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Tucson Weekly Trial And Error

Like It Or Not, The O.J. Simpson Case Will Go Down On Our Permanent Societal Record.

By Brian Laird

JULY 13, 1998: 

Triumph of Justice: The Final Judgment on the Simpson Saga, by Daniel Petrocelli with Peter Knobler (Crown Publishers). Cloth, $25.95.

THE WAY IT happened: June 12, 1994, Orenthal James "O.J." Simpson, wearing dark clothing, knit cap, leather Armani gloves and size-12 Bruno Magli shoes, entered the walkway to the townhouse of his ex-wife, Nicole. He and Nicole had been playing a game of acrimonious one-upmanship over their break up--he threatening to sic the IRS on her for her tax evasion; she denying him access to their children and her family, with whom he had always been powerfully involved. He was there to confront Nicole and maybe kill her.

Her friend Ron Goldman, a waiter at a local restaurant, was the victim of bad timing. He stopped by to drop off a pair of eyeglasses left at the restaurant earlier in the evening. Simpson was beating Nicole when Goldman arrived, maybe cutting her with the long knife he brought with him. As Goldman entered the walkway, Simpson struck Nicole a severe blow, knocking her senseless, perhaps unconscious. Goldman ran toward them, shouting "Hey, hey, hey."

As Goldman approached, Simpson turned and slashed him several times with the knife, backing him into a tight spot in the walkway, until Goldman had nowhere to turn. Simpson plunged the knife into Goldman several times, and Goldman died there, hemorrhaging internally, leaving little blood on the ground. Simpson backed away, stunned by what he'd done. He pulled the blood soaked gloves from his hands, dropped them on the ground, took a step back and pulled off the knit cap, dropping it too. He was breathing hard, panting. The blood was pounding in his head, his eyes were swimming, his skin flushed. He turned to Nicole. She was trying to push herself up to her knees now, her head still foggy from the blow.

He felt the rage rise up larger than ever before. Look what she'd made him do. He took two quick steps to where she was, bent down and grabbed her chin with his left hand, pulled her head back, stretched her neck taught. Never feeling the blade as it passed over his own knuckle, he brought the knife across her throat. Nearly cut her head off.

Later, a detective named Mark Fuhrman picked up one of the bloody gloves at the crime scene and tucked it into a plastic baggy, stuffed it into his pocket. He took it with him to Simpson's estate. Not to frame Simpson. Not exactly. He took it along as insurance. He took it along in case he needed probable cause. And if it turned out differently than he expected, if it turned out that Simpson had a shock-proof, air-tight alibi, Fuhrman would return the glove to evidence later.

When Kato told him about the thumps on the wall, Fuhrman saw his chance, and he walked alone halfway down the dark passage. It was the same passage Simpson had burst into the night before, leaping one wall and falling against another, after he'd returned home and found the limousine already waiting by his front gate. Fuhrman tossed the glove onto the leaf-covered walkway.

I know, because I figured it out.

Everybody saw most of what happened after that. And at this point--a couple of years and 30 or 40 books later--you may feel beyond burned out.

But the murder of Brown and Goldman by former professional football star and media personality O.J. Simpson is in many ways the perfect crime story. Perfect in that it represents so much of--provides so many angles into--the condition of our media-drenched, global society. This review is part of that society. One small drop in an ocean of sticky fluid, rising around you.

And Triumph Of Justice: The Final Judgment on the Simpson Saga is a good contribution to the mix. Written by Daniel Petrocelli (the Los Angeles attorney who successfully sued Simpson) with Peter Knobler, a successful commercial journalist best known for his collaboration on All's Fair (with James Carville and Mary Matalin), Triumph of Justice is a fascinating, sometimes poorly written, occasionally annoying, and ultimately satisfying read.

The bulk of the book contains retellings of various interviews: Petrocelli interviewing Simpson during an 11-day deposition; Petrocelli interviewing Fay Resnick at her deposition; Petrocelli interviewing Kato at his deposition.... The material could be out-and-out boring; but here, it's fascinating.

Petrocelli tells what he's thinking as he frames the next question, what he expects to hear for an answer, what surprises him. And he also tells the fascinating tale of how new evidence turned up in the civil trial--mostly with regard to photos proving unequivocally that Simpson owned a pair of size-12, Ugly Ass Bruno Magli shoes, of which only 200 were ever made--and how Simpson's once and future girlfriend, Paula Barbieri, had broken up with him on the day of the murders, leaving a long, distressing "Dear OJ" message on his answering service.

The finest moments are when he has Simpson on the stand and is trying to pry straight-forward answers from him. Simpson, for his part, is by this time pathologically averse to anything remotely related to blood, domestic violence, knives, or his break up with Barbieri. Much of the time he reels, attempting to evade questions he could answer simply and quickly except that he is so familiar with the minutiae of his case (he witnessed the murders, after all). The implications seem to crowd out whatever reasoning ability he might have--as when he tries to evade questions about why he said at different times both that he cut himself before leaving for Chicago, and that he did not cut himself before leaving for Chicago:

"You want me to explain?" Simpson said hopefully.

I did not. "I'm not asking what you 'would say.' When you told the police that you cut your finger in Los Angeles, and that you cut it again in Chicago, I would like you to tell us what cut you were referring to."

"I think earlier I told you I assumed, because I saw blood the night before, that I had cut my finger. I made it clear to the police that I never saw a cut"--that was a lie--"on numerous occasions that day. I made an assumption, which I realize I shouldn't have made, because I saw blood on my finger. I assumed I had cut my hand."

Of course, Simpson doesn't have an explanation for anything, and though individually his evasions are minor, as they accumulate they become weighty.

Another interesting element of the "saga" is the way Goldman's father hired Petrocelli--whose main practice was as a business attorney. Petrocelli had done little personal injury work and had never tried a wrongful death suit.

He explains how after the not-guilty verdict, many of the Los Angeles elite were up in arms. They were outraged. This man who is so obviously guilty got off--and to many Angelenos, it looked like prejudice: that the jury let him off because the defendant was "one of theirs."

So all of these rich--and mostly white--folks got together and started raising cash. And a designer clothing millionaire-client of Petrocelli's likes the idea of Petrocelli representing Goldman. And Goldman is looking for a new lawyer. So the millionaire sets up a meeting.

Meanwhile, the outraged of Los Angeles and elsewhere raise over a million dollars to support the plaintiff's team of lawyers. This may be unique in American jurisprudence: $1 million in donations to help a man sue somebody. So much for tort reform. More significantly, the money comes from small donations--checks and bills from across the country.

Probably the most revealing moment in the book comes in a scene that has both everything and nothing to do with the case against Simpson. In preparing for the jury selection process, Petrocelli's team paid a group of black people to sit in a room and talk about race, while the lawyers observed from the other side of the looking glass. Of course, what the lawyers were doing was preparing to exclude black people from the jury, something Petrocelli claims not to have done--protesting just a bit too much--because to use his peremptory strikes to systematically exclude people by race is unconstitutional, and would be grounds for appeal. But here the bias he speaks of, squarely faced, depends on race.

After a while the group relaxes and forgets about the mirror, and the talk turns to the Simpson criminal trial, and the verdict. Not surprisingly, many people in the room believe he was guilty. And also not surprisingly, the range of intelligence of commentary is broad; but one woman makes a comment that no one in the room contradicts:

"I can speak for a few of my friends," she says. "We feel bitter towards a lot of things that have happened. When we first found out about the trial, we did some research and (found in the history of the judicial system) it is rare that a white person gets convicted for hurting a black person. But 95 percent of the time, a black person is convicted of killing a white person. They go down." This statistic was received without contradiction, as common wisdom.

"The first time you have it (the other way around)," she continues, "the world is in a rage. Oh, yeah, it's about O.J., but there is a whole 'nother reason. And I'm just not with the whole O.J. thing--let's deal with the system as a whole."

Petrocelli uses this bit to segue into a soliloquy on the sins of Johnny Cochran. Cochran, he says, is responsible, because Cochran played the race card. It's true that Cochran made police misconduct, allegedly motivated by racial hatred, the focus of the trial. And it's also true that he used a team of well-paid and highly skilled attorneys and their well-paid and highly skilled experts to raise an unfounded cloud of suspicion over a large team of poorly paid and not-so-skilled police department employees.

Certainly Fuhrman planted the glove. (This is something Petrocelli, in his zeal to represent his client, just can't see. In fact, he lists a number of reasons why it couldn't have happened, none of which is conclusive in the way he imagines.) If planting the glove qualifies as framing--and under the general definition, it would--Simpson was framed. But he was, and is, also responsible for the deaths of Brown and Goldman. And a whole lot more. He was guilty of being shallow, and a spouse batterer, and money-oriented, and not at all introspective, and overly image conscious, and abusive, and irresponsible. He watched too much TV.

Probably still does.

But if Johnny Cochran played the race card, he'd been practicing his whole life to do it, in an environment perfectly suited to it. And the woman's complaint falls on ears that don't really hear. One can imagine her reading Petrocelli's book and thinking, Where was Mr. Guess? (the millionaire client) and the rest of outraged L.A. after all of the outrages her people faced? It's not a question Petrocelli, or moneyed Los Angeles, seems prepared to answer.

The really amazing thing about the Simpson story is that ultimately some justice was done. Simpson lost the one thing that was most important to him--his image. He's a ghost, wandering among us now. Fuhrman copped a plea--and as a consequence he'll probably die a bitter, thin old man believing the system he served abandoned him. L.A. was briefly riveted, anxious, shattered, and finally bored. Just like everybody else. In the end the city, and the world it represents, turned its back on the old story and started looking for a new one.

And ultimately, for the Simpson story, Triumph of Justice is nothing more than an appropriate bit of punctuation.

A comma, probably.

Brian Laird is the author of Bowman's Line, and a first-year law student at the University of Arizona.

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