The Race Toward Trial in the O.J. Simpson Case Is Fraught With Risks With AM-Simpson-Slayings
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ If the brisk pace continues, O.J. Simpson will have the murder charges against him resolved faster than it takes some people to clear up a parking ticket.
Only three months after his arrest, jury selection began this week, the swift timing resulting from California’s speedy-trial law and the Simpson camp’s strategy of trying to catch the prosecution off guard.
But it’s a tactic fraught with risks for Simpson.
It also has caused one headache after another for the judge, who has been asked, among other things, to hold a hearing on DNA evidence before some of the evidence even gets back from the lab.
″I have never seen a major murder case that has been vigorously defended that moved with this kind of speed,″ said defense attorney Barry Tarlow. ″Defense lawyers often posture about wanting to put (the jury) in the box and saying, ‘Let’s go.’ However, posturing is something much different than being able to organize a complex case like this and be ready to try it.″
Simpson, 47, is charged in the June 12 stabbing deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and her friend Ronald Goldman, 25.
From the outset, Simpson’s defense made it clear that he not only had nothing to do with the crime - contending he was somewhere else at the time - but that he wanted his legal ordeal to end as quickly as possible.
On Wednesday, as the prosecution argued for an interruption in jury selection for a hearing on DNA evidence, Simpson’s lawyers were pushing to keep the case in the legal fast lane.
Defense attorney Robert Shapiro charged that prosecutors were bent on delaying. ″We don’t want any delays whatsoever,″ he said.
The defense can set the pace because of California’s speedy-trial law. Under the original act passed in 1880, a defendant is entitled to a trial within 60 days of arraignment; in practice, though, many defendants waive that right, and maneuvering by the defense and prosecution alike can delay trials for months.
Proposition 115, the state’s so-called speedy trial initiative passed by voters in 1990, seeks to make the 60-day law more workable by streamlining pretrial proceedings.
Although conventional wisdom dictates the defense is hurt by a speedy trial, the tactic clearly offers the Simpson camp a number of advantages:
- It keeps up the hopes of the incarcerated and homesick Simpson.
- It enables him to reach trial before any more publicity tarnishes his image.
- And it forces prosecutors - more used to working in the face of constant defense delay maneuvers - to move at an awkwardly brisk clip.
″Given that the prosecution has the burden of proof, I think it is very clear that going to trial this quickly disadvantages the prosecution,″ said UCLA law professor Peter Arenella. ″That’s why the defense has done it.″
But it’s not only the prosecution that can stumble at this pace.
The critical question for Simpson is whether his lawyers will be ready for opening statements, which could start as early as the first week of November.
Harland Braun, a defense attorney not involved in the case, said that offers little room for error.
″You may have to make tactical decisions with not a lot of time to mull over them,″ he said. ″I think that there’s a sense that a criminal case gets a little better with age. You can look at it and get some perspective on it.″
Among other things, it’s unknown whether the judge will allow such potentially damaging evidence as past instances of Simpson’s alleged beating and stalking of his ex-wife, or her 911 distress call.
Also, some of the prosecution’s most important evidence - DNA analysis of blood - probably won’t even be ready before the start of a hearing on whether this evidence is admissible.
″To make the decision on whether to put Mr. Simpson on the stand, defense counsel wants to know what evidence is going to be admissible,″ said Myrna Raeder, a professor at Southwestern University Law School. ″They don’t want any loose ends on any extremely significant evidence.″
But this is a case full of loose ends for everybody involved, especially the judge, who has to somehow cram what normally takes a year to 18 months into just four months.
Nonetheless, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito has said he thinks he can arrange for opening statements to begin in just a few weeks.
When eyebrows went up at the prosecution table, Ito responded with more than a hint of sarcasm: ″As you know, I’m a wildly optimistic person.″