Settles, a black football player who died in police custody in nearby Signal Hill. Moreover, Shapiro made sure that the predominantly African American jury panel knew that Baden had worked in Harlem. There was nothing subtle about it.

Still, Shapiro writes that Cochran made much too much of race--particularly in his closing argument. And he blasts Cochran for linking “Fuhrman, a banal, petty, mindless racist, with the most monstrous murderer of all time, Adolph Hitler” during the closing argument. “In less than a minute, he accelerated from a corrupt Los Angeles cop to the Holocaust itself, suggesting to this jury that they could stop Fuhrman, as the Germans had not stopped Hitler.” Shapiro calls the comparison “gratuitous, inflammatory . . . just plain wrong” and “completely unnecessary.”

Perhaps. Cochran’s remarks did indeed precipitate intense debate even though his Jewish colleagues on the defense team--other than Shapiro--defended the remarks as an appropriate reminder to the jury that they ought not to countenance evil.

Frankly, I think Cochran would have been better off if he had reminded jurors that when a jury ignores its duty--like the all-white panel that acquitted the Klan-affiliated Mississippi sheriffs who murdered three civil rights workers in 1964--it encourages the spread of evil.

In any case, both the Simpson trial and its aftermath have been painful reminders that we have not progressed nearly as far as we should have in addressing racial injustice. African Americans continue to be the victims of all sorts of unjustified oppression and Simpson the defendant appears to have been the beneficiary of black distrust of white institutions. Don’t forget, though, that one Latino and two whites also voted not guilty.

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There are some interesting moments in this book. There is a good description of the “controlled chaos” at Robert Kardashian’s house before Simpson disappeared with his old friend, A.C. Cowlings, leading to the infamous slow-speed chase. “Now he was sitting in his underwear, methodically arranging custody of his children and power of attorney over his personal and business affairs, while nurses drew blood out of his arms and scientists pulled hairs out of his head.”

Shapiro offers accurate criticism of how Cochran over-promised in his opening statement what Simpson’s lawyers could prove in the way of an affirmative defense. But when all is said and done, the problem is that Shapiro wants to have it both ways--to take his share of credit for the acquittal while attempting to shore up his reputation in the white community by attacking Cochran and even distancing himself from his client.

Thousands of criminal lawyers toil every day under considerably more adverse circumstances, representing considerably less attractive clients who do not bring with them fanfare and the consequent opportunities to write books for big bucks, be interviewed by Larry King and Barbara Walters and photographed for history by Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz.

Perhaps the strongest indicator of Shapiro’s spin is the closing paragraph of the book where he describes his post-trial relationship with Simpson, a client he voluntarily agreed to represent:

“I spoke with O.J. not long ago. He asked my advice about life after the trial, and I willingly gave it. However, we were not friends before the case; as is common in a criminal representation, it was a one-time thing. I suspect our relationship will be what it was before: professional acquaintances in a large city. Our professional business relationship ended the day the verdict came back. We never had a personal relationship before, and we won’t have one in the future.”

Despite his acquittal, O.J. Simpson’s future does not look bright at the moment. He is a man scorned by much of society, particularly the affluent white society he worked so hard to enter. With “The Search for Justice,” Robert Shapiro attempts to ensure that his role in securing Simpson’s freedom does not jeopardize his future legal career in that same affluent white society.

Even Simpson deserves better.

“The Search for Justice” is also available from Time Warner AudioBooks on two cassettes, read by the author, for $17.


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