Simpson Lawyer Known for Drive, Wit and Temper
“You’re the little Dream Team.”
It was just a joking jab, uttered by an adversary in the midst of debate, but it pointed to the very real pressures that the man defending O.J. Simpson faces every day.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Sept. 13, 1996 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 13, 1996 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Simpson lawyer--An article in Tuesday’s Times about O.J. Simpson defense attorney Robert C. Baker incorrectly stated his professional relationship with Los Angeles lawyer Mark S. Geraghty. The two have worked as co-counsel on cases; Geraghty has never hired Baker to represent him or his firm.
As he prepares to defend Simpson against three civil lawsuits, Robert C. Baker indisputably has a tough act to follow.
Simpson’s first defense attorneys not only won him acquittals in criminal court, but also became celebrities themselves--their words spun out on the nightly news, their autographs and sound bites prized nationwide. They were dubbed the Dream Team before they had won a single motion--and they did their flamboyant best to live up to that image.
Bob Baker has quite a different style, to say the least. He doesn’t stop for cameras. Rarely talks to the press. He has let his associates handle most of the pretrial wrangling.
But in the courtroom, he has built a reputation as a formidable foe. “He is absolutely the most imposing adversary that I can conceive of,” one colleague gushes. Another says flatly: “He is as deadly as they come.”
With 25 years experience as a civil litigator, Baker knows when he steps into the Santa Monica courthouse on Sept. 17 he will face a challenge in some ways more daunting than the original Dream Team confronted.
Under the rules of civil procedure, the plaintiffs win the case if they can persuade nine of the 12 jurors that there is a 50.1% probability Simpson slashed the throats of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman on June 12, 1994. They don’t need a unanimous verdict. They don’t need to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. They just need to show a “preponderance of evidence” implicating Simpson as the killer.
Baker, 55, has defended his share of clients in wrongful-death suits. Specializing in medical malpractice and product liability cases, he has fought on behalf of doctors accused of killing or injuring patients, manufacturers blamed for dangerous products and corporations suspected of producing toxic waste. In a tribute to his top-notch reputation, Baker has also defended some of Los Angeles’ most powerful lawyers against clients claiming malpractice.
He does it all with “a very straightforward, very down-to-earth style that gains credibility with jurors,” said Mark S. Geraghty, a civil trial defense lawyer who has hired Baker to represent him in the past. “What you see is what you get, and juries respect that.”
Baker also earns respect for his relentless drive. A Vietnam veteran who served on a Navy destroyer, Baker is known for his merciless cross-examinations. If Nicole Simpson’s sisters testify, one friend warned, “they better bring help.”
In courtrooms and on the golf course he has a quick wit--and an equally quick temper. He flares up, when pressed, with rumbling anger. But he also scores points (and charms jurors) with sly one-liners.
‘He’s Got a Fuse’
Baker has previewed his peppery style during the few pretrial depositions of witnesses he personally handled.
Once, contemptuous of the legal points that Brown family lawyer John Q. Kelly raised in a deposition, Baker scoffed: “I bet the shortest book I ever read was ‘John Quinlan Kelly on Evidence.’ ” Another time, he told a lawyer trying to advise Kato Kaelin: “If you now want to refresh [Kaelin’s] recollection, do so at your peril, because I think I am entitled to get his testimony, and I don’t give a damn about yours.”
In a typically dismissive comment, he would tell plaintiffs’ lawyers, “I don’t care what your point is,” or “I don’t care what you’re interested in.” Once, confronted with a transcript from Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, Baker responded: “Undoubtedly it’s false if it came from Garcetti’s office.”
In one especially memorable slam, Baker wrote a letter brushing off an opponent’s legal argument with the remark: “Certainly, I do not know what trial school you went to, perhaps none.”
That kind of needling is vintage Baker, friends and colleagues say. Sometimes he goes even further.
“He’s got a fuse and if you pull that trigger, you’ll get ripped,” said his good friend, attorney John Collins. ". . . When this thing is over, the other side will know they’ve been in a fight.”
Collins recounted one episode when Baker confronted a judge who had sanctioned one of his colleagues. Baker told the judge that the ruling was dead wrong. But he didn’t stop there. “‘I didn’t think much of you when you were a practicing lawyer, either,” Collins recalled Baker telling the judge.
His brazen behavior apparently paid off: According to Collins, the judge canceled the sanction.
Baker’s style has drawn anger as well as admiration.
One recent opponent, Los Angeles lawyer Shirley K. Watkins, described Baker as abrasive and uncooperative. “He tries to cultivate a public persona of being so suave and charming,” she said, “but behind the scenes, he’s not like that at all.”
Even worse, she complained that Baker resorted to racist innuendo to win a medical malpractice case last year.
The case involved a young boy, a Mexican citizen, who contended that a doctor seriously damaged his foot after an operation to correct a birth defect. The boy, Jose Carrera, had received surgery for free at Shriners Hospital, after legally entering the United States seeking care for a club foot. He later sued Shriners, UCLA Medical Center and two doctors, saying he was fitted with a cast so tight that tissue in his foot died and bones collapsed.
Baker defended the hospitals and won. But Watkins claims he won dirty.
In a brief pending before the Court of Appeal, Watkins argued that the verdict should be overturned in part because Baker was “injecting race into a trial in which race should have no bearing.”
She quoted Baker as telling jurors: “You can come up from Mexico. You can take advantage of our medical care. You can continue to see the people that you sue for malpractice and be cared for for free because this is the United States. . . . Instead of filing a lawsuit they ought to be down on their knees” thanking the doctors.
“We believe he resorted to racism and xenophobia at trial to win the case,” Watkins said in an interview. “That type of conduct was just appalling.”
Baker declined to comment on any aspect of his legal career even before a judicial gag order barred all participating attorneys from talking about the Simpson case.
Baker’s conduct also drew criticism in a case last fall in which he represented a Superior Court judge accused of sexually harassing a court reporter.
The case was settled before trial. But Baker violated a confidentiality agreement by telling a reporter his client had objected to the settlement. He also asserted that the court reporter would receive only a minimal amount of money. The court reporter’s attorney, Gloria Allred, took Baker to court. A judge issued a mild rebuke, concluding that Baker had “misrepresented the facts” and “violated the settlement agreement.”
Other colleagues, however, said they respect his integrity. As proof, they pointed to Baker’s decision in June 1994 to oppose legislation that some of his most powerful and profitable clients supported.
In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Baker criticized proposed reforms in medical malpractice law--even though the reforms would have greatly aided the physicians and insurance companies that he regularly defends. If the reforms were enacted, Baker warned, “victims of negligence will have a decreased opportunity for redress.”
Within weeks, major insurance companies and HMOs dropped Baker’s firm and pulled their files from his office, according to other lawyers in the malpractice field.
“He was willing to bite the hand that fed him,” said Nathaniel J. Friedman, an attorney who represents plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases. “My respect for him increased a hundredfold after that. I don’t know anyone else who would have done it.”
By most accounts, Baker had just bounced back from the blow of losing much of his malpractice business when he made another unpopular move--he agreed to represent O.J. Simpson.
Baker said his wife, Cheryl, took some heat when he signed Simpson as a client. He didn’t elaborate, but friends said the couple endured whispers at dinner parties and other slights. In his only extended interview about the case, Baker told CNN’s Larry King that he suspected the negative vibes “may increase, obviously, as the trial starts.”
Still, he insisted that in the long run, his reputation would not suffer. “I think everybody understands,” he said. “I am a lawyer. This is what I do. I defend people.”
To defend Simpson, Baker has put together a team of at least five lawyers, including two from his mid-sized Santa Monica law firm--Melissa Bluestein, 33, and Phillip Baker, 27, the oldest of his three sons.
Baker also has drafted Sacramento attorney Robert Blaiser to advise on the scientific evidence. The quietest member of Simpson’s criminal defense team, Blaiser was known as a technical whiz who played a crucial role by developing a computer system to catalog all the evidence.
Two other players from Simpson’s winning Dream Team--the blustery F. Lee Bailey and DNA expert Peter Neufeld--also may make appearances in the civil case. Both live on the East Coast, but they have registered to practice law in California for the civil trial. They have not, however, participated in public hearings so far, and it’s unclear whether they will take an active role.
As lead counsel, Baker must coordinate the multi-pronged defense effort. Those who have worked with him in the past say he is not likely to tolerate backbiting or griping from his teammates. They predict that he will never let his co-counsel engage in the kind of public feuding that distracted Simpson’s team in the criminal trial.
“He’ll either work well with them or they’ll be gone,” Collins said.
Baker has not made passionate public announcements about Simpson’s innocence, as Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and Robert L. Shapiro did during the criminal trial. But in the CNN interview, Baker said he “absolutely” believes Simpson is innocent. “He has no real demons that I have ever seen,” he added.
Baker and Simpson attended USC a few years apart, and both love to golf. (They’ve played together, and Baker has joked that his client’s swing looks like “an octopus falling out of a tree” because of bad arthritis.)
Baker has described his client as “charming” and said they get along well. Still, the two men have clashed.
At one point near the start of the case, Baker reportedly threatened to quit because of late payments. Later, he exploded in frustration when his client refused to take his advice during a pretrial deposition. As Simpson answered question after question about drug use, six times shrugging off his lawyer’s advice to keep quiet, Baker burst out: “Am I a potted plant?”
During other witness depositions, Simpson expressed disdain or disbelief several times, interrupting the proceedings with remarks or gestures. At other times, he whispered to Baker so loudly that opposing counsel in the room could hear him.
Legal analysts warn that Baker will have to control his client better--especially since Simpson will have to testify in the civil case. The verdict could hinge on Simpson’s ability to give disciplined, even-tempered testimony on the witness stand.
Simpson, however, has signaled time and again that he will not sit passively when it comes to his own defense.
During the criminal trial, Simpson not only read every legal motion and took notes on every witness, but also discussed strategy with his lawyers every night from his jail cell, picking apart the day’s developments in great detail, Shapiro writes in his book “The Search for Justice.”
Lately, Baker has seemed more at ease with Simpson’s strong-willed participation in the defense effort.
In his interview with Larry King in mid-July, Baker acknowledged Simpson’s influence, saying he had to talk with his client before deciding whether to object to the first judge assigned to preside over the civil trial. “I want to talk to O.J. about that,” he said. “I think he needs some input. . . . He’s followed these proceedings very, very closely.”
The defense did exercise its right to remove the judge, who had ruled against Simpson in several pretrial disputes. He was replaced by Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki.
Legal experts are nearly unanimous in their view that it will be very difficult for Simpson and Baker to prevail in civil court. But those who know Baker best are not counting him out.
“It hasn’t been all sweetness between us, but by God, at the end of the day, he’s the one you want in your corner,” said Walter J. Lack, a frequent courtroom adversary and longtime personal friend. “I’d bet everything I have that if O.J. has any chance at all, Bob Baker is the one who can bring it through for him.”