Simpson soap opera reveals sloppy justice

April 13, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

During the double-murder trial of O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles this week, a technician admitted on the stand that he had collected blood samples at the crime scene for DNA tests even though he had received little training on how to do so.

The criminalist, Dennis Fung, also conceded during cross-examination that he may have overlooked important clues, made errors in his written reports, and failed to follow departmental procedures concerning the processing and handling of evidence.

And people in the Los Angeles courtroom reportedly gasped with surprise when defense attorneys aired a videotape Tuesday that appeared to show investigators handling a key piece of evidence with their bare hands.

If they accomplish nothing else, Mr. Simpson's attorneys have made the men and women who investigated the June 12 murders of Nicole Simpson Brown and Ronald Goldman look incredibly clumsy to me.

Of course, I'm not on the jury. I'm simply following the trial on television -- the "O.J. Simpson Show" has become my favorite soap opera. But the televised proceedings also provide a precious glimpse into the workings of our criminal justice system. And Mr. Simpson's resources allow his so-called dream team of lawyers to raise questions about the police investigation that the average Joe could never afford to raise.

So, my question is: Are police and investigators always this sloppy?

"The officers on the street sometimes don't pay as close attention to procedures as they should," replies attorney Edward Smith Jr., "but normally the detectives in Baltimore's Criminal Investigation Division and the people who gather evidence are very good, very thorough. Even the street cops are trained to call a supervisor immediately to preserve the crime scene. You don't see a lot of evidence excluded here for procedural reasons."

Mr. Smith, a Morgan State University alumnus who has practiced law here for more than 20 years, notes that although Mr. Simpson's lawyers have raised a lot of questions about how evidence was handled, they have not been successful in getting evidence excluded.

"So, it may just be a tempest in a teapot," Mr. Smith says. "Of course, if I were Mr. Simpson's lawyer and had the resources, I would raise the same issues. You've got to do whatever you can to give your client the best possible shot."

I should mention at this point that I am quoting only defense attorneys in this story. Both the police detective and the prosecutor I spoke with refused to accept even my basic premise -- that Mr. Simpson's lawyers are doing a good job. Their description of the defense case was mostly unprintable.

However, A. Dwight Pettit, who has practiced law here for over 25 years, agrees with me that Mr. Simpson's attorneys have successfully raised questions about how police and other investigators handled evidence. But Mr. Pettit adds that, in his view, the prosecution case has unraveled very quickly and the trial judge has lost control of his courtroom.

"So it's not just the police who seem sloppy, it's everybody connected with the criminal justice system out there -- the police, the criminalists, the prosecutors, right on up to the judge," Mr. Pettit says.

"You don't see the level of sophistication in this supposedly high-profile case that we see on a day-to-day basis here. There are judges in Maryland who would have pushed this case through so fast that the trial would be on the downslope by now. And there are some darn good prosecutors in this city. Here, we'd be laughing at a prosecutor who offered this kind of bumbling, fumbling prosecution in even a mundane case."

Mr. Pettit says that when sloppy police work occurs here, it usually is in "low level" cases such as narcotics arrests or street shootings, where officers may be in a rush to close the case and move on. Investigators assigned to homicides or major drug cases are very careful about the collection and preservation of evidence, he says.

"Maybe it's a California thing," continues Mr. Pettit with a chuckle. "Or maybe it's an East Coast thing. Maybe we just take it for granted that officials in Eastern cities such as Baltimore, New York, and Washington, are a lot more experienced and professional than they are out there."

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