In a brief, unapologetic presentation Friday, retired LAPD Det. Philip Vannatter, branded by the defense as a "devil of deception" in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, explained to riveted jurors in Simpson's civil trial his reasons for transporting blood vials around town.
Vannatter zipped on and off the witness stand in just 40 minutes, frustrating defense lawyers who had hoped to zing him with tough questions about everything from his application for a warrant to search Simpson's home to his observations about cuts on Simpson's fingers. They were unable to pursue such topics because, by law, their cross-examination could probe only issues raised during Vannatter's direct testimony. And the plaintiffs who put Vannatter on the stand were careful to limit his exposure.
Plaintiff attorney John Q. Kelly focused on only one topic during his direct examination: Vannatter's custody of blood reference samples from Simpson and from murder victims Ronald Lyle Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.
As he had during the criminal trial, Vannatter explained that he did not book Simpson's blood sample into evidence immediately because he wanted to deliver it directly to the criminalist working on the case. He said he never pocketed it, never unsealed it, never even looked at it after depositing it in a special envelope designed to carry blood evidence.
Again and again, defense attorney Robert C. Baker tried to ask Vannatter whether he had violated "one of the fundamentals of good crime scene procedures" by bringing the vial to Simpson's home as criminalists were collecting evidence there. But the judge blocked such questions as irrelevant or argumentative. Baker did get Vannatter to acknowledge that the blood sample was briefly out of his sight when he left it on his desk in the police station to get a snack before going to Simpson's home.
Baker also questioned Vannatter's decision to pick up the murder victims' blood samples from the coroner's office and personally deliver them to the police crime lab. But the detective insisted that such intervention was not unusual.
Vannatter emerged as one of the defense's chief villains during the criminal trial, slammed as a corrupt cop who could have conspired with former Det. Mark Fuhrman to frame Simpson. Yet Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki would not let Baker press a similar attack in the civil case, warning him to stick to the issues the plaintiffs raised. "If you want to use him for some other purpose, you can call him as your witness," he told the defense.
Baker vowed to do just that, demanding a court order to compel Vannatter--who now lives in Indiana, out of reach of a civil trial subpoena--to appear as a hostile witness for the defense. As an alternative, Fujisaki proposed allowing the defense to open its case Monday for the sole purpose of calling Vannatter while he was in town. "I got my mitts on him because he's here now," Fujisaki said.
Vannatter, however, promised that he would voluntarily return to testify whenever the defense wanted him. "I'm not hostile to anyone," he said, drawing laughter from the audience.
Vannatter's testimony came after hours of caustic clashes between Baker and the other lead investigator, retired Det. Tom Lange. At one point, Baker flung a report at the veteran cop so fiercely that Lange, taken aback, raised his hands in the air.
Later, Baker demanded to know whether Lange had worn sterile booties over his shoes before stepping near the evidence.
"I've never worn booties at any crime scene," Lange said, "and I've never seen any detective wear them." Baker responded with a cutting sneer: "Why?" he demanded. "Is it too un-macho?"