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O.J. Simpson's Defensive Linemen

The Dream Team of Attorney's Ready to Tackle Whatever Comes Its Way

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 21, 1995; Page D01

LOS ANGELES -- You can't take your eyes off the Dream Team. Look away and you might miss something. Last week the Dream Team produced a full-throttle feud, an ugly thing, with friendship permanently severed -- until it was mended in prayer in the courtroom. This was at lunch time, after the judge and prosecutors and reporters had left. The prayer was led by Roosevelt Grier, the former Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman. These were the best lawyers money could buy, heads bowed. "It was very moving, very spiritual and uplifting for all of us," said Dream Team lawyer Carl Douglas. When the prayer was over they went downstairs and held a news conference to tell everyone about their spiritual experience.

This happened Wednesday, with the opening statements of O.J. Simpson's murder trial only days away. The Dream Team -- led by big-name lawyers Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey and Alan Dershowitz -- had nearly been torn asunder by internal acrimony. Shapiro had called his old friend Bailey a "snake" and said he would never again speak to him, ride in a car with him or be photographed with him. Shapiro suspected Bailey of leaking nasty stories about him to the press. It was a Dream Team nightmare!

Ending the feud was not enough -- it had to be ended publicly. So the Dream Team stood before the cameras, shoulder to shoulder. Bailey was right next to Shapiro. Shapiro said he had put together this team and he still believed in it. He then acknowledged what had already become apparent in the courtroom, that Cochran was the new leader, in charge of overall strategy: Shapiro in effect was announcing his own demotion.

Then Johnnie Cochran, in his lavender suit, took the mike.

"To Bob's credit, he is a team player," Cochran said. The lives of the lawyers aren't what's important, he said. What's important is that O.J. Simpson is wrongfully accused of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

"We believe in O.J. Simpson, we believe in his innocence," Cochran continued. "We are united in this case. We are convinced that he is absolutely, 100 percent not guilty."

Someday the Dream Team will have a reunion, Cochran said. And O.J. Simpson will be with them.

Then they walked away, back to court, and for all the talk of unity it was hard not to notice that during the news conference Shapiro and Bailey hadn't said a word to each other.

The feud would be a minor sideshow were it not for the extraordinary nature of O.J. Simpson's defense. His legal team is unusually big, unusually bold, unusually riveting. The lawyers have not flinched from their central assertion: That the Los Angeles district attorney's office has the murder all wrong, that O.J. Simpson was asleep at home at that critical hour on June 12, that someone else butchered the two victims. This is not a defense based on a differing interpretation of some murky event. It's a defense based on total refutation. They argue that their client is a wholly innocent man being framed by malign forces.

Legal experts say the prosecution case is powerful and has gotten stronger in recent months. But they also respect the talents of the Dream Team. Another defendant, with lesser lawyers, might not have a prayer.

"If this was anyone other than Mr. Simpson, represented by Johnnie Cochran, you could say, gee, this seems like a slam dunk," says Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor who has followed the case closely. Another analyst, Laurie Levenson, a Loyola University law professor, says, "The defense has some kind of surprise up its sleeve -- and if it doesn't, it's in trouble." That surprise could be sprung Monday when Cochran makes his opening statement. It will be the Dream Team's biggest moment. So far the story line has been owned by the district attorney's office. "The people," as the prosecutors call themselves as they make their arguments in court, assert that this is basically a domestic-violence case, with the ultimate conclusion of murder. The defense will vigorously contest that story line, incident by incident. But will the defense have its own story? Will Cochran present a narrative for who other than O.J. Simpson might have killed Simpson's ex-wife and her friend? There have been suggestions from the defense that it could have been a drug-related murder, a professional hit of some kind. And Simpson's lawyers will claim that their client was railroaded by cops who closed their minds to any other possible suspect.

The Dream Team lawyers are all well clothed, charming, smooth. They don't squawk when they lose a round. They were thumped this week when Judge Lance Ito said the prosecution could introduce evidence that Simpson beat his wife for years and stalked her after their divorce. The defense reaction: no big deal.

"It's not anything we're very much concerned with," said Cochran. "There are witnesses who will testify that these things are not true."

People always talk of their fine suits, but it is their attitude that makes the Dream Team lawyers so entrancing. Cochran is a bulldog who can purr like a kitty. He's always focused. His client is innocent: From that central assertion radiate all other interpretations of reality. As Cochran walked into the courtroom yesterday, a reporter asked him for his Super Bowl prediction. "Bet on Simpson and San Francisco," he said.

They say Cochran does a cross-examination with a velvet glove; F. Lee Bailey is more the karate chop type. Shapiro is hardly a trial attorney at all; he's a dealmaker. He may have called his mentor Bailey in June out of desperation to get a courtroom wizard on his team. In Cochran he obtained a more contemporary master. Cochran always looks like he's winning; he could be sinking in quicksand and still look as if he owned the world. Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor, is extremely competent and charming herself, but with her wide-open eyes, she sometimes looks just a little bit frantic.

Bailey is the wild card of the team. His last really big case was the Patty Hearst debacle in the late '70s. He was criticized for letting her take the Fifth Amendment repeatedly on the stand. Hearst was convicted. As for Alan Dershowitz, he's been pretty much out of sight unless you count appearances on television. Presumably he would handle an appeal, if one were necessary.

This kind of defense -- a team of prominent lawyers, using investigators behind the scenes, retaining expert witnesses to fight the technical evidence -- is extremely expensive. But what hasn't been reported is that Simpson has many allies helping pay his legal fees: ordinary Americans.

People send money, Simpson's lawyers said this week.

"We get money every day. I get money every day," Cochran told The Washington Post.

Robert Kardashian, a lawyer and personal friend of Simpson who has assisted the defense team, also said people have sent money. "Whether we've used it, I don't know. ... I know we're getting quite a bit."

Cochran said he sends all money to Leroy "Skip" Taft, Simpson's personal business attorney. Taft is in effect the CEO of what might fancifully be called O.J. Defense Inc. Taft is the corporate counsel for Orenthal Productions, a company he and Simpson set up to handle Simpson's investments. Through Orenthal Productions, Taft will manage Simpson's book advance and royalties from "I Want to Tell You," the book by Simpson and freelance writer Lawrence Schiller to be published soon by Little, Brown, purportedly in response to 300,000 pieces of mail received by Simpson since his arrest.

Taft declined numerous requests to be interviewed and would not reveal how much money people have sent. His office is in a bank building on San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood, just a few doors down from the Starbucks Coffee shop where O.J. Simpson allegedly once saw his ex-wife sitting with Goldman and another man. A woman who works for Taft said he never gives press interviews.

One man who has dealt with Taft in recent days is Lenward Holness, president of CRASH Productions. That stands for Collectibles, Rarities, Art and Special Holdings. Holness is busy these days marketing bronze statues of Simpson. They sell for $3,395 each. Holness says he has orders for 1,000 already; he plans a "limited edition" of 25,000. The statues are 21 inches high and weigh 30 pounds. Simpson is shown clutching a football and standing with one foot atop a helmet. "I call it a very confident, heroic pose," Holness says.

Simpson will get royalties from the sales, Holness says, but he wouldn't reveal how much. He said he's sending the money to Orenthal Productions and has spoken to Taft twice in recent days. The defense team, Holness said, is not hurting for money.

"No one's screaming poverty right now," he said.

Ground Zero In the last few days, with opening statements near, there has been a media implosion at the Criminal Courts Building. Across the street, by the old Hall of Justice, towers of scaffolding rise from a media city, fondly known as Camp O.J. On top of the Caltrans building, literally on the roof, a crew has put up tarps and bright lights; that'll be Tom Brokaw's perch.

Everyone wants a piece of the Dream Teamers. The way Shapiro and Cochran handle the cameras is awesome. A normal person would shout, "Get away!" or simply run. Or flip a finger. The Dream Teamers just ride the cameras as though they were a gently breaking wave. As they leave the court building, embedded in press, Cochran and Shapiro inch along through the parking lot, winding to and fro, answering questions patiently, the whole gaggle of them going left and then right as though Cochran and Shapiro hope to bump randomly into their respective vehicles. It's not clear whether they can't see anything from inside the pod, and thus can't find their cars, or simply enjoy the moment and are not all that anxious for it to end.

Perhaps Monday the defense will drop the ultimate bombshell: the name or names of people who the defense thinks might be more likely suspects in the murders.

It was, in fact, Skip Taft who announced back in July that he would pay $500,000 for information leading to the real killer. He set up an 800 number for tips in the case. He announced that a private investigator had been hired to "commence a full investigation to find evidence {leading} to the arrest and conviction of the real killer or killers in this case."

By November, though, Taft had been forced to assign a different investigator to track down leaks within the defense team. The investigator reportedly concluded that Bailey or one of his associates was the leaker. So at this point, as far as the public knows, the defense team's private sleuthing has incriminated only a fellow member of the Dream Team.

As for the 800 number, it is no longer receiving tips. A recording simply states, "The 800 number you have dialed has been disconnected."


© 1995 The Washington Post Company