Just days before opening statements in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, long-simmering disagreements between two famed lawyers on his defense "Dream Team" have erupted openly amid acrimonious accusations and denials of who is responsible for damaging leaks to the news media.
The dispute, which began to surface last fall over differences in strategy and courtroom roles, has reportedly left Simpson's lead defense attorney, Robert L. Shapiro, refusing to speak with veteran trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey.
Shapiro, who did not return telephoned messages for comment today, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying on Sunday that he does not want Bailey to play a major role in court because, "We can't have snakes in the bed trying to sleep with us."
Bailey responded today that Shapiro's "public outburst" could hurt Simpson's chances of acquittal. For more than 25 years, Shapiro had maintained a close, personal relationship with Bailey, the flamboyant, 61-year-old criminal lawyer who became famous representing Sam Sheppard and Patricia Hearst but whose public profile had diminished gradually over the years until Shapiro brought him into the Simpson case last summer as a consultant.
Bailey, who is the godfather of Shapiro's eldest son, had long been regarded as the Los Angeles celebrity lawyer's onetime mentor and confidant. Shapiro represented the Boston attorney in a drunken-driving case in 1982, and the two were said to have frequently referred cases to one another.
In a statement issued by his West Palm Beach, Fla., office today, Bailey said he was "much distressed to hear that Mr. Shapiro has elected to air his woe through the media." Bailey said he would not "disparage" Shapiro because the case is not about the two lawyers' differences but "is about O.J. Simpson, an innocent and wrongly accused man who can hardly feel well-served on the eve of the trial by this public outburst."
Bailey said that since he was brought into the case on June 14 -- two days after Simpson's ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald L. Goldman, were slashed to death outside Nicole Brown Simpson's town house condominium -- he has supported Shapiro in "every possible way."
This support, he said, included advice, the use of computer equipment and the loan of "three top specialists" in trial preparation "who have labored since July to structure an honest and stunning defense."
The bitterness between Shapiro and Bailey is due to an internal defense team probe into several leaks to the news media during the jury selection and pretrial hearing phases of the case. Newsday reported that the investigation was conducted by William Pavelic, Simpson's main investigator, at Shapiro's request. Pavelic is employed by Simpson's Orenthal Productions.
One of Bailey's private investigators, John E. McNally, was reportedly the subject of the probe. The most prominent of the leaks was the publication in a supermarket tabloid, the Star, of portions of a transcript of a police interview with Simpson conducted the day after the murders.
According to a defense source, the internal investigation also focused on a spate of published reports late last year claiming that because Shapiro had more experience as a plea bargain specialist than skill as a trial lawyer, his role in the case was being downgraded in favor of Bailey and defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Newsday said Pavelic blamed Bailey for the leaks.
During some of the key pretrial hearings on the admissibility of evidence, Cochran and co-counsel Gerald Uelmen have conducted most of the arguments and the direct and cross-examination of witnesses.
Bailey made his first stand-up appearance in court last week when he cross-examined a Canadian expert on the "battered wife syndrome" during a hearing into whether evidence of Simpson's alleged physical and verbal abuse of his ex-wife will be allowed during the trial. During the hearing, Shapiro and Bailey sat at opposite ends of the defense table and did not talk with one another. According to the Los Angeles Times, Cochran has agreed to try to reconcile the differences between Shapiro and Bailey. Cochran did not return telephoned messages for comment today. Bailey has left Shapiro's Century City suite of offices and his name has been removed from the firm's letterhead, the Times reported.