Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder Trial of O.J. Simpson

The First Thing We Do

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers..."

— William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part III

Orenthal James Simpson was arrested on June 17, 1994. He would not go on trial for the double murders until January 25, 1995.

He and his best friend, Al 'A little help from my friends' Cowling, were taken downtown to the Parker Center and processed late in the evening. In the Ford Bronco, detectives had found a travel bag containing among other things, Simpson's passport, a disguise kit consisting of a fake moustache and beard and a .357 magnum revolver. Cowling was also found to be carrying $8,000 in cash, which had been given to him by Simpson. Two days later, Simpson pleaded not guilty when arraigned and was remanded to the Los Angeles County jail.

Here, he would spend the next 15 months in a nine-by-seven foot prison cell located in a ward that would have him as its only inmate. Outside his cell was a common room in which there was furniture, a television set, plenty of sports magazines and newspapers and a pay telephone. Although he was a prisoner on remand for two brutal, heinous murders, it seemed that almost from day one, O.J. Simpson was not to be treated as your normal, average, every day suspected killer.

Judge Lance A. Ito
Judge Lance A. Ito

On this same day, Superior Court Supervising Judge Cecil J. Mills, announced that the man selected to preside over the case would be Judge Lance A. Ito. The small, elfin man, with a moon pie face, piercing dark eyes and a nervous, quirky mouth above a black beard, was married to the highest ranking female LAPD officer, Captain Peggy York, head of the Internal Affairs Division. Along with one of her former partners, Helen Kidder, Peggy York had served as inspiration for the lead characters in the long running television series, Cagney and Lacey.

Lance Ito was the son of Japanese-American parents who were interned during World War Two. In his teenage years, he was known as somewhat irreverent, decorating his room with Playboy centerfolds and driving a hot Boss 302 Mustang. He was also known to humorously celebrate Pearl Harbor Day by wearing an aviator's helmet and cape and run through his campus hall shouting out "Banzai." 

His appointment by California's governor to the bench in 1989 was seen as a wise political choice, partly because of his Asian heritage. But Ito, as the presiding judge in the Simpson trial, would turn out to be a man not in control of his emotions and who would allow sentimentalism to dictate his decisions.

F. Lee Bailey
F. Lee Bailey

By this time, Robert Shapiro and a team he was collecting around him were now heading O.J. Simpson's defense. The first two were F. Lee. Bailey and Alan Dershowitz. Johnnie L. Cochran, a high profile, stylish Los Angeles lawyer who drove around in a Rolls Royce and had once worked in the Los Angeles district attorney's office, followed them soon after the preliminary hearing.

Gerald Uleman, Robert Kardashian, Carl Douglas, Skip Taft, Robert Blazier joined these three in due course, and two who became known as the DNA Twins — Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, New York attorneys who specialized in DNA testimony. They were all highly paid, high profile, strong-willed characters that would find themselves referred to as the 'Dream Team.' At least five other attorneys and numerous back-up staff supported them.

According to Christopher Darden, the assistant prosecutor in the trial, the only thing the members of the 'Dream Team' seemed to have in common was a penchant for defending rich people and the ability to create publicity. Lead detectives Lange and Vannatter had a more jaundiced view of the group. They referred to them as the 'Rat Patrol.' To the police and prosecution counsels, the 'Dream Team' was often slack on logic, but slick on innuendo.

The 'Dream Team' designation came, of course, from the media who has a habit of framing titles to suit situations, irrespective of their veracity. It was costing Simpson thousands of dollars a week in fact to be defended by a bunch of lawyers, some of whom had limited or no experience in murder trials.

Attorney Johnny Cochran
Attorney Johnny Cochran

Shapiro had never tried a murder case before; Cochran was primarily a civil lawyer and had little, if any, success in defending clients in murder cases. The well-known F. Lee Bailey's last stab at fame had been 20 years earlier when he had defended Patti Hearst in her famous and high profile bank robbery case involving the SLA, but he had dunked that one, and it had sent his career into serious decline. Alan Dershowitz was a distinguished law professional, but in the area of appellate law and not criminal or trial law.

Lined up against the defense team was the group representing the people of California.

The lead prosecutor was Marcia Clark, aged 41. Born in Berkley, California, she had graduated from University of California, Los Angeles in 1974 and earned a law degree in 1979 from South Western University. She had worked for two years as a criminal defense lawyer before joining the Los Angeles District Attorney's office in 1981. There, she had handled 60 trials by jury, including 20 murder cases. She had spent four years in the Special Trials Unit, which handled the most complex and sensitive investigations.

While traveling in Europe as a teenager she had been attacked and raped. She had also been emotionally abused by her first husband and was fighting a bitter and acrimonious custody case with her second ex-husband over custody of their two children.

She had developed a reputation as a tough, hard and determined litigator who operated with drive and single-mindedness. She was the original prosecutor assigned to the case along with David Conn, an Assistant District Attorney in the Special Trials Unit, who was also at the time a lead prosecutor in the high-profile Menendez brothers murder trial. He was pulled off that case and assigned to the Simpson inquiry, but after a few weeks returned to his original case and was replaced by Bill Hodgman, Deputy District Attorney and head of the Special Trials Division. Hodgman had successfully prosecuted the savings and loan fraud case against Charles H. Keating in 1991. He was highly respected for his legal and diplomatic skills by lawyers and police.

Christopher Darden
Christopher Darden

Christopher Darden was a Grade Four veteran Assistant District Attorney who had tried 19 murder cases without an acquittal before he found himself immersed in the Simpson case. He was born on April 7th, 1956 in Richmond, across the bay from San Francisco. He had spent 14 years at the Los Angeles District Attorney's office when Marcia Clark brought him in, initially to handle the investigation of Al Cowling.

These were to be the key players for the prosecution, backed up by at least another ten lawyers and support staff. Vincent Bugliosi, the man who successfully prosecuted the Manson Family, had little respect for them, calling the prosecution the most incompetent criminal prosecution he had ever seen.

Dershowitz had little praise for them either. In a television interview he said, "In 35 years of practicing law, I never encountered two more incompetent bunglers than Clark and Darden." He claimed that he had heard Clark whispering to another lawyer in the courtroom, "I want you to remember I'm not wearing any underwear." Added Dershowitz, "And that was one of her better moments."

For the hosts of people who believe lawyers are the lowest form of life, the Simpson trial only seemed to reinforce this perception, and to many, the trial became an exercise in chicanery, deceit and egomania, with lawyers to the left and lawyers to the right all fighting to be number one in the spotlight. The 'Dream Team' turned into a nightmare. By the end of the trial, Cochran had called Shapiro hypocritical; Shapiro had vowed never to work again with Cochran; Bailey had accused Shapiro of being "a sick little puppy," and Shapiro referred to Bailey as a "snake in the bed."

Alan Dershowitz
Alan Dershowitz

They all of course, had to overcome the most powerful lawyer in court, Judge Ito, who many believed, allowed his robe to go to his head. Christopher Darden stated, "Judge Ito gave the defense the keys to the courtroom. He surrendered his gavel. Johnnie Cochran ran that courtroom, not Judge Ito." Bugliosi thought, "Judge Ito displayed little common sense and specialized in making patently erroneous rulings, one after another."

And so the lawyers and their assistants gathered, their cellular phones chirping and laptop's humming, and the maneuvering began to stage the grand event that would hold, captivate and, in many instances, sicken, the American people for months to come. The Cirque du Soleil of the legal calendar was shaping up and it would indeed be a grand circus.

To the prosecution, the case was relatively simple and supported by "a mountain of evidence": Simpson had an abusive relationship with Nicole; was jealous of her since their marriage break-up; had purchased a knife similar in size and shape to the murder weapon. Simpson dropped the bloody gloves, one at the crime scene and one at his home. He wore shoes the same size as the footprints leading away from the crime scene. His blood was everywhere, some of it mixed in with that of the victims. He had a motive; he had the opportunity; he had no alibi for the timeframe of the murders.

Gil Garcetti
Gil Garcetti

To the defense the case was even simpler. Their client was innocent, framed by unscrupulous, devious, lying police officers, aided and abetted by incompetent law enforcement officials and county technicians. The defense lawyers painted Simpson as yet another black victim of the white judicial system. He was on trial because he was a black man, being framed and set up by a white man's legal system.

But O.J. Simpson was an unlikely symbol of the racial divide between black and white America. He married a white woman and made his high-priced living in the white man's world, doing business with them, playing golf with them and socializing with them. Rather than appearing as a true representative of the black people, he more typified the division between the rich and the poor, showing just how easily money could buy justice.

The Grand Master of the Ring, Gil Garcetti, the District Attorney of Los Angeles, started the circus off by formulating a mystical and breath-taking non sequitur decision that would in essence chart the future of the trial before it even began.

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