Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder Trial of O.J. Simpson

Trail of Blood

"Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

Groucho Marx in the movie Duck Soup

Having worked hard at destroying the credibility of the police officers involved in the investigation, the defense team then turned their considerable abrasive talents in the direction of the witnesses for the prosecution who were called to give evidence regarding the blood samples found at the crime scenes. This would prove to be the most complicated and technical part of the trial, leading many people to believe that a jury of laypeople was simply unable to grasp the complex and, at times, stupefyingly dense evidence.

Jurist #98 Carrie Bess, a postal officer worker, said of the technical evidence, "We heard how people watching the DNA testimony on television found it difficult to keep track of details. Our sentiments exactly."

Alan Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School and perhaps the most experienced attorney in the court, especially on the theory and mechanics of the law, was himself overwhelmed by parts of the trial. He said, "Much of the expert testimony was incomprehensible to me — and I have been teaching law and science for a quarter of a century."

Dennis Fung, the lead criminalist called out to the crime scenes on June 12, started giving evidence on April 3. He would spend most of the next three weeks in the witness box being cross-examined by Simpson's lawyers. On the face of it, he was an experienced professional, eleven years on the job, over 500 crime scenes under his belt.

He explained to the jury about the painstaking process of collecting bloodstains and smears and other evidence and how it was catalogued and stored. The prosecution maintained that DNA evidence tied Simpson into both of the murders and it came from blood on the glove found behind the guest bungalow, in the Ford Bronco, on the pair of socks found in his bedroom at Rockingham Avenue and on the footpath at South Bundy.

Barry Scheck
Barry Scheck

The defense's main attack on the prosecution's blood/DNA evidence came from lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. Barry Scheck stepped into the limelight as a star on O.J. Simpson's 'Dream Team' of lawyers, but for many years he had been on the cutting edge of criminal law.

A pioneer in genetic fingerprinting, Scheck had earned honors as a forensics expert who used scientific evidence to defend indigent suspects facing serious crimes. During 1987, the short, fiery New Yorker masterminded impressive arguments that led to Hedda Nussbaum being declared innocent in the death of her adopted child. Scheck adeptly pleaded that the woman suffered from abuse by her companion, Joel Steinberg, and he convinced jurors that Nussbaum had become a psychological victim of spousal abuse.

But unlike many prominent attorneys who built up their financial assets by taking on highly publicized murder trials, Scheck donated his professional services in 90 percent of the cases he has taken on.

Scheck and his partner Peter Neufeld teamed up and launched the pro-bono Innocence Project at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 1992, an organization that helps to free people wrongfully convicted of murder through DNA testing. Two of the more prominent civil rights attorneys in America, they both practiced law in New York.

Neufeld, a 44-year-old graduate of the New York University of Law, was working in a Legal Aid office in the South Bronx when he met Scheck. They had joined forces and became accomplished defense lawyers as well as colleagues, developing a particular interest in what they saw as an intersection between science and the law. Neufeld had done pioneering work in forensic psychology and was one of the very first lawyers to successfully use the "battered woman's syndrome" as a defense against murder.

The two lawyers were drawn to DNA "fingerprinting" as a powerful tool to help exonerate those who had been wrongly convicted and imprisoned. They saw it as a major leap beyond conventional serology typing. To Neufeld, DNA was the "gold standard of truth." To Scheck, it was "the magical black box that suddenly produces the truth."

Peter Neufeld
Peter Neufeld

Scheck started out on Fung wanting to know why the Ford Bronco had not been sealed off as a vital evidentiary object in the Rockingham crime scene, why he was the only criminalist employed on both sites, and what impact on evidence corruption the blanket that covered Nicole's body may have had. Scheck also zeroed in on why  junior criminalist Andrea Mazzola was allowed to collect most of the blood evidence.

Over the period of Scheck's cross-examination, he brought up the fact that a crime scene photograph showed an ungloved hand holding the blood-spattered envelope containing Mrs. Brown's eyeglasses. Fung also agreed that he had only collected "representative" smears of the blood in the Ford Bronco, which was why stains were still found in the vehicle six weeks after it was impounded. He also admitted to placing blood samples into plastic bags, which he claimed was purely a temporary measure, although doing this could foster bacteria growth, which in turn could distort test results.

Scheck accused Fung of destroying evidence in an effort to conceal when he received the vial of O.J. Simpson's blood. The criminalist remembered that in fact he had given the vial of blood to his assistant, Mazzola, and she had carried it out to their evidence truck in a black plastic bag. There was also a heated debate over a missing page from the crime scene checklist, which Scheck claimed was replaced as it showed that Fung could not have received the vial at the time he stated he had. The missing page however, subsequently turned up in a crime laboratory notebook, and Judge Ito ruled that its misplacement was inadvertent.

On April 18th, Dennis Fung finished testifying. He denied covering up mistakes, using selective memory and "saying what the prosecution had told him to say," rather than what was the truth. He then amazed everyone in the courtroom, by crossing over to the defense table and shaking hands with O.J. Simpson and his lawyers. It seemed to some observers, that Dennis Fung was just so delighted to be finished with his testimony.

Apart from his grueling days on the witness stand, he had been the butt of more than one joke. Shapiro had been presented with a box of fortune cookies by a local Chinese restaurant and had gone around presenting them with compliments from the "Hang Fung Restaurant." When word got out, it became a big story in the media. Also Johnnie Cochran, who told reporters that Dennis Fung was the worst witness he had ever seen in thirty-three years, was seen one day, during court break, dancing up and down the hall singing, "We're having Fung.... Oh we're having Fung..." For a man basing his case on a racist platform, he seemed to be showing very poor judgment.

Andrea Mazzola was called to give evidence on April 20th and spent four days being grilled by Peter Neufeld, who subjected her to as severe a battering as his partner had to Dennis Fung.

She agreed that she had collected most of the blood samples without any supervision from Fung, although in the preliminary hearing, Fung had claimed the opposite. Neufeld also tried hard to show that Mazzola did a sloppy job, using videotape as evidence of her resting a hand on a dirty footpath, wiping tweezers with a dirty hand, and dropping several blood swabs. She admitted that there were times when she had made mistakes in the collection of evidence, but denied emphatically that anyone, including herself would have deliberately altered evidence.

She was unable to confirm that she had carried out to the evidence truck the vial of Simpson's blood returned to the scene by Detective Vannatter, thus reinforcing the defenses notion that the blood was never handed over to Fung that day, and this delay gave the police ample time to plant blood evidence.

Mazzola finished her testimony on April 27th. Both Scheck and Neufeld had done a brilliant job in creating a smokescreen to confuse the jury over the propriety of the criminalists' activity that day in June. If there was confusion over who did what in the collection of crime scene evidence, it was minor compared to what was to come next.

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