Backstage at the O.J. Trial
03/27/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
Off-camera, room 103 of the Los Angeles County Courthouse, site of the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, is a surprisingly intimate place. The chocolate-colored wood paneling, the translucent squares muting the ceiling lights, the deceptively small room itself, give the courtroom a cozy feeling. But the illusion of warmth fades quickly with the audible squeak of a sheriff's leather holster or the sudden overhead projection of a photograph showing the bloodied bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
Like all trials, much happens outside of court, unseen by the public. PEOPLE asked Lucinda Franks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author based in New York City who has covered several major cases around the country, to go behind the scenes at the courthouse and find out what the TV cameras can't reveal. Here is her exclusive report:
It is 7 p.m., 4 hours since Judge Lance Ito has gaveled court to a close for the day, and Marcia Clark, after interviewing prospective witnesses, seems almost giddy. She and fellow prosecutor Christopher Darden wander into the office of Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti. Such sessions with the boss can become tension relievers, funny and loud, and tonight's is especially so. Clark senses impending triumph; Det. Mark Fuhrman will take the stand for the first time the next day, and she is confident the defense will have little luck convincing jurors he planted the infamous bloody glove he says he found on the Simpson estate the morning after the murders.
She is also ebullient over today's testimony. Det. Tom Lange has successfully endured a long day of hammering by defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. about why police hadn't tried to establish the time of death by photographing a cup of melting ice cream on Nicole Simpson's banister.
"I hope this is the last we'll hear of Ben & Jerry's," Garcetti is overheard to say.
"He certainly keeps coming back to that ice cream," replies Clark, suddenly taken with an improbable idea. "I know what he'll say next!" she nearly shrieks. "He'll say Fuhrman planted it!"
As laughter fills the room, Clark, a stand-up comic at heart, puts her head on the table and giggles helplessly. "When Bailey starts in on Fuhrman, maybe Chris and I should create our own diversionary tactics for the jury," she says. "Chris will come over and begin to strangle me, and then I'll fall to the floor, and then..."
"Why can't I take some testimony from Fuhrman?" Darden interrupts in a mock whine. "I don't get anything."
Clark needles him some more. "Oh, come on, Chris, you get all those women falling over you." Then she notes that he gets to teach his own law class one night a week.
"I have to, I get paid so little here," Darden says, looking at Garcetti pointedly.
The district attorney, just as pointedly, doesn't respond. Someone else in the room suggests that the three of them will all be pictured in history books some day.
"Yeah," says Darden, turning to his boss. "And they'll say, 'Who's that old guy in the middle?' "
Neither Clark nor Darden, of course, was prepared for the accident of fate that made them overnight two of the most famous faces in the nation. In person, Clark is taller, softer, prettier than she seems on television. She has an elfin face and large eyes that pop open innocently when she listens to someone; they have a terrier-like attentiveness, focused yet moving.
By contrast, Darden often appears brooding. But what comes across as sullenness in court seems like shyness in person. His voice rarely rises far above a whisper, and he has a habit of walking with his eyes trained on his shoes.
Despite their differences, Clark and Darden have similar temperaments—spontaneous and passionate. They spend so much of their 14-plus-hour workdays together that they relate, one colleague says, "like brother and sister." In court they both have a tendency to ramble at times and to smolder under goading from Cochran. They have taken to monitoring each other; if one goes on too long or gets too upset, the other passes a note or touches an arm.
While standing center stage at this most celebrated trial, they have watched their private lives atrophy. "I can't go anywhere. I can't eat where I used to eat," Darden, 38, tells his friends. "There was once a time when Friday would come, and I'd say, 'I'm outta here.' I'd put on baggy jeans, cool sunglasses and fade into the masses. Now I'm mobbed by people with strong feelings one way or the other. I have to get other lawyers to go to the automatic teller for me at lunchtime."
Darden has also seen friendships swept away by the racial currents surging through this case. Weeks before he replaced the ailing William Hodgman in the courtroom, he was a top prosecutor going after police misconduct. Now he is attacked by other blacks for being an Uncle Tom chosen strictly for his color. "Where the hell were these people when the LAPD was vilifying me, calling me 'too black' and 'too militant'?" he complains privately in conversations with friends. "Am I supposed to have surrendered my skin color just because I'm doing my job? I'll tell you, when this case is over, the families of black victims will be asking for me."
For Clark, 41, the unwanted publicity has also affected her personal life. Clark was angered and embarrassed by publicity that her estranged husband, Gordon, had sued for custody of their two boys, 5 and 3, arguing that she was working too many hours to be a good mother. Yet so many messages of support—more than 2,000—came into the D.A.'s office that weekend that the county telephone message system threatened to shut down. She sends the half-dozen or so bouquets she still receives daily from well-wishers to Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.
To get to courtroom 103 on the ninth floor of the courthouse, lawyers for both sides use a private freight elevator. On this morning, 20 minutes before court is to begin, the defense team rides up together. Their body language is a metaphor for the tensions among them. F. Lee Bailey and Cochran lean against a padded wall of the elevator, chatting quietly. Robert Shapiro gives them his back.
No one seems to notice that the elevator is going down instead of up. But when the door opens at basement level, everyone stares at the person standing there. Marcia Clark gives an amused groan and gets on.
Shapiro never takes his eyes off her. He stares at her with a soft little smile as she flips through her papers, a scuffed tote bag weighing down her right shoulder. But Clark ignores him. No one speaks for the rest of the ride.
The defense lawyers arrive in the courtroom at almost the same time as their client. Despite nine months in jail, Simpson has not lost his star quality. Even sitting expressionless in a pale gray suit, he looms larger than his peripatetic lawyers, who tend to silky outfits in mesmerizing hues of aubergine and amethyst.
On this morning, Cochran seems particularly active, jumping up from his chair and down again, frowning, licking his lips, objecting furiously as Clark tries to get Lange to explain that the melting ice cream on Nicole Simpson's banister was filled with lumps of cookie dough and could never entirely melt.
Many legal experts say that Simpson's dream team is mostly media mythology; Shapiro and Cochran are regarded as good trial lawyers, but not great. "Sometimes dreams become nightmares," says Mickey Rudin, a well-known entertainment lawyer and friend of Shapiro's. "Bob is a very decent and humane man. Look how he tries to calm O.J. by rubbing his shoulders. I think he wishes that he never brought the others in but tried this case himself. Now he has to sit on the sidelines and watch Johnnie Cochran audition to be the next Jesse Jackson and Bailey try to revive his career."
The Simpson Sisters
Carmelita Durio and Shirley Baker sit in the front row of the courtroom with their families, gazing intently at their brother's back. Durio has missed only four days since the trial began; sometimes, during tedious sidebars, she folds her hands and rocks slightly as though listening to the Baptist hymns she loves. Baker, a budget analyst for a health-care company, merely frowns. They wait patiently for Simpson to turn so they can wave a little, and whenever his lawyers score a point they murmur approval, so softly that Simpson, but not Judge Ito, can hear it. "If only I could reach out just once and feel him," sighs Durio in the hall during a courtroom break. "To be so close and not be able to touch him. I haven't touched him in nine months, and we used to hug and hug."
Durio and Baker have temporarily left their homes in San Francisco to set up camp at 360 N. Rockingham Ave., their brother's estate in Brentwood. "We miss him, and we miss Nicole," says Shirley's husband, Benny Baker, a retired bus driver. "We loved her and, you know, they really loved each other. O.J. misses her. Something has emptied out of him, and he hasn't even had a chance to grieve because he's been fighting for his life."
Some nights, they see Simpson behind a plastic barrier in the jailhouse. "We try to cheer him up," Durio says. "We try to keep it light, we kid him. We say, 'Hey, O.J., we're having a great time in your house, letting the dogs all over the place, lighting up cigarettes.' He hates cigarette smoke."
Baker, who is as somber as Durio is cheerful, gives a rare chuckle and leans into her sister. "Oh, yes, we say, 'Hey, brother, what about some more heat in the pool?' We tell him, 'We're getting to like your house so much that when you come back, we staying!' "
Beneath their joviality, however, is a profound sense of isolation. They talk to no one but themselves and shun reporters. "Sometimes they'll yell, 'How's O.J. doing?' " says Durio scornfully. "And I'll reply 'Just fine.' But I feel like saying, 'How do you think he's doing?' "
During court recesses, the Goldmans and the Browns sit on benches on one side of the hallway; the Simpsons sit on the other. Durio says the Browns and the Simpsons used to be close, and the worst moment, for her, was when her former sister-in-law Denise Brown testified. "The D.A.s have manipulated her into thinking he did it. She used to love him like a brother, and then suddenly she was talking about him like he had the strength of King Kong!" says Durio, raising her arms, her voice breaking. "Like he was some kind of ape, and Nicole was this tiny little white thing."
Baker nods. "They talk like he's some kind of monster, and if you listened to them," she says, gesturing to the dirty linoleum hallway floor outside the courtroom, "you'd feel like some piece of nothing, some spot down there."
The Bomb Scare
In a trial in which anything can happen, it often does. On this day, just at the end of the lunch break, there is a bomb scare—the second since the trial began. Lawyers and spectators are stranded on various floors as the elevators are halted while L.A. county sheriffs search the entire 19-story building. It takes 45 minutes.
The victims' families spend the time in the hallway outside the courtroom. Ron Goldman's stepmother, Patti Goldman, appears emotionally composed, but his sister Kim, 23, seems raw. She talks with bitterness of her brother being the forgotten victim, the one who is always depicted in a small picture on the corner of the page. In court she often leans over and put her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands. "The cameras caught me laughing again today, I know it," she says with a grimace.
The next day she listens as her older brother is described in terms of his body parts: his bruised fingers, his unbagged hands, his stomach contents, his postmortem lividity. She watches as jurors carefully examine his engraved white metal ring that flew off when he struggled for his life. She sees a photograph of his curled-up cadaver, lying like a pile of bloody laundry, projected on the overhead screen.
Kim's father, Frederic Goldman, puts his arm around her. She closes her eyes, letting the tears trickle down, and rests her head on his shoulder. "All this is supposed to be a healing process," she shrugs. "But I'm still waiting."
Darden's weekly trial advocacy course at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles' Wilshire district is what he calls "my little secret." There, carrying the same six-pack of Evian water under his arm that he brings into court every day, Darden seems to unwind before more than a dozen students, some of whom have put in as many as 1,000 hours helping him with the Simpson case.
He shuffles through the highlighted pages of his prepared lecture on trial strategy but puts them down impatiently. What he really wants to talk about—and has little chance except in this room—is People v. Orenthal James Simpson. He warns the class that prosecutors should not be intimidated by the defense. "One day I told [Simpson defense attorney] Carl Douglas, 'I'm the engineer. I'm driving this train. They're my tracks, and the next lawyer behind me has to contend with that.' "
He takes off his jacket and slowly hangs it over a chair. His white shirt is surprisingly crisp, and his pager sticks out of the back of his belt like a gun. He turns to the art of opening statements. "The jury expects drama," he says. "You want the audience to be yours. You didn't hear me say Nicole thought she would be killed. I had her crouching in the bushes, running to the police, battered and terrified."
Darden lopes between the desks, scanning the room. "Be outraged at how gruesome the crime is," he says. "I'm told that whenever I go to the podium, O.J. stops fiddling with his pen or whatever he's doing. He's concerned I'm going to say something bad about him, and that's when I know I'm getting to him."
He returns to the podium, fingering the scar on his left cheek. "Sometimes in your opening statements, when you have powerful evidence, you can save some cherries to deliver to the jury in the middle of the case." He pauses, then mentions something that has yet to be revealed in the Simpson courtroom. "You notice that we did not mention the DNA results in our opening statement," he says. "We will be telling them in our own time, and when they hear how large the numbers are, they will be surprised. And so will you."
He stops to take attendance.
"Horowitz?" he calls out.
"My name is not Horowitz," chides the student. "I got married, remember? I'm Gabriela Shapiro now."
"I guess it's that I just don't want Shapiro following me wherever I go," says Darden.
"You can call me Horowitz if it makes you calmer," she says.
Lance Ito puts on his black robe in his tiny chambers, a long, narrow office crammed with a cluttered desk, audiovisual equipment and walls lined with law books. To get to courtroom 103, he walks down a dingy back hall lined with cartons and watercooler bottles. But once he enters the courtroom, he ascends to a majestic bench, sitting between the yin and the yang of technology. On one side is a new laptop computer, on the other a collection of unused antique hourglasses that seem to emphasize the endlessness of time in his courtroom.
Ito peers at the lawyers through large rimless glasses with an intense concentration and solemnity. But when he speaks—at times saying, "Time out, time out," or, as in one sidebar, "Children, children, children"—he seems more like a labor arbitrator or a marriage therapist than a superior court judge. Like a progressive parent of the '60s, he regularly asks lawyers who have broken the rules what they think is an appropriate sanction.
Sometimes his leniency seems purposeful, almost like a mind game. The more Cochran tries to push him into committing an error that could provide grounds for appeal, the more deferential Ito becomes. Today, for example, he loses patience with Cochran while Clark is questioning Det. Lange. When the detective admits that he is human and makes mistakes, Cochran mutters acidly, "Sure do."
"I heard the comment, Mr. Cochran," Ito admonishes.
Cochran throws up his hands and looks at his teammates. "I didn't say anything. What did I say? I didn't say anything."
Ito narrows his eyes. "I heard the comment, Mr. Cochran." And, with that, he lets it drop.
Half of Ito's time in court is spent in sidebars that not only give lawyers a chance to let off steam and insult each other, but which allow sheriffs to act like sheriffs. On this day, one of them nudges a dozing spectator who is about to fall off a bench. The deputy then hands a tissue to Linda, wife of defense attorney Carl Douglas, so that she can dispose of her gum.
"Busted!" she whispers, causing O.J. Simpson's family to turn and giggle.
Those reporters who do not have red passes allowing them into the courtroom are crammed into two tiny pressrooms. Their laptops, a dozen going at once, sound like raindrops as the reporters watch the proceedings on television, trade rumors and make jaded jokes. One female tabloid correspondent files her nails as she keeps up a hilarious running commentary, spiked with four-letter words, on the testimony.
Inside the courtroom, authors Joe McGinniss and Dominick Dunne, who are writing books on the case, occupy front-row seats daily and complain about "toxic water" in the fountain. They speculate that the same air is recirculated over and over through the courtroom, causing giddiness and bizarre behavior.
No one knows better how bizarre that behavior can be than Suzanne Childs, a former TV reporter turned prosecutor who is now head of media relations for the district attorney's office. Childs spends much of her day running barefoot through the halls of the D.A.'s office, putting on her shoes only to go to the courtroom or the pressrooms on different floors. Never before has so much evidence—and nonevidence—been leaked to the media. Nor has so much of what appeared in the media become evidence. "I don't have enough staff, I'm here all the time, I haven't cleaned my house in months," she says. "This is a three-ring circus."
As a result, she single-handedly takes on tasks as diverse as paging a prosecutor when she notices on television that the judge is asking for him, scanning newsmagazine shows for possible witnesses and admissible evidence and even rerouting misdelivered flowers from Garcetti to Ito. "I don't want the judge to think we stole his roses," she says distractedly.
Childs views her main job, though, as acting as a buffer between the Simpson prosecutors and the media—trying, often in vain, to persuade reporters not to write about their private lives. Her boss, District Attorney Garcetti, is deeply troubled about the compromised security of his assistants in such a controversial, high-profile case. "I am an elected official, I knew that my life could be turned inside out for everyone to see," he says. "But assistant district attorneys do not choose to be public figures. They work because of their ideals and for very little pay, and I'm concerned that when the next high-profile case comes up, I won't be able to get anyone to try it."
Garcetti, 53, has had several reversals recently—the Rodney King and Menendez brothers cases, to name two. He worries about the impact the Simpson case will have on the criminal justice system. "This trial has created expectations which our society cannot fulfill," he says. "Believe it or not, in L.A. County we have more than 120 felony jury trials going on in any one day, and already assistants are saying they are under pressure to replace their handwritten map boards with blown-up diagrams. Victims' families are going to expect half-million-dollar technology—not just the normal single prosecutor, but a whole team. No district attorney's office has the resources to spend on one case even a fraction of what is being spent on the Simpson trial [$2.5 million so far]. Prosecutors will be the ones who will be viewed as wanting."
Garcetti shakes his head. "I see a future where evidence is leaked in the tabloids, where defense attorneys learn to drown the facts in theatrics, and where juries adjourn and say, 'Where are the extra detectives and the law clerks and the expert witnesses? If the People don't care enough about this case to provide them, then why should we?' "
The one thing TV is not allowed to cover is the jury. The panel, which includes a teacher, a flight attendant and a postal worker, are unusually conservative in their dress. The men look courtly in ties and jackets; a hankie peeks out of a Latino man's pocket. Many of the women wear high heels, scarves, jewelry and carefully styled hair. They sit like wax figures, stubbornly refusing to satisfy reporters studying them for any tic that might betray a human emotion. But the eyes of this jury are alert, and some fill pages in their notebooks each day.
Despite rumors of personality and even racial conflicts, they are laughing and joking, black and white together, as they come into the courtroom to begin another day. Eight members of the 12-person jury are black, but that is not the most striking fact about the panel. Eight of the jurors are also women, most of them under 50. In this trial involving graphic evidence of spousal abuse, one has to wonder whether gender will play a greater role than race.