Fred Goldman wept--and twice turned to glare at O.J. Simpson--as he told jurors Monday that the murder of his 25-year-old son, Ronald, had ripped an unimaginably painful hole in his life.
Compelled to describe the depth of his love in order to establish the magnitude of his loss, Goldman broke down several times as he reminisced about his son, choking up over memories that every parent could relate to--from Ron’s habit of missing the school bus to their days in the Indian Guides youth program.
“Did you love your son?” attorney Daniel M. Petrocelli asked gently.
“Oh God, yes,” Goldman answered, gripping a tissue.
“Do you miss him?” Petrocelli asked.
The barely audible answer: “More than you can imagine.”
Twice, Goldman’s anger burst through his grief and he turned fiercely to stare at Simpson, who sat somberly at the defense table looking straight ahead. Both moments came while Goldman was recounting Ron’s dream of opening a restaurant. Ron had designed the floor plan, he told jurors, in the shape of the Egyptian ankh symbol. He wore the same symbol on a necklace. Sobbing openly, Goldman explained: “It stands for eternal life.”
He shot a venomous glance at Simpson, then added: “He doesn’t wear it anymore.”
Goldman was the 65th and final witness to testify for the plaintiffs. Simpson’s team then launched its defense by calling a familiar figure: former Los Angeles Police Det. Philip L. Vannatter.
Though the judge blocked Vannatter from answering many of the most stinging questions, Baker did wring some concessions from the witness. The veteran homicide detective acknowledged, for example, that he saw no evidence of anyone having vaulted the five-foot-high fence and dense shrubbery that borders Simpson’s property near the spot where a bloody glove was discovered. And he conceded that he did not notice any cuts on the fourth finger of Simpson’s left hand the day after the slayings--testimony that conforms with Simpson’s account of his injuries.
Baker also played the slightly fuzzy tape-recording of Simpson’s 33-minute interview with police on the afternoon following the killings. The plaintiffs have quoted some of Simpson’s statements during that interview to point up contradictions in his accounts of what he was doing at the time of the murders and how he cut his left hand. But Baker played the tape in its entirety, then sought to emphasize the aspects that he contends demonstrate his client’s innocence--namely, his willingness to talk without his lawyers present and to give up his blood for testing.
Simpson was acquitted of murder charges last year. Ronald Lyle Goldman’s parents, Fred Goldman and Sharon Rufo, are now suing in civil court for wrongful death. The estate of Nicole Brown Simpson is also suing to hold O.J. Simpson responsible for the killings.
If the plaintiffs win, Goldman and Rufo would be eligible for compensatory damages--money awarded to compensate them for the loss of their son’s love and companionship. It would be up to the jury to come up with an appropriate sum. (Nicole Simpson’s estate is not asking for that type of compensation. That claim primarily seeks punitive damages.)
“There is no magic formula,” said attorney Paul Kiesel, who has represented plaintiffs in many wrongful death cases. “It’s the loss of a kiss on your cheek. It’s the loss of a hug at Christmastime. And those things are very hard to value.”
Goldman did not try to put a dollar figure on his loss. Instead, his attorney displayed photos of the family--on vacation, at a wedding, clowning around on the sofa--to establish that father and son shared an enduring bond. “There was something special about our relationship,” he testified. “It was always close.”
Goldman also acknowledged, with rueful smiles, that his son was no angel. Ron Goldman sank so deep into debt that he declared personal bankruptcy. He also racked up so many traffic tickets that his driver’s license was suspended. On top of that, he was twice arrested for driving without a license. Once his father bailed him out, but the second time, determined to manage the crisis on his own, Ron Goldman spent four days in jail, his father testified.
In his tentative cross-examination, defense attorney Baker did not attempt to challenge Goldman’s pain. Instead, he elicited the information that the Goldman family has signed a book contract, with a guaranteed advance of $450,000. And he pointed out that Ron Goldman had not seen Rufo, his biological mother, for 14 years before his death.
By the time Goldman stepped down from the witness stand into his lawyer’s sympathetic embrace, many courtroom observers were crying openly.
The jurors, however, were more stoic. Goldman had faced them throughout his testimony and they had largely returned his gaze--except when he cried, they ducked their eyes and studied the notebooks in their laps. At least two craned to look toward Simpson after the plaintiffs rested their case with a poignant finale: a video of Ron and Fred Goldman dancing and singing at a relative’s bat mitzvah in November 1993.
On the video, Ron turns toward the camera to wish good luck to the bat mitzvah girl: “I’m very glad I was able to be here and spend this time with you, because God knows where I’ll be in a year,” he says.
Seven months later, he was slain--stabbed more than 30 times in his head, neck, chest and legs and left to die draped over a tree stump near the bloodied body of Nicole Simpson. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him,” Goldman said. “My life will never, ever be the same.”
With that testimony, the plaintiffs wrapped up their six-week effort to prove Simpson a killer.
From the very first day, when they ran through six witnesses in a few hours, they kept the presentations crisp and the pace snappy.
They argued that physical evidence linked Simpson to the murders: his blood near the bodies, the victims’ blood in his car, and hairs and fibers knitting together evidence found both at the crime scene and at his estate. They sought to develop a motive, arguing that Simpson had abused Nicole over the years, longed to control her, and was unable to accept her rejection. And they insisted that he had ample opportunity to commit the crimes during the 80 minutes on June 12, 1994, when no independent witness could confirm his whereabouts.
Those elements were all familiar from the criminal trial.
But the plaintiffs had some surprises as well:
They produced a forensic pathologist who testified that the cuts on Simpson’s left hand were fingernail gouges--perhaps inflicted during a deadly struggle. They pulled out notes suggesting that Simpson told jurors a different story than he told a psychologist hired by the defense to probe his relationship with Nicole. And they managed to get into evidence testimony from a hotline counselor who said a woman she believed to be Nicole Simpson called a shelter in terror five days before the murders.
Most important, they put Simpson on the witness stand. The plaintiffs grilled him for a dozen hours--and then they brought out more than a dozen witnesses to pick apart his story. Highlighting every inconsistency, they sought to persuade jurors that Simpson lied under oath.
To counter the plaintiffs’ effort, Baker launched into an all-out attack on the LAPD. He had barely revved up, however, when the plaintiffs began objecting to his hostile questioning of Vannatter as irrelevant, leading and speculative.
Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki sustained many of those objections. The repeated interruptions forced Baker to pause in his examination and struggle to rephrase his questions. He even had to drop some areas of inquiry altogether when the judge ordered him to stop asking about general police practices and start focusing on the facts of the Simpson case.
Baker sought to paint the veteran cop as a scheming scoundrel. At one point, Baker accidentally addressed the witness as Det. Phillips. When the plaintiffs pointed out his error, Baker corrected himself with a cutting sneer: “I’m sorry,” he said. “I wouldn’t do that to Det. Phillips.”
Baker accused Vannatter of lying to obtain a search warrant, of contaminating the crime scene, of rushing to judgment, and of violating proper protocol when he took a vial of Simpson’s blood from police headquarters to Simpson’s house the evening after the slayings.
Vannatter, though clearly annoyed at the barrage, calmly denied every accusation. At one point he even turned to jurors and assured them: “I’ve never lied.”
Roaring to a contemptuous crescendo, Baker ended his examination by accusing Vannatter of being biased against Simpson.
“I believe your client is guilty of murder, yes,” Vannatter responded.
Undaunted, Baker accused Vannatter of trying to secure a better book deal by pushing for a verdict against Simpson. Vannatter, his former partner and two co-authors already have signed a contract worth a total of $115,000.
“Boy,” Vannatter answered, “I would have given the book deal up not to have to testify on this stand anymore. I’m not happy to be here.”
Vannatter will be back today for questioning by the plaintiffs. The defense’s next scheduled witness is criminalist Andrea Mazzola.
Meanwhile, it was learned Monday that Louis Brown was stripped of guardianship powers over Simpson’s two children earlier this year. Brown’s wife, Juditha, retained primary custody of their grandchildren, Sydney, 11, and Justin, 8, sources said, while Simpson’s sister, Shirley Baker, also has been given some authority.
Sources said that Louis Brown was removed as a guardian by Orange County Commissioner Thomas H. Schulte to prevent any potential conflict of interest, given Brown’s other role as executor of the Nicole Brown Simpson estate.
Experts said the move does not prohibit the Browns from exercising custody of the children.
The Browns were granted custody after Nicole Simpson’s death. O.J. Simpson has since asked to regain custody of the children. The Browns have refused, sparking the current custody battle.
Times correspondent Jeff Kass contributed to this story.