In the end, 'mountain of evidence' is not enough Legal professionals point to defense's deft manipulation of doubts

The O. J. Simpson Verdict

October 04, 1995|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

At the beginning, the case against O. J. Simpson seemed so overwhelming that prosecutors were telling jurors about a "mountain of evidence," from DNA and hair fibers to a barking dog and bloody gloves.

But over the next nine months, the case about which prosecutors had been so confident disintegrated.

Yesterday, as Mr. Simpson walked away from the Los Angeles County Courthouse, acquitted of two murders, prosecutors and defense lawyers across the country weighed in on the reversal.

They said the strength of the prosecution's case had been the mounds of physical evidence collected from the crime scene, Mr. Simpson's car and home.

But repeatedly, Mr. Simpson's defense team was able to attack key evidence, raising doubt in the minds of the jury.

The most damaging example for the prosecution, most of the trial watchers agreed, was the witness that lead prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher A. Darden no doubt wished they had never called -- former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman.

"There you had a key witness who testified fiercely and directly that he never used racial [epithets]. Later, it comes back he did," said E. Michael McCann, prosecutor in the Jeffrey Dahmer murder trial, and district attorney for Milwaukee County, Wis.

"If you materially damage the credibility of a key witness, it casts a pall over your case. That could have happened here."

Mr. Fuhrman's credibility took the worst beating. Audio tapes replete with racial slurs directly contradicted his testimony. That undercut for the prosecution Mr. Fuhrman's discovery of a bloody glove at Mr. Simpson's estate.

Blood and DNA evidence was thought to be critical to the prosecution's case. But Mr. Simpson's defense team raised questions about police handling of the crime scene and the reliability of the evidence collected there.

The acquittal was the combined effect of doubts raised about these and other parts of the prosecution's case, said Byron Warnken, a professor of criminal law at the University of Baltimore.

"It was a culmination of things," said Mr. Warnken. "Many things were viewable both ways. The DNA [evidence] was absolute evidence of guilt, if you believed it. Yet the evidence of contamination and blood unaccounted for could be very troubling."

Yet several lawyers said they believed the prosecution contributed to its most damaging reversals.

"They probably didn't have to build their case with as many pieces of evidence as they had," said Lawrence J. Fox, a Philadelphia lawyer and chairman of the American Bar Association's litigation section. "If they'd known Fuhrman was going to come apart, they could have gotten rid of the glove and not used it at all."

Baltimore lawyer Paul Mark Sandler generally praised the prosecution for putting on the right evidence. But he said, in retrospect, prosecution perhaps should have been more involved in managing key evidence.

"It wasn't responsible and well-managed," he said. "I wasn't there, but when it comes forward that someone was carrying samples of blood in a bag and didn't even know there was blood in there, there's a problem."

The intense scrutiny received by the trial was partly responsible for bringing to light the police department's less-than-perfect handling of such evidence, said Mr. McCann, the prosecutor from Wisconsin. He said it was not fair to attribute the verdict to police mishandling.

"In many cases, police don't do a perfect job. They're human beings," Mr. McCann said. "In every case, inevitably, something happens to diminish the pristine quality of evidence."

In any case, Mr. Sandler said, the verdict only meant the jurors did not find Mr. Simpson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the burden of proof applicable in a criminal trial.

"They may feel he's guilty as sin, but if the prosecution did not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, they had a legal duty to acquit."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.