Simpson Verdict: $25 Million : Punitive Damages Bring Total to $33.5 Million

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an emphatic verdict aimed at punishing O.J. Simpson for decades to come, a jury Monday ordered him to pay $25 million in punitive damages to the relatives of murder victims Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.

"We came to the conclusion that Mr. Simpson should not profit from these murders," said juror Stephen Strati.

Simpson did not attend court to hear the verdicts, though his sister and brother-in-law sat in their customary front-row seats as the judgments were read. The atmosphere was subdued, even relaxed, as the victims' relatives listened in silence to the verdicts, their only reaction quick, grateful glances toward the jurors.

It was a remarkable contrast from last Tuesday night, when the same jury found Simpson liable for the murders. Then, the courtroom had crackled with tension, anticipation and--when the verdicts were read--unabashed exuberance from the victorious plaintiffs. This time, the dominant mood was of relief that a long ordeal was drawing to an end.

"The man who killed my son and Nicole was held responsible by a court of law," Fred Goldman said Monday. "That's all that matters."

The jury ordered Simpson to pay $12.5 million to his two young children by Nicole Simpson, who were recently returned to his custody. Goldman's divorced parents, Fred Goldman and Sharon Rufo, are to split another $12.5-million punitive damage award.

In addition, jurors last week awarded Goldman's parents $8.5 million in damages to compensate them for the loss of their son. The total damages of $33.5 million represent a daunting sum even for Simpson, who in his "glory days" as a football commentator, actor and pitchman never earned more than $2.5 million a year, according to his business attorney. The defense said he was broke even before the first judgment came down last week.

Strati, who served as jury foreman during the punitive phase, said the panel calculated the punitive award based on an expert's testimony that Simpson could earn about $25 million over the rest of his life by trading on his notoriety with book deals, movie contracts, speaking tours and memorabilia sales.

The huge judgments left no doubt that most jurors were outraged by the slayings--and determined to hold Simpson responsible despite his forceful testimony proclaiming his innocence.

"He was a hero to us, and he betrayed us all," said juror Orville Bigelow, 30, a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines who lives in Westchester. "He's a charming man, a nice man, but charming men kill."

While the jury was unanimous last week in finding Simpson responsible for the slayings, they could not reach consensus during five hours of deliberations about punitive damages. One juror voted against punitive damages altogether. Another dissented from the final figure, holding out for a lower award because she did not think Simpson could earn enough money to pay the entire $25 million.

After the verdicts were read, the jurors talked to the plaintiffs' attorneys. Then, in an extraordinary move, five jurors and three alternates agreed to a news conference in the Santa Monica Courthouse. It unfolded calmly--until after the final question. Then a crush of reporters shoved forward to request personal interviews, pressing business cards and letters toward the besieged jurors.

When they got home, many found demands for more interviews--this time accompanied by huge bouquets of flowers, giant baskets of candy and letters signed by high-profile television personalities. A few even found limousines idling outside their front door, ready to whisk them away to evening TV shows.

Simpson on Golf Course

As the jurors and winning lawyers moved into the limelight, Simpson remained unavailable. According to an employee at the Knollwood Country Club in Granada Hills, Simpson learned about the verdicts by glancing at television reports while chatting with three golfing buddies in the club bar. He did not comment then or after.

Los Angeles civil rights lawyer Leo J. Terrell, who became a friend of Simpson after the slayings, offered the only comments from the defense side. "The family expected a verdict against O.J. Simpson," Terrell said in an interview, "but they never in their wildest imagination thought it would be such an outrageous amount."

The verdicts are certainly not the last word in the Simpson saga. The case that has twisted and turned for 2 1/2 years will continue to reverberate, especially as appeals and collection efforts stretch on.

Nonetheless, Monday's verdicts against Simpson rang with a sense of finality.

As lead plaintiffs attorney Daniel M. Petrocelli told the jurors just before they began to deliberate on punitive damages: "You are the last ones [to judge Simpson]. It stops here."

In interviews Monday, several jurors talked of reviewing all the evidence piece by piece, knowing they would have to justify their decision to the national press. They weighed the defense's conspiracy claims carefully, they said--and rejected them resoundingly.

"There's just no way anyone could have planted all that evidence," Bigelow said. Plus, he added, even as defense lawyers tarred the Los Angeles Police Department as sinister conspirators, they blasted them as inept bunglers. "And how could incompetent people plant all that evidence? It doesn't make sense," he said.

Simpson's contradictory statements, painstakingly laid out by the plaintiffs' team, appeared to have sealed the verdicts against him.

The jurors who participated in the news conference voiced doubts about his testimony: How he could remember every detail of his alibi, but not how he cut his left hand the night of the slayings? How he could deny ever hitting Nicole, when they could see her battered face in photos? How he could insist he never, ever wore Bruno Magli shoes even when confronted with 31 photos of him in the exact model that tracked bloody prints at the crime scene?

"Finding O.J. Simpson liable of the murders and [finding that he acted] with oppression and malice was one of the easiest decisions I have ever had to make," one female juror said.

To prevail, the plaintiffs had to prove their case by showing it was probable that Simpson killed his ex-wife and Goldman on June 12, 1994. But some jurors said they far exceeded that standard, even satisfying the criminal trial burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

"It's 100% for me," another female juror said. "I really believe Mr. Simpson is guilty."

Another, who had taken notes so intently she was often the last to leave the jury box, concurred: "Beyond a shadow of a doubt," she said.

But in calculating the judgments against him, the jurors may have given Simpson a potent argument on appeal. California law requires that jurors take into account the defendant's net worth. But the punitive damage award far outstrips even the most optimistic estimate of Simpson's assets.

In basing their punitive award on the $25-million estimate of Simpson's future earning, the panel did not subtract the substantial liabilities Simpson has incurred, including tax bills, attorneys fees and bank loans. Factoring those debts into account, even the plaintiffs figured he was worth only $15.7 million.

Given that top-drawer estimate, "you probably can't have a punitive damage award worth more than $15 million," legal analyst Brian Lysaght said. "I would expect [Superior Court Judge Hiroshi] Fujisaki to whittle it down a bit."

Fujisaki is likely to get his chance soon.

Defense attorney Robert C. Baker--who, like the rest of Simpson's team, declined to comment on the verdicts--served notice that he will file appeals almost immediately. Fujisaki ordered the plaintiffs to hold off collecting Simpson's money for 10 days, until he has time to review some of the appeal motions.

Baker said his first step will be to demand a new trial. He can also ask Fujisaki to override the jury and strike down the verdicts. Or he can plead with the judge to cut the damage award. If Fujisaki turns down any or all of those requests, Simpson can appeal to a higher court.

Simpson's supporters mobilized to press that appeal within minutes of the verdicts. Morris Griffin, for one, was circulating through the low-key crowd outside the courthouse waving a sign that said, "Help O.J. Appeal," followed by a phone number for potential donors to call.

"We know the man is innocent," said Griffin. The civil trial jurors, he added, "were impulsively and compulsively emotional . . . they were reacting and not thinking about the evidence" in reaching a verdict.

Griffin's passion--echoed by several other protesters in the crowd--indicated that this verdict, however resounding, is unlikely to seal shut the Simpson case. Even some of the victims' relatives said that although they felt relief and vindication, they were not ready to put the tumultuous pain of the past 2 1/2 years behind them.

"I think it will be quite some time before any of us feel any closure," Dominique Brown said.

The Browns emphasized that any money that flows to Sydney, 11, and Justin, 8, will be set aside in a trust fund. Neither Simpson nor the Browns will be able to tap the fund, which will be preserved intact until the children reach adulthood.

But it is far from clear how much of the $12.5-million award the children will actually receive.

To come up with anything close to the $15.7 million the plaintiffs say he has, Simpson would have to auction off his furniture, his artwork, his cars, his house and the rights to use his name on various products. He would also have to liquidate his pension funds.

California law protects him from having to take such drastic measures. Though the plaintiffs have the right to seize Simpson's assets, they cannot force him into utter poverty.

Simpson is permitted to keep $75,000 worth of home equity, a car worth $1,900 and whatever furniture and clothing a judge deems "ordinarily and reasonably necessary" for everyday living. The plaintiffs cannot raid the $4.3 million invested in his pension funds. On the other hand, Simpson cannot use his retirement money to support a lavish lifestyle; if he buys anything luxurious, it's fair game for the plaintiffs to seize.

Though Simpson won an extra 10 days before the plaintiffs swoop in on his assets, he cannot hold them off forever. They are allowed to collect their debt even while an appeal is pending, unless Simpson posts a bond equal to 150% of the total judgment--or more than $50 million.

Faced with such a towering judgment, Simpson could declare bankruptcy. But his debt to the plaintiffs cannot be erased by bankruptcy; in fact, the victims' families can renew the judgment every 10 years until it is paid in full.

Collecting May Take Years

The plaintiffs' lawyers will likely be scrambling for years to squeeze as many dollars as possible from Simpson if the verdicts are upheld. They receive their fees as a percentage of every dollar they collect. A typical contingency fee is 35% to 40%.

Analysts warn that collecting the judgment will be a long, laborious process. But that kind of detailed money hunt plays to the plaintiffs' strengths.

The four Goldman family attorneys from the firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp are known as behind-the-scenes deal makers who are expert in unraveling financial documents and tracking down dollars. Before the trial, in fact, some analysts questioned whether they could pull off what in essence was a murder trial, given that their expertise lay in securities fraud and contract disputes, not in DNA analysis or domestic violence.

But throughout the civil trial, they won high marks for presenting complex scientific evidence clearly, concisely and above all, persuasively. Petrocelli, who has worked on relatively few jury trials, earned considerable praise for his meticulously organized, passionate closing arguments.

"We all felt that it was absolutely essential to call O.J. Simpson a killer, to treat O.J. Simpson as a killer if we wanted the jury to find he was a killer," Petrocelli said. "We could not expect a jury to stand up to him if we did not."

Though several of the jurors declared in no uncertain terms that they, too, believed Simpson a killer beyond any doubt, they declined to second-guess the criminal trial jury that acquitted him in October 1995, after three hours of deliberation.

They also insisted that they did not view the trial in racial terms. Unlike in the criminal trial, the civil defense team did not suggest that Simpson was framed because he is black. And the jurors pointedly said they judged Simpson without regard to the color of his skin.

Nonetheless, the one black woman who sat through the entire case, as an alternate, suggested that there were racial overtones in the plaintiffs' case. She said she believed the defense arguments that evidence was planted or contaminated. And though she acknowledged that Simpson's testimony was shaky on a few points, she said she considered the plaintiffs "bullies" for pressing him so roughly. "They were very unprofessional," she said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Money Issue

The jury has decided damages in the O.J. Simpson civil case. The judge will now decide if the awards are reasonable, in light of the estimates of Simpson's wealth.

WHAT JURY AWARDED

- Punitive damages:

$12.5 million

$12.5 million

- Compensatory damages:

$8.5 million

Total damages: $33.5 million

WHAT HE'S WORTH

His lawyer's estimate: -$850,000

Plaintiff's estimate: $15.7 million

Note: Estimates based on figures presented in court last week. It does not take into account what Simpson owes in damages.

More Trial Coverage

* GAWKING IN BRENTWOOD--The killings--and curiosity seekers--will haunt Brentwood for years to come, residents say. A16

* LARGE AWARDS--The large punitive damages exceed the norms, but legal experts say the magnitude is justified. A19

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