What Went Wrong

O.J., WE'VE GOT SORT of a problem."

It was Monday, June 13, 1994, about 1:30 p.m., and O. J. Simpson sat in a small, windowless interview room on the third floor of Parker Center, the blandly modernist headquarters of the LAPD made famous by the cop show "Dragnet." To get to the room, Simpson walked down a corridor lined with black-and-white photos of detectives from past years. If his interrogators made this case, their pictures might one day hang there, too: Det. Tom Lang and his partner Philip Vannatter, both veteran cops and members of the LAPD's elite Robbery-Homicide unit. In the early morning hours that Monday, the two detectives had taken over the investigation into what police already knew would be a high-profile case: the murders of Simpson's former wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman. It was Vannatter who cut to the chase: "O.J., we've got sort of a problem."

"Mmm hmm," Simpson murmured.

To the cops O.J. looked like he was up to his neck. "I know I'm the No. 1 target, and now you tell me I've got blood all over the place," he said. For Lang and Vannatter it was a moment when the key was just about to slip into the lock. A suspect was in the cross hairs. Everything was pointing toward the usual suspect in a domestic slaying. As a prosecutor would later say, the evidence, including O.J.'s blood, began to resemble a "mountain."

By any traditional accounting of crime evidence, that wasn't much of an exaggeration. How, then, did the most publicized trial in American history end in such a stunningly swift and complete repudiation of the prosecution and the LAPD? How did the key drop, the case fail?

It wasn't easy. It took a combination of bad luck and bad judgment. At several critical points, a NEWSWEEK examination shows, the state badly misread the jury and which factors would influence it. While the defense seemed to hit the right emotional buttons, the prosecutors listened with a tin ear. They insisted on emphasizing Simpson's prior abuse of Nicole as the motive, when the jury couldn't have cared less. They embraced rather than jettison former detective Mark Fuhrman. They shrouded a devastating pile of scientific evidence with impenetrable DNA-speak. They declined to offer the jury Simpson's initial statement to the police. They pushed to get more African-American women on the jury on the mistaken belief they would be appalled by the charges.

This was an able, experienced, hardworking team that tried hard and lost badly. But it was also up against a wily defense team that approached the case like a political campaign, using heavy polling and focus groups. One such focus group rated the lawyers during the case--and every prosecution lawyer ranked lower than any of the main defense lawyers. It took another focus group to persuade Simpson, who was calling many of the shots, not to put maid Rosa Lopez on the stand; the focus group didn't believe her.

A guide to where the case went wrong:

It was perhaps the most critical decision that prosecutors made: where to try Simpson. In sprawling Los Angeles, cases tend to be tried in courthouses closest to the crime. For Simpson that would have been in Santa Monica, an affluent, mostly white area, about four miles from Bundy. But the courthouse there had been damaged by an earthquake and its security was not adequate for the coming frenzy. Should Los Angeles D.A. Gil Garcetti move the case downtown, where control was better, access was more convenient, a grand jury was already sitting? He moved the case. But going downtown meant drawing jurors from surrounding neighborhoods. They tended to be black and Hispanic and not terribly well educated; that profile favored the defense. This was not a decision taken lightly. Garcetti might have tried for the Van Nuys courthouse, but the Menendez brothers were filling the pews. Or he might have bused in a jury pool from the white West Side, out by Rockingham, but that could well have sent his political career up in smoke. Garcetti, after all, had won his job after the previous district attorney lost the first Rodney King beating trial before an all-white jury.

The racial makeup of the potential jurors wasn't the state's only problem. It was little noticed that Judge Lance It to had also winnowed the jury pool to people who were often poorly educated or informed. To prevent bias, he eliminated potential jurors who admitted to watching TV and radio shows or visiting bookstores. But that tended to leave jurors who might be more easily swayed by the defense's arguments and less able to ingest arcane scientific evidence. Donald Vinson, who had advised the prosecution as a jury consultant but was soon dismissed, says his analysis found that of the 307 potential jurors the "vast majority were predisposed to believe Simpson was innocent."

It got only worse for the state. NEWSWEEK learned, for example, that three quarters of the final jurors replied on questionnaires that they believed that Simpson was unlikely to murder because he excelled at football.

Could prosecutors have done anything to get a better jury? Yes, but probably not enough to make a significant difference in the jury's composition. Marcia Clark decided early on that African-American women would be more sympathetic to her argument that the motive for Nicole's death was spousal abuse. Vinson counseled otherwise but he was largely ignored. The prosecution could have exercised more of its peremptory challenges to reject jurors perceived as pro-defense. But the U.S. Supreme Court itself had limited Clark's hand. Ruling in 1990, the court held that prosecutors may not bounce potential jurors solely because of their race. To make matters dicier, defense lawyers Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran accused Clark of doing just that-and in the racial tinderbox of L.A., the prosecution backed off.

The defense conducted focus groups and surveys before jury selection and then throughout the trial. The research showed that Fuhrman was perhaps the most critical element that sank the prosecution case, according to Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, the defense jury consultant, in the first public disclosure of the private research. How did the state get caught making this villain its witness? Garcetti insisted his office "did everything humanly possible to check out" Fuhrman before he testified, and found nothing negative. That's a difficult case to sustain. As NEWSWEEK reported in March, Fuhrman told prosecutors in a mock cross-examination that he had made racist remarks in the past. They were also aware of racist statements he had made to psychiatrists in the early 1980s, when he filed for a disability retirement.

Clark didn't help her cause with her sympathetic questioning or comforting arm on his shoulders after he testified. At least one government source thinks the state should never have called Fuhrman in the first place. "Without Fuhrman we might have had a hung jury," he told NEWSWEEK.

Was this witness really necessary? Fuhrman, among the first officers at Bundy and Rockingham, was essential primarily to introduce the bloody glove that he testified he found at the Rockingham estate. And prosecutors wanted to wave that bloody glove in front of the jury because it matched the one found at Bundy. But it opened the door to Fuhrman's racist remarks, charges of a cop conspiracy, and the devastating day when Simpson tried on the glove and it did not fit.

The state isn't legally required to offer a jury a motive for a crime, but in this case it thought it had a pretty good one: Simpson's history of beating Nicole led ultimately to her murder. The jury didn't buy any of it-- something the defense already knew it wouldn't. Focus groups, according to Dimitrius, indicated that jurors wouldn't be swayed by evidence that Simpson had physically abused his wife. So while the prosecution dramatically laid out pictures and tape recordings of the abuse incidents between Nicole and Simpson, the defense took the opposite tack--opting not to call some rebuttal witnesses.

Perversely, the state's most damaging evidence--the DNA blood results--hardly mattered. Despite the astounding statistics linking Simpson to the blood, prosecutors presented the evidence in a lengthy and confusing way. Lisa Kahn, a deputy D.A., admits to perhaps putting on an "overly technical" DNA case, acknowledging that it was a defensive response to the anticipated attack from defense DNA lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. Prosecutors weren't helped either by a sloppy and inefficient LAPD crime lab and witnesses like criminalist Dennis Fung, who stumbled badly under cross-examination by Scheck. "They could have put James Watson [discoverer of DNA] himself on the stand and it would not have made a difference," Neufeld said. Garcetti didn't disagree, telling NEWSWEEK it was an "embarrassment" that the city didn't provide enough money for "at least an acceptable if not a first-class laboratory. And now here it is. We're paying. Big time, we're paying."

It was a monstrous error, and one that prosecutors now concede they brought on themselves. They realized it would backfire when they saw that Simpson was wearing a pair of latex gloves. Christopher Darden, who asked Simpson to try on the gloves, acted spontaneously and without any knowledge of whether the gloves would fit Simpson, according to one prosecution source. Clark has defended Darden but it remains unclear whether he alerted her before he turned to Simpson.

Prosecutors opted not to introduce Simpson's statement to police, in which he talked about his finger bleeding and denied any complicity in the murder. John Martel, who consulted with the state on trial strategy, said he had hoped--wrongly, as it turned out--that withholding the statement would put pressure on Simpson to take the stand. That never happened, and the prosecution never got to confront Simpson.

This is all Monday-morning quarterbacking, of course. In the end, nothing may have made a significant difference. The Dream Team may have been too good, the jury too skeptical, the evidence too weak. But after a rout, questions need to be asked, for the prosecutors don't stand up on their own. By word and deed, they represent The People.