Taking His Stand

THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM LAST week was that there wouldn't be a Perry Mason moment. There wouldn't be a time when O. J. Simpson would suddenly break down on the stand or make a mistake so bad as to be decisive. For once the analysts were right; that momentous occurrence didn't happen. Yet as the day anticipated by millions was drawing to an end, plaintiffs' lawyer Daniel Petrocelli approached Simpson and began a series of questions that stilled the courtroom: ""You used the Bronco to go to Nicole Brown's condominium that evening . . . You had gloves. You had a hat. You were wearing a dark sweat outfit. And you had a knife?'' Simpson, hesitating ever so slightly, answered: ""That's absolutely not true.'' ""You confronted Nicole Brown Simpson and you killed her, didn't you?'' Petrocelli continued. ""That is absolutely not true,'' Simpson replied, now turning his body to face the jury. ""And you killed Ronald Goldman, sir, did you or did you not?'' Petrocelli demanded. ""That is absolutely not true,'' Simpson repeated. And as Petrocelli coursed through the familiar events, Simpson repeated the denial to each question, his voice faltering at times and his breathing sometimes labored.

When the criminal-trial jury came back with its not-guilty verdict just over a year ago, the nation stood still and watched. It's a safe bet to say that, well, a big chunk of the nation would have stood still last Friday--were it not that a judge named Hiroshi Fujisaki dislikes cameras in the courtroom. In this most overexposed case of the century, the only thing missing had been Simpson himself on the witness stand. Sure, the obsessed could have caught his $29.95 video or watched a TV interview he's given or even read his civil-trial deposition on the Internet. But Simpson took a constitutional bye on testifying in his criminal trial. He couldn't do that in the civil case, so last week, and continuing this week, marked the first time he had to answer questions publicly, under oath, from an adversarial lawyer--and before a jury.

How did he do? On the positive side for the defense, a gray-suited Simpson solidly stuck by the story he had told in his 10-day-long deposition earlier this year. Petrocelli was hard pressed to find many significant inconsistencies or even get Simpson to express any doubt. He didn't really bruise Simpson's charisma. Indeed, Simpson's demeanor, nervous at first, seemed to hit the right pitch--polite and deferential, showing frustration at appropriate moments and expressing heartfelt sentiments toward Nicole at others. ""This is a woman I love today,'' he said, while denying any battering. ""I have always loved her.''

But the performance wasn't flawless. He swore he ""never'' hit, struck or slapped his ex-wife--yet jurors viewed photographs of a bruised Nicole on a giant courtroom television. He made himself, not Nicole, the victim, saying it was she who struck him during a fight. He branded her a liar for telling others he had hit her. By the end of the day, Simpson had accused just about everyone he knows, from Nicole to his golfing buddies to loyal secretary Cathy Randa, of lying. Inexplicably, he even refused to accept as true a telephone record showing that he had retrieved a ""Dear John'' message from his then girlfriend Paula Barbieri on the night of the murders.

The denials didn't make for an appealing picture, and that seemed to be what Petrocelli, through his relentless burrowing, knew he had to achieve. He wanted Simpson to build a self-portrait of a man who not only seemed full of rage but also seemed to find everyone a liar but himself. And he hoped the jury would find those cascading denials so implausible that O.J.'s credibility would be destroyed in the ultimate denial: that he didn't kill Nicole and Goldman. Because he couldn't alter the account he gave in his deposition, ""O.J. has boxed himself into a real corner,'' said Stan Goldman, a Loyola Law School professor.

It was impossible, of course, to tell if the jury saw it that way. They seemed riveted; some seemed more interested in taking copious notes than watching the former football star. Not so family members of the victims, who stared hard. The Goldmans and Browns sat behind their lawyers, close to the jury box. The courtroom, arranged much like Judge Lance Ito's, was packed with reporters and spec- tators; it had the same charged at- mosphere that was present the day Simpson was found not guilty.

In the morning session, Petrocelli quickly turned to the questions of domestic abuse. Simpson conceded a troubled relationship with Nicole--heated arguments, thrown pictures, broken lamps--and one physical altercation, the New Year's 1989 fight. Simpson had pleaded no contest in that fight. Petrocelli went through the enlarged photos and asked how she got the welts and scrapes. ""I don't know,'' Simpson said, but suggested she got them when he was ""rassling'' with her to push her out of the bedroom.

""How many times in the course of these physical altercations did you hit Nicole?'' Petrocelli asked later.

""Never,'' he said.

""How many times did you slap Nicole?''

""Never.''

Then in a rising voice Petrocelli asked, ""How many times did you beat her, sir?''

""Never,'' Simpson declared. He even suggested the facial marks were caused by her habit of picking at her blemishes.

Keeping Simpson under a tight rein, Petrocelli took him quickly through other tumultuous and apparently violent points in his relationship with Nicole. The list included a half-dozen incidents, including one when Simpson allegedly slapped Nicole on a beach. But Simpson flatly denied they had occurred. Turning to the October 1993 incident at Nicole's home in which Simpson kicked in the door, Petrocelli read from a police tape of the interview: ""When he gets this crazed I get scared . . . He gets a very animal look in him, his veins pop out and his eyes get black.'' Simpson insisted that if she were really frightened, she would never have left her bedroom to talk to him. When asked about looking ""animal''-like, he responded: ""I can never recall being mad and looking in a mirror.''

Petrocelli read entries from Nicole's journal that detailed the deteriorating relationship in the last days of her life. In one passage Nicole wrote of an expletive-filled outburst by Simpson. Enraged that she had hung up on him, he allegedly called her a ""bitch'' and threatened to make sure she didn't have a ""f--king dime left.'' Simpson denied the entire exchange.

""Everything in these diary entries is true except where Nicole reports what you said to her?'' Petrocelli asked incredulously. ""Yes,'' Simpson responded. ""All that was a pack of lies?'' ""Yes,'' said Simpson.

The two men also sparred over the final months of the relationship between Nicole and Simpson. Petrocelli tried to show that it was Nicole who finally broke off the relationship, creating, in the plaintiffs' theory, an enraged and obsessed Simpson poised to murder. Petrocelli asked about Kato Kaelin's testimony last week that seemed to depict Simpson as upset over his former wife's love life. Kaelin testified that the day before the murders he and Simpson were watching the video of ""The World According to Garp'' when O.J. said a scene reminded him of an incident in 1993--when he had peered into the window of Nicole's house and watched his ex-wife have oral sex with her boyfriend on the sofa.

Simpson asserted that he would not have told Kato about that sexual incident with Nicole. And he said it was Nicole who ""incessantly'' pursued him, sending him cookies and cakes. ""I didn't want to deal with any of her problems,'' he said, insisting he had ended the relationship.

Simpson tried a bit of humor in the afternoon session. Asked about the request to Kato for change of $100 the night of the murders, Simpson explained that Kato had $73 in bills and he had only a $100 note. ""If he had had $87 I would have given him the bill, but I wasn't going to give him $100 for $73,'' Simpson said. Spectators laughed. But later, after Simpson joked that he was ""not dating'' Kato, Petrocelli asked if he thought the proceeding was funny. ""No, I don't think any of this is funny,'' he replied. ""I wish I were anywhere but here.''

It was taken as gospel that Simpson's testimony would be crucial to the outcome of the case. A credible performance might allow jurors to dismiss the physical evidence; a poor one would only feed into it. But given the tenor of the case so far, it was especially critical for Simpson to impress the jurors. Fujisaki has issued a series of pro-plaintiff rulings that largely block Simpson's lawyers from offering theories of police conspiracies or planted evidence--theories that served his side so well in the criminal trial. Just last week Fujisaki also barred the jury from hearing about former detective Mark Fuhrman's perjury guilty plea or his testimony in the criminal trial. So Furhman will not be taking the stand.

The plaintiffs also seemed to be avoiding the mistake of their predecessors: putting on lengthy and rambling testimony. And they've added a few elements that the criminal-trial jurors never heard. They presented last week a photograph of Simpson, broadcasting at a 1993 football game, wearing the Bruno Magli shoes that the plaintiffs contend he wore the night of the murders. The defense says the photo is a phony.

Meanwhile, in an Orange County juvenile court a kind of parallel battle is being waged. Simpson is fighting to regain custody of his two children from Nicole Brown's parents, who are using the same allegations of domestic violence as their claim to keep the kids. NEWSWEEK has learned that in the weeks before taking the stand in the civil trial, Simpson sat through about a dozen witnesses' testifying about past incidences of alleged abuse for the custody case. And two weeks ago, Simpson took the stand himself--a virtual rehearsal for his performance in the civil trial. ""He denied everything,'' a source told NEWSWEEK. ""He's sticking closely to the script.''

Whether that script has just the right lines and weight for the civil trial remains to be seen. The defense hasn't even begun its case yet and hopes to rip into what the jury has heard thus far. As for the public, O.J.'s day in court has come at last. Will it change any minds? Not likely.

The civil case against Simpson generally follows the terrain of the criminal trial. Yet from the judge to new evidence, the case has turned up important distinctions--and the defense hasn't even begun.

No-nonsense Judge Fujisaki keeps testimony clicking with few sidebar interruptions. He quickly ruled out speculative defense attacks and barred cameras.

A star-struck Lance Ito ran a loose ship. The lawyers rambled, and the case dragged on far too long. He gave the defense great latitude.

This time plaintiffs introduced a 1998 photo of Simpson wearing the shoes at a football game, and an FBI agent testified the shoes matched the footprints found at the crime scene.

Jurors heard about the size-12 shoes last time, and the footprints left behind in the blood. But no link was made directly to Simpson

Kato hurt O.J., testifying that the three notorious thumps sounded like a person falling behind his wall. And he said O.J. was upset about Nicole and an ex-lover.

Fumbling, nervous, childlike, Kaelin last time gave testimony that was so weak against O.J. that prosecutors turned him into a hostile witness.

This time it's Mark Who? While the defense has raised his name, he won't be testifying. The judge barred any mention of his guilty plea to perjury.

The defense rested its theory of racist cops and planted evidence on this former LAPD detective who found the bloody glove behind O.J.'s Rockingham house.

New witness Dr. Werner Spitz, a pathologist, asserted that some of the cuts were fingernail gouges mused by either of the victims fending off the attacker.

Simpson's mysterious cuts were said to be from a cell phone, from a broken glass or, as the prosecution argued, inflicted during the murder struggle.

A plaintiffs' expert testified that the famous gloves have shrunk, and they do fit Simpson. And jurors only saw a tape of O.J. trying on the gloves, not a live demo.

"If they don't fit you must acquit," went the winning mantra, deflecting prosecution attempts to show that Nicole had bought the gloves for O.J.

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