Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder Trial of O.J. Simpson

Framing a Guilty Man?

"A jury consists of 12 persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer."

— attributed to Robert Frost

It is standard practice in Los Angeles County to file a case in the superior court of the judicial district in which the crime occurred. This was Santa Monica in the case of the Brown and Goldman murders. Instead, Garcetti made the decision to file the case downtown. He claimed this was because Special Trials were located there and that Santa Monica didn't have the physical facilities to manage a trial of the kind envisaged. He also wanted it downtown to get the indictment of Simpson through a grand jury instead of the more commonly used preliminary hearing method, by which 99.9% of criminal cases in Los Angeles go to superior court.

The grand jury route would have been of strategic advantage to the prosecutor because these proceedings are secret and the defense does not participate, allowing the prosecution to secure its indictment without revealing the basis of its case to the defense prior to the trial. There is only one grand jury in Los Angeles and it is only convened downtown. However, the defense succeeded in getting the grand jury dismissed on the grounds that it had been tainted by the adverse publicity surrounding the case.

Had the case been held in Santa Monica, it is almost certain that the composition of the jury would have finished up being mainly white people. Had a jury of this ethnic mix found Simpson guilty, there was always the possibility of a major backlash from non-whites. The last major race riot in Los Angeles occurred when a largely white jury acquitted white policemen accused in the infamous Rodney King case. A similar verdict in reverse might well have triggered off another race riot. 

Garcetti is also claimed to have said that a guilty verdict by a downtown jury would have had more credibility with the black community. It's possible also that he thought the case was so airtight that his prosecutors couldn't fail wherever they tried it. He could have been more wrong, but it's hard to see how.

In the months leading up to the trial, it became obvious that the defense strategy would be based on developing evidence that the police had framed their client. They began with Det. Mark Fuhrman.

On July 25th, an article by Jeffrey R. Toobin appeared in The New Yorker magazine suggesting that the LAPD detective who had testified in the preliminary hearing about discovering the glove at Simpson's estate had, in fact, planted it there. The article also referred to a disturbing pattern of behavior displayed by the detective in the past and his strong racist views. The author of the article had apparently based a lot of it on conversations he had with Robert Shapiro.

To the lead detectives on the case, the thought that Fuhrman could have planted the glove was laughable. He had, in fact, been the 17th police officer to login at the crime scene, almost two hours after the arrival of patrolmen Riske and Terrazas. Many other officers had viewed the crime scene and not one had seen or reported more than the one glove found near the bodies.

On August 18th, the defense filed a motion to obtain the personnel records of Detective Fuhrman.

The lead detectives, under questioning by Shapiro at the preliminary hearing, were accused of violating Simpson's Fourth Amendment rights by entering his premises illegally. The detectives stressed that at the time, they entered the estate because they were concerned for his safety, not because he had become an actual suspect, because he was not.

On Friday, September 9th, Gil Garcetti announced that he would not seek the death penalty in the Simpson case. Although the murders were savage and bloodthirsty, they did not fall under the parameters that required the ultimate retribution by the state.

On September 21st, defense attorneys claimed in a pre-trial challenge that the original search warrant was inaccurately filed, hoping that if successful, all the evidence collected there would be ruled inadmissible. Although Judge Ito issued a scathing indictment against the way the search warrant had been compiled by Detective Phil Vannatter, claiming the detective's actions were "negligent and reckless," he nevertheless upheld the warrant and admitted the challenged evidence.

In fact Judge Ito's acerbic criticism of the detectives' procedural conduct was in itself negligent and reckless and was a classic example of the judge's sometimes bizarre judicial behavior.In his search warrant, Vannatter had made only one assumption that was incorrect, two others that were true but unconfirmed at the time and one omission of fact: Vannatter had written that Simpson's trip to Chicago was "unexpected." In fact, it had been scheduled for some time. However, Vannatter had based his conclusion on Kato Kaelin deferring to Arnelle Simpson when they first contacted him during the early-morning hours of June 13th, asking for Simpson's whereabouts. Arnelle initially said that she believed her father was in his house. As a result of the statements of both Kaelin and Simpson's daughter, Vannatter believed that Simpson's trip to Chicago was "unexpected."

Also in his warrant Vannatter omitted that Simpson had voluntarily agreed to return to Los Angeles. However, unlike Lange and Phillips, he had not been party to the phone calls with Simpson at North Rockingham when the notification of his ex-wife's death was made. In the midst of everything that was going on during those early-morning hours on June 13th, neither Lange nor Phillips had explained to him that Simpson had volunteered to leave Chicago, as opposed to being ordered by the detectives to return to Los Angeles.

The other mistake Vannatter had made was his premature identification of red spots on the driveway and the red substance on the right-hand glove as blood. Even though Dennis Fung later confirmed this as blood evidence, Vannatter had made these claims in his search warrant without that confirmation, relying instead on his observations from years of experience dealing with blood at crime scenes.

Commenting from the bench — even though there was no evidence of malice on Vannatter's part or that he had deliberately lied — Judge Ito charges, "I cannot make a finding that this was merely negligent. I have to make a finding that this was reckless." Nevertheless, Ito upheld that the search that was based on Vannatter's supposedly "reckless" warrant was admissible.

By the end of September, evidence was mounting that the defense team was going to charge that not just Fuhrman, but other members of the LAPD, had also planted evidence at both crime scenes. The head of detectives, Commander John White, received information that the Simpson team had passed on to Time magazine rumors that the police were deeply involved in framing their client.

On September 26th, the defense demanded hair samples from the lead detectives and Fuhrman, as well as a search of the clothing they wore on the day of the investigation and the vehicles they drove. They also asked for photographs of their shoe soles to determine whether one of them had left the bloody footprints at South Bundy. This action was unheard of in Los Angeles police procedure and to rub salt into the wound, on Wednesday October 5th, Gerald Uelman accused the detectives of a "well-orchestrated ticket of lies" and false testimony.

By November 8th, a jury had been selected to hear the case. It consisted of eight African-Americans, two of mixed descent, one Hispanic and one white. The alternate jury was made up of seven African-Americans, one Hispanic and four white people. By the end of the trial, only six of the original jury would still be serving. The foreperson was Juror #230, Armanda Cooley.

Newsweek on September 30th, 1996 wrote: "prosecutors lost the criminal trial virtually the day the predominantly African-American jury was sworn in."

The New Year came in on a rainy, miserable Monday, January 9th.  The jury was gathered together and informed that they were to be sequestered from Wednesday January 11th until the trial was completed. They were to be in this kind of limbo-land for 267 days, returning after the trial each evening to the fifth floor of the Hotel Inter-Continental at 251 South Olive Street, about half a mile from the Superior Court building on West Temple Street.

It was the middle of winter when the jury gathered for the first time in Department 103 on the ninth floor of the courts building where the trial was held. They would sit and listen to evidence as the year turned into spring, moving through summer and into fall, before the trial came to an end in the first week of October. The jury became part of a judicial mosaic that held the world's fascinated attention through the hysteria and hype that would surround it, over the months of 1995.

In 1841, Charles Mackay wrote a book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. A Victorian classic about grand-scale madness and the universal human susceptibility to manias and deceptions, it is best remembered for its accounts of many financial bubbles, including the craze known as "tulipmania," which seized Holland in the 16th century. Wealthy Dutch aristocrats sank entire fortunes, everything they had, into one single tulip bulb, which sometimes sold for the equivalent of $150,000 to $1,5000,000 for the most sought after bulb of all, known as the Semper Augustus bulb. The most priceless things imaginable at the time. Until one day, when somebody realized that after all, they were just flowers, and the whole manifestation collapsed.

In a way, O.J. Simpson became to the television networks and the news media what that bulb had been to the Dutch. Through the frenzied networking of the story, people were seized by something akin to a mass mania and attributed values and importance beyond the limits of what was basically a sordid murder drama, allowing it to transcend into something even darker and disturbing with its overtones of racial discord.

The jury in the Simpson trial would hear a mass of detailed evidence pointing to his guilt. The core of any prosecution case is likely to be evidence collected, analyzed and developed by many specialists and experts in their fields — detectives, criminalists, scientific technicians, pathologists etc. — who process the basic ingredients of the case. It is hardly remarkable that the testimony of the experts fits in with the prosecutor's hypothesis. For O.J. Simpson to be innocent in the face of such a "mountain of evidence" as the District Attorney's office presented during the trial, it simply meant that everyone was lying, corrupted and involved in a grand scheme of deceit and treachery.

It became a standard joke the DA's office was framing a guilty man. Chris Darden stated, "We have enough evidence to convict Christ."  Whereupon a 17-year veteran assistant D.A, Lucienne Coleman wryly replied, "Maybe you should be trying him then." But to the defense, Simpson was a man being pilloried because of the color of his skin and not because he was suspected of brutally murdering two people.

The jury would listen to the evidence and then decide.

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