They Don't Call it a Civil Trial for Nothing
Oct. 26, 1996
SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) _ The first time Robert Heidstra testified in the O.J. Simpson case, questioning degenerated into petty fighting between lawyers, skirmishing between attorney and witness, and the judge walking out in disgust.
This time, when Heidstra took the stand _ he's the dog-walker who heard men arguing and a dog barking near Nicole Brown Simpson's home the night she and Ronald Goldman were killed _ the direct questioning was swift and no-nonsense.
The cross-examination was even faster and lawyers for both sides were left smiling.
It's one of the many differences already evident between Simpson's murder trial and the trial of a wrongful death lawsuit against him.
Lawyers signaled in opening statements of the civil trial that the jury will hear new evidence and theories and that old matters, including the slow-speed Bronco chase and the Simpson suicide-type note, will be presented before a jury for the first time.
Look, too, for a deeper exploration of the often-stormy relationship between Simpson and his slain ex-wife, with enough details about drugs, prostitution, abortion and club-hopping to put the tabloids to shame.
If Simpson loses this case, filed by the victims' relatives, he could have to shell out millions of dollars in damages even though his murder trial ended in acquittal.
Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki has made it clear that he has no patience for lawyerly theatrics and the attorneys have shown they can operate accordingly.
Consider Heidstra's testimony:
Heidstra, who lives a few blocks away from Ms. Simpson's home, heard two people arguing and the sound of a barking dog, then saw a white Jeep-like vehicle speeding away.
In the first trial, Heidstra was a defense witness _ his testimony pushed the time of the murders much later than the prosecution's original 10:15 p.m. estimate. This time around, he was called by the plaintiffs.
Heidstra's criminal trial cross-examination by Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden became a prime example of courtroom dysfunction when Darden took offense at objections from defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr.
Cochran injected race into the dispute by protesting Darden's suggestion that a person could determine whether someone is black by the sound of his voice.
Darden also clashed with Heidstra, who accused the prosecutor of threatening to have him deported. Darden tried to suggest that Heidstra had toned down his testimony to help Simpson.
Finally, Superior Court Judge Lance Ito stormed off the bench, telling the lawyers: ``I'm so mad at both of you guys that I'm about to hold both of you in contempt.''
Almost lost in all this was the substance of Heidstra's testimony, which is actually helpful to both sides and, at the same time, sufficiently vague to not cause any serious damage to anyone.
The lawyers in the civil trial appeared to have picked up on the opportunity to take Heidstra for what he was, and neither went after him Friday.
The plaintiffs nudged him toward an earlier time for the slayings _ which would be helpful to them _ and the defense pushed him toward a later time that would be helpful to Simpson.
Nobody insulted anybody and there were no self-righteous protests.
The new tone in the courtroom is just one of the key differences between the two trials.
During opening statements, the lawyers revealed that the testimony and evidence will be far from leftovers from the criminal trial.
Both sides said they planned to introduce evidence about the slow-speed Bronco chase _ the plaintiffs say it points to Simpson's ``consciousness of guilt'' while the defense says it showed how depressed and bereaved he was.
Both sides will play a tape of Simpson's day-after-the-killings interview with police. Again the plaintiffs will argue his statements make him look guilty, the defense will contend it reveals a ``consciousness of innocence.''
Simpson's suicide-like note will go before the jury, as will a letter from Ms. Simpson to her ex-husband in which she accepts blame for the couple's domestic problems.
It's blame that Simpson is more than happy to let her take, since in this trial he has shown no reluctance to introduce unflattering evidence about his ex-wife. The first time around, her character was not an issue.
Also, look for the defense to try to introduce evidence that Ms. Simpson's final night, when she lit candles around her bathtub, was intended for a date with Goldman.
On this issue, the defense suffered an early loss.
A friend of Goldman's at the Mezzaluna restaurant, bartender Stewart Tanner, said that on the night of the killings Goldman was going to meet him and another friend in Marina del Rey.
``He wasn't dating Nicole at all,'' Tanner said.