The Simpson Case plus 20: Remembering the ‘Trial of the Century’

O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in 1995. The investigation and trial lasted more than a year and included a number of memorable moments. Here are a few of them, starting with O.J.'s infamous car chase which took place June 17, 1994. (The Washington Post)

Twenty years ago this evening, two people were brutally killed on South Bundy Drive in Los Angeles, setting the stage for an astonishing sequence of events that culminated in the ridiculously sensational Trial of the Century.  I never worked full-time on the O.J. Simpson story, but I made five trips to L.A. to pitch in on the coverage at various points in 1994 and 1995. The most unforgettable moment, for me, came during opening arguments. I was in the courtroom sitting close to the family members of the victims when the prosecutors for the first time displayed on a screen the crime-scene photos. They were ghastly. It was a gut-punch for everyone. The case had been spritzed with so much celebrity, glitz, hype and silliness, and suddenly the photos brought us all back to the grim and tragic reality of the murders.

Much of our coverage is buried behind paywalls and seems unlikely to be read ever again, but I’ll excavate some of the piece I filed that day between the first and second editions of the paper:

 

LOS ANGELES, JAN. 24 –

The photos flashed on the 87-inch video screen specially mounted on the courtroom wall, their bloody images cut off from the TV feed connecting the rest of the world by order of Judge Lance A. Ito.

First came the shot of Ronald L. Goldman. He lay on his side, curled and twisted, in the bushes by a fence, white sneakers jutting toward the camera, the left leg of his blue jeans soaked, his white dress shirt turned red and bunched up around his shoulders, a mop of sodden hair across his eyes.

Then came Nicole Brown Simpson, two different shots taken from above her. She was face down in a black dress, head resting in a dark red splash of blood spilling down the steps of her condo.

In the audience, the victims’ families sobbed silently. They had not seen this before. Ito had posted a notice throughout the courtroom: “No verbal or visible displays of emotion will be allowed in this courtroom. This includes the rolling of eyes, facial grimaces, hand gestures, and all other obvious expressions.” So the survivors fought hard, in vain, to weep without noise or expression.

Fred Goldman, the father of the dead man, squeezed tears into a tissue jammed behind his eyeglasses. Juditha Brown’s face folded up and she could not look at the projected photo of her slain daughter. Sitting amid his lawyers, the man charged with slashing and stabbing the victims also looked down.

Ito finally called a break. The Goldman family turned to the Brown family and they clasped hands, as though in a huddle. All except Sharon Rufo, Ron Goldman’s mother. Of everyone in the courtroom she alone remained seated, dazed, lost in shock and grief.

“There will be no dispute about the cause of death,” prosecutor Marcia Clark told the jury a few minutes later.

The grisly photos were the emotional peak of an exhausting day. For those few minutes the Simpson case was no longer about which lawyer was the smartest or which side was winning; it was about two people whose lives ended swiftly, hideously, in an explosion of violence.

“Did O.J. Simpson really kill Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman?” prosecutor Christopher Darden said as the day began. “The answer to the question is yes. The evidence will show that the answer to the question is yes. O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman.”

He thumped his fingers on his lectern, pounding home an allegation that, even after all these months, after all the hype and sensationalism, after all the legal analysis and media scrutiny, remains startling.

“He killed Nicole for a single reason,” Darden continued. “He killed her for a reason almost as old as mankind itself. He killed her out of jealousy. He killed her because he couldn’t have her.”

Hours later, prosecutor Clark put it another way: “Just as she tried to break free, Orenthal James Simpson took her very life in what amounted to his final and his ultimate act of control.”

The prosecution’s case appeared formidable. Darden and Clark remained low-key as they pushed a two-prong attack. Darden painted a picture of Simpson as an obsessively jealous man, and then Clark tried to show that all his actions the night of the murder were consistent with guilt. Her explanation of the blood evidence was most powerful of all. She showed blood at the crime scene, in Simpson’s Bronco, on the cobblestone driveway of his estate, in his house. She said blood in the Bronco and on a glove found at his house matches that of both victims, and said blood on socks left on a rug in his bedroom matches that of Nicole Simpson.

On Wednesday, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., the lead defense attorney, will challenge each of the prosecution points. He plans to say that the blood evidence was contaminated by sloppy police work. He likely will say that the wounds were made by more than one knife, meaning the prosecution theory of the single killer is wrong. Cochran may float the idea that this could have been a drug-related murder. Cochran will argue that Simpson was not a violent spouse.

The defense has enlisted Lenore Walker, considered an expert on domestic violence, to help make the case that Simpson does not fit the profile of a batterer. Cochran also said he will talk about Mark Fuhrman, the detective the defense says is a racist. Clearly today was a big day for the prosecution; the defense will have its big day Wednesday.

The courtroom is more intimate than it appears on television. It’s the size of a large school classroom, but quieter, with hardly anyone daring to squirm in his or her seat. With 12 jurors and 10 alternates, armies of lawyers, family members and reporters crammed into the room, it is a big trial in a small place.

Everything is so tight that Ito expressed “security concerns” about Simpson approaching the jury box to show off some scars on his knees, because that would require Simpson to walk right by the team of prosecutors.

When Ito read his written instructions to the jury late Monday afternoon, a long recitation of legalistic principles regarding evidence and reasonable doubt, the jurors, looking a bit overwhelmed, stared fixedly at the judge. Today they sat with notebooks, but only a couple actually took notes. They were attentive throughout. When the death photos were shown they reacted little, though a few took deep breaths or put their hands over their mouths.

The trial is extraordinary not only for the celebrity of the defendant but also because almost every significant element is in dispute. Simpson wanted to reiterate his plea of not guilty directly to the jury, but Ito ruled that he could not. At times today Simpson looked agitated.

“Keith and Nicole made love on the couch,” Darden was saying at one point. “But they weren’t alone. There was someone watching. There was someone watching through the window. It was the defendant.”

Simpson blinked, licked his lips, puffed out his cheeks, took notes on a legal pad.

The prosecution style will be methodical. The defense is expected to use the element of surprise. “Trial by ambush” is what Clark calls it. This will be a scorched-earth offense against a guerrilla warfare defense. One might say it’s like Vietnam, only with more press.

“They’re in for the fight of their lives,” Cochran promised today.

 

The case was an anomaly for criminal trials. Everything was exaggerated, including, not incidentally, the length of the prosecution’s presentations — stretched out for months. I’ve always believed that the prosecution erred in trying to present, spoonful by spoonful, the entire “mountain of evidence” against O.J.  What’s certain is that most murder trials last only a few days or a week or so. While covering the Simpson trial I would occasionally duck into other courtrooms in the CCB.

Here’s the first half of a long piece that ran in the fall of 1994:

LOS ANGELES — No one calls it a courthouse, this place where they are holding the trial of the century. It’s the Criminal Courts Building, or sometimes just “the CCB.” A typical courthouse is a lofty neo-Classical temple, with fluted columns and gargoyles and quotations about “JVSTICE” chiseled into the facade; the CCB is a modern glass-and-concrete box, the exterior a grid of rectangles, as though the architect was inspired by graph paper, or maybe a chart of the L.A. crime rate.

The building handles 18,000 felony cases a year. It is for one of those cases that satellite dishes are propped on the 12th floor ledge, aimed at the heavens. Nothing like the O.J. Simpson trial has ever happened here, at least in terms of publicity. But the crime itself — murder, two counts — is a routine matter, another day at the office. Mayhem is a local industry, recession-proof. Business in the CCB is awfully good.

Stray from the Simpson trial and you might stumble upon the karate teacher accused of killing his assistant; the gang member who said he had no choice but to empty his gun into his close friend; the elderly man who buried his wife under the house and told his children he didn’t know where she was — until the dog dug her up.

There is no way to keep track of it all. People come, people go, an endless stream of miscreants, victims, bailiffs. The building is a machine, a whirring punishment device, a tragedy processor.

“I was very depressed. I was sending a whole lot of people to prison and they were just blurs in front of me,” says former Superior Court judge Jack Tenner, who worked in the CCB for 10 years. “I wouldn’t recognize them if I saw them five minutes later.”

The front door starts to get crowded around 8 a.m. Everyone must go through a magnetometer, and purses and briefcases are X-rayed. Even people in wheelchairs are frisked. If one of O.J. Simpson’s attorneys shows up there’s a mad scramble, cameras converging. The camera crews have been bivouacked since June, lining the path from the sidewalk to the door — the gantlet is what they call it. Tuesday the crews brought in pots and chafing dishes and had a turkey feast just to the right of the gantlet.

O.J. Simpson is driven into the basement every morning in a sheriff’s van. He takes an elevator to the 8th floor. When he is summoned to court he takes the stairs to the 9th floor, to “Department 103,” the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito. Ito will have already emerged from a door behind the bench where he has offices. The attorneys enter the courtroom from the main hall, the door guarded by a muscular female sheriff’s deputy. The courtroom is a kind of intersection, everyone coming into it from a different space, transported by different sets of elevators.

There are other courthouses in Los Angeles, but the CCB is the most important, the guts of the largest criminal justice jurisdiction in the nation. New York City has separate district attorneys for each borough. Washington’s criminal justice bureaucracy is likewise divided between the District and the surrounding cities and counties. But every felony in every community within sprawling Los Angeles County is handled by the office of District Attorney Gil Garcetti, headquartered on the 18th floor.

Below him are 60 courtrooms. So many accused persons come through the building each day that four full floors are needed for locking them up, which is why the public elevators do not stop on the 4th, 8th, 10th or 14th floors.

The other day, while the Simpson lawyers were carefully screening potential alternate jurors, a young deputy D.A. named Craig Hum went to a hearing regarding a certain Charles Jones. Hum is part of a division called Hardcore Gangs. Right now he’s juggling 18 cases, all murders. Charles Jones was seeking a new trial after a murder conviction. Jones had tried to steal a car, and the car’s owner objected. Jones shot and killed him. The victim’s young son watched the whole thing from a few feet away. The name of the slain man?

“I don’t remember his name. It’s sad. I can’t remember his name,” said Hum. “A victim’s family will call up and say, it’s the so-and-so case, and I don’t remember who it is. We don’t remember cases by victims.”

This past week there were a half dozen murder trials in the CCB. Other than Simpson, two were tracked by the D.A.’s media relations department as being potentially of some local media interest.

One was the case of Henry Castorena, a 65-year-old a tow truck operator whose marriage of 42 years ended the night he dragged his wife Hortensia’s body into the crawl space under his house and buried it.

Murder, said the prosecution.

Panic, said the defense.

Castorena took the stand, a gray man in a brown pullover sweater, and testified that he and his wife had had an argument one night. She thought he had been flirting too much with a waitress, and that his $5 tip was extravagant. They fought, a hand-to-hand struggle in the bedroom. She just suddenly died, he said. Collapsed.

“He panicked,” says his attorney. Hortensia Castorena was stiff by the time he managed to get her into the hole, folded up in a sitting position, the defendant testified.

Two months later the family dog, Cisco, dug up the decomposed body. The coroner couldn’t establish a cause of death because there wasn’t enough tissue.

“What were you thinking about when you were digging that hole?” the prosecutor asked.

“My mind was just in a rut,” Castorena said.

“How deep was the hole?”

“I didn’t measure it, I just dug it until I thought the body would fit there.”

The prosecutor asked what he did when he finished digging.

“I put her in the burial site.”

“The hole?”

“Yes.”

The jury’s still out.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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