Formidable defenders join Simpson team

June 26, 1994|By Boston Globe

LOS ANGELES -- Former star running back O. J. Simpson has hired some of the best blockers in the legal profession to defend him against two murder charges, a high-priced team of specialists few defendants could afford and one that leaves uncovered few aspects of the case expected to be mounted against him.

Criminal defense attorneys say the team approach enhances Mr. Simpson's chances in court by enabling each of the lawyers to focus on what he does best. The key to this strategy is that, once they have allocated responsibilities, the legal heavyweights must get along when they come together to defend Mr. Simpson in the courtroom.

"Teams are always hard, but in this case it makes a lot of sense," said Harlan W. Braun, a well-known defense attorney in West Los Angeles. "It doesn't seem like there will be a lot of conflict here."

Led by Robert L. Shapiro, known for achieving favorable plea bargains for his clients but not for defending those accused of murder who go to trial, the legal team so far includes at least three other high-profile lawyers and several lesser-known ones who are friends of Mr. Simpson. He is charged in the June 12 slayings of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman.

On Friday, well-known criminal lawyer F. Lee Bailey and Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor whose most recent celebrity case involved the appeal of the rape conviction of boxer Mike Tyson, were brought in by Mr. Shapiro after consulting with him throughout the week.

Along with Santa Clara University Law School Dean Gerald Uelmen, they helped prepare the motion that persuaded a Superior Court judge to take the highly unusual step of dissolving the grand jury because of the intense publicity surrounding the case and to go straight to a preliminary hearing Thursday.

"The dismissal of the grand jury sends a powerful message to the prosecution that the courts will be watching their conduct very carefully and that they have to play by the rules," said Mr. Dershowitz, interviewed yesterday in Jerusalem, where he was attending a conference.

Mr. Dershowitz, who masterminded socialite Claus von Bulow's successful appeal after he was convicted of murdering his wife, Sunny, was asked to be the team's consultant on constitutional issues.

In 1966, in a case cited prominently in the motion last week to dismiss the grand jury, Mr. Bailey argued that a trial judge had not shielded Samuel Sheppard, a Cleveland osteopath convicted 1954 of murdering his wife, from pretrial publicity. Mr. Bailey won a new trial, and Mr. Sheppard was acquitted.

Mr. Bailey and Mr. Dershowitz worked together to defend publishing heiress Patty Hearst, who nonetheless was convicted participating in a robbery.

Mr. Shapiro also once defended Mr. Bailey against drunken-driving charges in San Francisco.

Although it is uncertain how their roles in defending Mr. Simpson will shake out, several lawyers pointed out that Mr. Dershowitz's appears to overlap with that of Mr. Uelmen, a former federal prosecutor whose expertise is in constitutional law and other complicated legal issues. At the same time, Mr. Simpson's defense team lacks an experienced trial lawyer besides Mr. Bailey, who, as one lawyer who asked not to be identified noted, "hasn't tried a case in nearly a decade and may be on the team just for appearances."

Mr. Bailey said, "I'm at Mr. Shapiro's command."

"The key to all this is working together," said Robert Berke, a Los Angeles defense attorney and a past president of the California Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. "When you have a number of trial lawyers, you have to wait and see if it will be distracting or focused, whether they can do collectively what they do individually."

Mr. Dershowitz's lawyer-brother, Nathan, is also on the team, which has just four days left to prepare for the preliminary hearing.

At a preliminary hearing, under California law, the prosecution must lay out its case and the defense is entitled to cross-examine witnesses. But it is not a trial, and the prosecution's burden of proof is low. Prosecutors need show only that there is sufficient evidence to try Mr. Simpson on the charges brought against him. Mr. Simpson has pleaded not guilty.

Criminal lawyers said the defense enters the hearing with a tactical and psychological victory -- the disbanding of the grand jury Friday after the widespread airing of an emotional telephone call that Nicole Simpson made to police after Mr. Simpson kicked in her back door in October.

The audiotape had not been admitted into the proceedings as part of the evidence that Mr. Simpson's defense attorneys will now have the chance to examine.

On television Friday, Mr. Bailey said, "The public has been duped into thinking the case against O.J. is airtight. There is no case at all."

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