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23 minute read
Elaine Lafferty

Aren’t they beautiful? Aren’t they beautiful?” Daniel Petrocelli repeated the words in the “clean room” as he stared at the 30 different pictures that had just emerged from a FedEx package and were spread out on an oval table. It was the middle of the Christmas recess in the O.J. Simpson civil trial, and the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs was admiring a present. There, shown 30 times over on Simpson’s feet, was what the attorneys would argue was a pair of rare size-12 Bruno Magli shoes, the Lorenzo model, with the distinctive stitching, seams and design, one of only 299 pairs sold in the U.S. between 1991 and 1993. Most important, they were the kind of shoes that the plaintiffs said left bloody prints at the scene where Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole and would-be actor Ronald Goldman were murdered. “Ugly-ass shoes,” Simpson had said during depositions, denying he owned them.

“Aren’t they beautiful? Aren’t they beautiful?”

Most of the important strategizing by the plaintiffs transpired in what was dubbed the clean room. It was set up in September in Suite 205 of the Doubletree Guest Suites Hotel, just across the street from the Santa Monica, California, courthouse where the trial would be held. The plaintiffs’ attorneys had heard tales of “defense shenanigans” during the criminal case, so their first step was to install a complex alarm system that would guard against breaches in security. A motion detector was activated every time the room was locked, and there were separate deadbolt locks on the back room that housed a computer linked to a mainframe at Petrocelli’s office at Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp. The back room had an important blue wastebasket; everything that went into it was put through a shredder. Periodically, Suite 205 was swept for bugging devices. It was in this secure area that the plaintiffs saw 30 more keys to victory.

In the beginning, Petrocelli had only one photo–and he was concerned. Early in the trial, he had presented a single picture of Simpson wearing Bruno Maglis taken by photographer Harry Scull. The defense declared the photo was a fake, and Petrocelli was afraid the jury might buy into that claim–even though his partner Peter Gelblum had brutally discredited the defense photo expert, Robert Groden, a J.F.K.-assassination buff with no formal training in photography. Then came word that other pictures existed. “Oh, my God. Are they real?” Gelblum asked Petrocelli.

Frame after frame showed Simpson at a Sept. 26, 1993, football game at Rich Stadium in Buffalo, New York. John Kelly, the lawyer for the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson, had flown to Buffalo to pick up all the photographs that E.J. Flammer, a freelance photographer, had taken. Flammer had published one of the photos in the Buffalo Bills newsletter in November 1993. He had saved a dated invoice for the photo assignment and had a copy of his sideline pass for the game. In fact, the plaintiffs would eventually come into possession of additional pictures as amateur photographers began digging through their old contact sheets to find prints of Simpson wearing Bruno Maglis. Some photos were even faxed to the plaintiffs. But for Petrocelli and Gelblum, the package of 30 was dramatic enough. They would be the only ones the lawyers would present in court.

“So, Pedro,” Petrocelli said, using his nickname for Gelblum, “what’s the game plan?” It was his characteristic way of signaling a debate on strategy. From the outset, Petrocelli had in mind a plan very different from the first Simpson trial. As a civil lawyer, he rooted much of his strategy in the concept of the pretrial deposition and the opportunity it gave to question witnesses under oath, to trip them up and to use their conflicting statements to impeach their credibility on the witness stand. Simpson’s conflicting versions of so many things–his relationship with Nicole, where he was and what he was doing the night of June 12, 1994, how he cut his hands–were all important, but nothing loomed as large as his denial of owning the Bruno Maglis.

The first time Petrocelli questioned Simpson, during depositions in January 1996, the lawyer had no idea that photos of Simpson wearing the shoes would surface. Nonetheless Petrocelli pushed and pushed as Simpson elaborated on his denials. “We pinned him down,” said Petrocelli after the deposition. “It is a perfect illustration of how the deposition process can work. We had no photos. But Simpson lied and lied and lied. He committed himself. Whatever happened, it was important to pin him down on the lies, because we knew we would have the opportunity to confront him on the stand.” He added, “There’s no question that the shoes were the single most important piece of evidence in the case. And that is because they have nothing to do with the L.A.P.D. The shoes have nothing to do with race.”

But how would Simpson’s lawyer Robert Baker deal with conflicting statements that might arise during trial–or even new evidence? Petrocelli strategized with Gelblum and the rest of the team. They wondered if the defense, and Simpson himself when he testified, would choose to ignore unfavorable evidence. Gelblum and Petrocelli sat in an almost meditative silence for more than a few moments as they tried to anticipate the other side’s moves. They had been doing this kind of thing for years, since they were night-school classmates at Southwestern University School of Law. Finally, Petrocelli said, “What can Simpson say about anything? He can’t talk about the evidence; he can’t refute it. He’s basically gonna say, ‘Listen, I won the Heisman Trophy, so I didn’t do this. Period.'” As it turned out, Petrocelli was right. Simpson’s testimony during his lawyer’s gentle questioning was largely about his athletic career, his awards and achievements, and his idyllic life with Nicole.

Petrocelli did not come to the civil case as an expert on the first Simpson trial. His attention to it had been sporadic at best. Then one afternoon in October 1995, as he was driving on the 405 Freeway to his home in Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley, he got a call on his cell phone from a well-known client. The client, who wishes to remain anonymous, wanted to help the Goldmans with their civil lawsuit and asked Petrocelli’s permission to recommend him to the family of the murder victim. Petrocelli agreed. Fred Goldman, Ron’s father, called Petrocelli, and they arranged a meeting.

“I went to their home and met with Fred and Patti and Kim for about three hours,” says Petrocelli. “We really connected, but a major concern was whether our firm could afford to take on this case. If we did it, we would have to do a first-rate job. We factored in some of the financial support the Goldmans would be getting. I also had to talk to some of my other clients, because this case would be a major commitment. All my clients [who include some entertainment-industry figures] were very supportive, and some even volunteered to raise money. Finally the partners in the firm agreed.” Petrocelli & Co. also tried to anticipate how much the case would cost in attorneys’ fees. Says he: “We figured out how much time the case would require. We figured there wouldn’t be much pretrial discovery, because there had already been a nine-month trial.” As it turned out, they were quite wrong.

The plaintiffs uncovered a great deal of evidence they did not use simply because they needed to compress their case and hit the jury with the strongest and most incontrovertible facts. Among the unused evidence: the notes of a West Los Angeles therapist who had separately treated Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman and who wrote down Nicole’s account of being beaten by Simpson in the days just before the murders; and the recollections of a Connecticut limousine driver who described to the plaintiffs during deposition how, during a trip from a board meeting at the Forschner Group, a knife company, the former pro-football star used one of the complimentary knives he had just been given to demonstrate in the backseat how a person could kill someone. That conversation took place in the week before the murder. Petrocelli felt that both of those people were credible, but their stories just did not fit into the thesis he was engineering.

Petrocelli had clear ideas of how to try this case. And he knew what would not work. “The least explored aspect of the case is Simpson’s motive,” he explained before the trial began. “You cannot just say this murder was a culmination of domestic-violence incidents. You need to tell a jury a story. This was about a stormy relationship. I feel we really need to focus on the dynamics of that relationship and focus carefully on the last two months. That’s why instead of talking with Nicole’s friends, I want to focus on talking to O.J.’s friends.”

That strategy made the difference in understanding Simpson. It was the background Petrocelli relied heavily on in cross-examining Simpson on the witness stand. The people who helped the plaintiffs’ case most were several of Simpson’s former golfing buddies–some of whom he had thanked in his infamous “suicide” letter. Many of them initially and passionately believed Simpson to be innocent. Only much later, well into the criminal trial, did they change their minds. Helping the plaintiffs, Alan Austin and Ron Shipp described Simpson’s jealous rages, his obsession with Nicole and, perhaps most important, how Nicole in the last two months of her life finally made the emotional break from the man she had loved for 18 years.

Nicole’s diary showed that she and Simpson were having fights in those last weeks. Their hostilities had taken a cruel turn. Simpson sent Nicole a letter that was a thinly veiled threat to report her to the IRS for failing to pay capital-gains taxes. Infuriated, she started to deny him access to the children. Petrocelli would explain to the jury that Nicole felt O.J. had hit below the belt with the IRS letter and that she finally rejected him, just as he was deciding to recommit himself to her. She began to treat him like a stranger. That, Petrocelli said, is when three weeks of retaliation began. In that period, the lawyer argued, Simpson grew angrier and more obsessed with his ex-wife, developing a rage that resulted in death for her and Ron Goldman.

None of the Goldman family will speak the name O.J. Simpson. It is not a public relations ploy; in strategy sessions with the lawyers, Fred Goldman, who is adept with every legal and evidentiary detail of the case, always refers to Simpson as “the killer.” Goldman was devastated by the criminal verdict. “I was numb; I was blown away. I had thought a hung jury was possible, but I had never imagined an acquittal. Our family recognized the need to be there for each other, and as difficult as another trial would be, we felt we had to do this for Ron. Nothing we’ve gone through is as painful as what he went through. We don’t care about money. We wanted a jury in a court of law to hold the killer responsible.”

During the criminal trial, many observers worried about Goldman’s mental state. His rage at Simpson was so great that some feared Goldman might seek to take justice into his own hands. Says Goldman: “Of course you get angry. But that is the difference between decent folks and criminals. You do not commit acts of violence. I will never accept the fact that he walks free. And I would have preferred a conviction in the criminal case. But the biggest difference between the two trials is that this was our case against him. We got to call the shots.”

One of Petrocelli’s first tasks was to assemble his team from among the lawyers and staff of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp. In addition to Gelblum, who was to serve as an all-purpose hand, he chose Tom Lambert, a senior lawyer who has tried complex securities litigation, and Ed Medvene, another senior partner, who specializes in white-collar-crime cases. These four lawyers would be the backbone of the case. Since they were representing the Goldmans, the next issue was how to deal with John Kelly, the lawyer representing the Nicole Brown Simpson estate, and Michael Brewer, the lawyer representing Sharon Rufo, Ronald Goldman’s birth mother, who first filed the wrongful-death suit. Dissension and egos at first threatened to splinter the case, but Petrocelli soothed and cajoled. Besides, it was his large firm that was footing the bill; none of the other lawyers had the resources to carry a case of this magnitude. The deal was to let Mitchell, Silberberg call the shots, and let Petrocelli be the “quarterback.” Kelly and Brewer would get to question some witnesses and have a short time to question O.J. on the stand. In return, they could offer suggestions and input. There was some rancor at first, but the deal held.

Petrocelli’s own handpicked team of four lawyers, a paralegal, one legal assistant and a secretary worked with a curious dynamic. A logical and orderly man, Petrocelli is nevertheless superstitious and a creature of habit. In several of his big civil trials, he had set up a courtside work center outside the main offices of his law firm. Once settled in, he had never set foot back in the office until the trial was over. He had never lost a case when he did this, so the Simpson case was not going to be an exception. Gelblum laughs at his old friend’s habits. “Dan’s the kind of guy who wants to keep going back to the restaurant where he had a good meal the last time, while I’m trying to convince him to try a new place with me.”

Apart from that Petrocellian tradition, the operation hummed with the latest technology. Once an hour, at the Doubletree suite, the computer automatically indexed all documents on the case, a considerable task, given its volume. In addition to housing the criminal-trial transcript, the computer contained more than 8,000 pages of civil-trial transcript, 857 criminal-trial exhibits and some 700 civil-trial exhibits. On the wall was taped a separate profile of each juror, listing his or her education and any other inclinations the plaintiffs thought might be relevant, such as feelings about domestic violence or the reliability of DNA testing. To help select the jury, Petrocelli and Lambert turned to consultant Don Vinson and his DecisionQuest. (DecisionQuest is the jury consultant that the prosecutors in the criminal trial called in–and chose to ignore.) Petrocelli & Co. took Vinson’s advice, which included using DecisionQuest to prepare all the boards and exhibits explaining DNA evidence. The plaintiffs were particularly happy with the makeup of the jury, which included at least five people with a college education.

Even when Petrocelli laughs, his face rarely appears relaxed. The 43-year-old lawyer looks almost too impeccably dressed even when wearing a favorite Yankee sweatshirt. He stands in sharp contrast to Gelblum, who is dark-haired and bearded and almost always looks relaxed, even when he is tense. But the two key attorneys for the plaintiffs have much in common. A native of East Orange, New Jersey, Petrocelli dreamed of being a musician. He took up the trumpet and migrated to California to major in music at UCLA. Gelblum, who was a theater major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, worked as an actor in New York City. He once played a killer on the television series Kojak. Both men realized the financial restrictions of their chosen fields and went to law school. They joined Mitchell, Silberberg, a 100-lawyer West Los Angeles law firm, where Petrocelli at first specialized in entertainment law and later focused on civil litigation. Gelblum began doing real estate and especially probate litigation, an area he enjoys because “it’s messy and human, with kids suing the stepmother who inherited Dad’s money.”

As the plaintiffs focused and honed their strategy, Simpson was distracted. During most of the civil trial, he had another trial on his hands. Fighting to gain custody of his children, Simpson, his bodyguard Tom Gleeson and his brother-in-law Benny Baker spent most days in September attending the Orange County proceeding. In a small courtroom closed to the press and the public, tensions ran high. Juditha Brown, Nicole’s mother, and Denise Brown, Nicole’s sister, also attended every day, and the proximity of the families led to a few near blowups. At one point Simpson’s sister Shirley Baker began playing tic-tac-toe on a note pad during testimony. Juditha turned to the Brown family lawyer Natasha Roit and said, “And this is the woman who will be caring for the children?”

The Browns, however, had their own behavior to defend in the custody case. It was revealed that Louis Brown had earned $262,000 since his daughter’s death by selling her diary to the National Enquirer and the home video of her wedding to a television tabloid show. In addition, sister Dominique confessed that she had sold topless photos of Nicole to the National Enquirer. None of this helped the Browns. Simpson used his two days on the stand at the custody trial essentially as a warm-up for the testimony he would give in the civil proceedings.

On the day both families were to receive the judge’s ruling by fax, Simpson had a few people over to his Rockingham residence. Waiting with him were television reporter Star Jones of Inside Edition, CNN legal commentator Greta Van Susteren and Linda Deutsch of the Associated Press–and a lawyer and friend, Leo Terrell. When the news came that Simpson had won custody of daughter Sydney and son Justin, Simpson was ecstatic. Said Terrell: “This is the case that he really cared about. As long as he has his children, he’ll be O.K.”

Rockingham became the central meeting place for the Simpson defense team. To save money on hotels, Dan Leonard, an associate of F. Lee Bailey, and Robert Blasier, the only holdover from Simpson’s criminal defense, were living at the estate. Leonard slept in Kato Kaelin’s old room. Lead defense attorney Robert Baker, as well as his son and assistant Phillip, also met and worked with Simpson at Rockingham. Many of the witnesses who testified for the defense were prepared during marathon sessions at Rockingham. Robert Groden, the photo expert who testified that the first photo that appeared of Simpson wearing the Bruno Magli shoes was a fake, spent some five hours there one Sunday afternoon as Baker and his son went over his testimony. Many friends dropped in, adding to the messy, busy atmosphere. Some Simpson supporters, such as Terrell, made less frequent visits as the civil trial wound down. Said Terrell: “There’s almost too many people there.”

The weekend of Groden’s dress rehearsal saw a visit from the Simpson youngsters. “Sydney and Justin are very strong,” says a source close to the custody case. “Actually, they’re what most people would call brats. Sydney says what she wants and when she wants it. She knows how to get what she wants out of her father. She bullies him.” The source continues, “It can be obnoxious, but that willfulness may be what has saved these kids during this ordeal. They’re smart, they’re tough and they’re resilient. When you think about O.J. and Nicole, it’s really got to be genetic.”

Most evenings after court, Baker and his team would adjourn to the law offices of Baker, Silberberg & Keener, housed in a huge, black-glass building next to the Santa Monica airport on Ocean Park Boulevard, just minutes from the courthouse. There, a four-module space called the “O.J. Archive” is filled with documents from the trial–and before. Johnnie Cochran, who had recommended his friend Baker to Simpson, sent over photocopies of all the defense documents in October 1995, immediately after it became clear that a civil suit was to be lodged. The Los Angeles district attorney’s office, however, showed less alacrity, defense sources said. It sent numerous boxes in haphazard order, and the bulk of the 10,197 boxes did not arrive until July and August 1996. Individual documents in the boxes, moreover, were jumbled. Twice, Phillip Baker had to go to court to get evidence.

One of the greatest potential resources for the defense was O.J. Simpson himself. Says Phillip Baker: “O.J. is intelligent. He knows the case better than anyone else. I can’t think of a client who was more active.” Simpson offered tips on how to cross-examine witnesses and understood all the blood and scientific evidence, defense sources said.

Yet despite being welcomed into his home and collaborating with him over legal strategy, Simpson’s attorneys often seemed awkward in his presence, and their collective demeanor in the courthouse bordered on stilted formality. They had little chemistry with Simpson. When Robert Baker and the rest of the team lunched near the Santa Monica courthouse, their client was rarely with them; he usually chose to eat with his sister and brother-in-law. Indeed, the trial has had wider personal repercussions for the Bakers. They have encountered social ostracism by some members of Los Angeles’ well-heeled society.

By the night of Jan. 30, as the jury deliberated, Petrocelli was taut, his jaw rigid. It wasn’t the wait or the fact that the jury had asked to examine key defense points. “Listen, I hate waiting,” he said. “This is absolute torture. But they’re looking at the evidence, and they’re doing their job the way the criminal jury should have.” What did disturb the plaintiffs was that two jurors from the criminal trial had sent letters to two jurors in the civil trial suggesting a meeting to help discuss their future financial options and recommending a particular agent. Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki was livid and launched an investigation. The affair was eerily reminiscent of the circumstance in the criminal trial that resulted in what turned out to be the unwarranted dismissal of Francine Florio-Bunten for trying to capitalize on being a juror while the trial was still going on. Florio-Bunten, who was convinced of Simpson’s guilt, never wrote a book, nor tried to. Petrocelli had also learned that Pat McKenna, the defense investigator who had worked in the criminal trial, was again working for Simpson. The roil about the jury ended with the dismissal of Rosemary Carraway, the lone black juror. As it turned out, her daughter worked for the L.A. district attorney’s office. A nervous Petrocelli argued to keep her on the panel because he felt she had done nothing intentionally wrong; the Simpson defense wanted her out.

Though Simpson spent some of the time playing golf as the jury deliberated, waiting for the verdict proved to be excruciating for most of the principals. Fred Goldman spent the first Thursday afternoon of deliberations just driving alone around Los Angeles. Denise Brown was at her parents’ house in Orange County, trying to comfort her mother Juditha. Juditha was worried about Denise, convinced that Simpson would somehow hurt her. The Browns were also concerned about logistics: How would they get into the courthouse when the verdict came down without going through the media-and-heckler gauntlet? They sent an emissary to scout a back entrance and consider a front-door decoy or diversion for verdict day. As it turned out, when the verdict came down by the early evening of Feb. 4, the Browns found themselves two hours away from Santa Monica–behind the Los Angeles rush-hour gauntlet. By the time they got to the courthouse, a crowd of 2,000 people was gathered outside.

The verdicts were unanimous: Simpson was liable on all eight counts and was ordered to compensate the parents of Ron Goldman with the sum of $8.5 million for his wrongful death. The size of the triumph stunned even the engineer of the victory. At the Doubletree, Petrocelli hugged his wife and son Adam. “We couldn’t have done better. I didn’t think it would be unanimous. Isn’t it incredible?” As his young assistants and clerks celebrated, Petrocelli slumped into a chair. Someone offered him champagne. “No. Not now. I need some time to just try and take this all in. This is an incredible moment.”

For the Goldmans and the Browns, the verdict was bittersweet. The two families have never been close, and they did not savor the verdict together. At the Doubletree, the Goldmans popped champagne and celebrated. Fred Goldman, standing on a chair in what used to be the clean room, thanked lawyers and friends. “Finally there is justice for Ron,” he told the gathering. Patti Goldman and her sister Kim answered the constantly ringing phones, fielding congratulatory calls.

Meanwhile, at a small gathering at the tony Shutters on the Beach hotel, a quiet Juditha Brown told friends she tried not to show too much emotion as she listened to the verdict being read in court. There was much to meditate about the future: Sydney and Justin were in the legal custody of a man who had been found liable for the battering–and by extension the death–of their mother. The fact that the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson did not file a wrongful-death suit leaves open an even more macabre possibility: that either or both of the children, when they come of age, may sue their father for their mother’s wrongful death.

After the verdict, Simpson quickly got into his black Suburban (the white Bronco had been sold) and took off for Rockingham. On Friday, after his lawyers argued that Simpson was broke, the jury recessed as it deliberated punitive damages. If he chooses to appeal the verdict and whatever additional damages are assessed, Simpson will have to post a bond 1 1/2 times the total amount, which he would probably have to borrow from a court bondsman at 10% annual interest. The appeal process could take years. But on Tuesday night, heading home from Santa Monica, Simpson had another thing in mind. His daughter Sydney wanted a cup of cookie-dough ice cream–and as a dutiful father, he was going to pick it up for her. Nicole Brown Simpson brought home the same flavor for her daughter the night she was murdered.

–With additional reporting by Martha Smilgis/Santa Monica

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