The Trial Winds Down

AS ANY FAN OF COURTROOM drama knows, what a difference a friendly lawyer makes. Last November O. J. Simpson was hammered by the plaintiffs' lawyer in his first appearance before the jury hearing in his wrongful-death civil suit. Last week, returning to the witness stand, Simpson finally got the chance to begin telling his story--the way he wanted to tell it--under the gentle guidance of his attorney Robert Baker. If his string of denials the first time was unconvincing, on Friday he was charming and thoughtful, giving jurors his portrait of his troubled relationship with Nicole Brown Simpson. But even as he said the two had been "very much in love," he depicted his ex-wife as emotionally erratic and running with a crowd he didn't like.

It was not a surprising performance by the charismatic former football star and actor. He has always maintained that he could convince people of his innocence if he could just talk to them. But after the shaky direct examination last year, it was especially critical for the defense to "rehabilitate" Simpson in the eyes of the jurors. And it was critical coming in what was the last full week of testimony in the trial--a week that saw dueling apparel play a central role. This week the defense planned to wrap up its case with testimony by Simpson's daughter Arnelle. After a rebuttal case by the plaintiffs, and then closing arguments, the jurors may get to deliberate as soon as next week.

Baker's first and easiest task last week was to remind the jury just who O. J. Simpson was--and that meant going back to his impoverished childhood and his rise to sports hero. "All my life I tried to be the most conscientious of athletes," Simpson said as Baker led him through his career.

But Baker took a gamble in allowing Simpson to rough up Nicole's reputation, even if he did it without rancor. The defense wanted to paint Simpson as Nicole's concerned confidant rather than as the jealous killer portrayed by the plaintiffs. But that required some indirect shots at Nicole. Simpson testified that after their breakup she confided to him that she had become pregnant by another man. He also testified that he had witnessed Nicole performing oral sex on her boyfriend. Simpson said he was "stunned" but didn't fall into a rage. He said he shook the boyfriend's hand when he met him the next day.

Simpson said that in the months before her murder Nicole's moods would change wildly. "When I would call her, I didn't know who I was talking to." But despite their strained relationship, he said, he remained caring, bringing her soup when she got pneumonia just a month before she was slain, in June 1994.

Baker had telegraphed the attack on Nicole in his opening arguments last October. But Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki shut down an even broader attack last week when he ruled that testimony about her drug use was irrelevant. He also refused to allow Simpson or his lawyers to suggest that her lifestyle had somehow brought her into a circle of people that might include the killer.

Simpson again stuck by his denial of having hit Nicole in the 1989 incident. And if he had, he said, "she would have looked a little differently." But, trying to make the denial plausible, he said parts of his body may have come in contact with her. The plaintiffs blunted his denial the first time by showing blown-up pictures of Nicole's swollen, bruised face during his testimony. This time the pictures that the defense showed the jury were of Nicole in hap- pier times.

Baker didn't have time on Friday to ask Simpson about one item of clothing that has figured prominently in the case: the Bruno Magli shoes apparently worn by the killer. Simpson testified the first time that a photo of him wearing the distinctive shoes must be a fake. But last week the plaintiffs came up with 30 more photos of him wearing the footwear in 1993.

Once again, however, Simpson's defense was helped by questions over one of the bloody gloves involved in the murders. Dennis Fung, the hapless criminologist, agreed with the defense that the glove found at the crime scene didn't appear to be the same one introduced into evidence. The one in court didn't have a damaged spot, as photos showed the other one did. No one immediately knew what it all meant, but once again the gloves seemed to be falling in Simpson's favor.