Simpson's legal trek is far from finished He faces 3 civil suits, rules not favorable to him

October 05, 1995|By LYLE DENNISTON | LYLE DENNISTON,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- O. J. Simpson's next courthouse battles -- against three lawsuits by the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman -- will be waged under rules not favorable to him, and could shake his strong claim of innocence of murder.

As the new legal disputes move forward, with the potential to cost Mr. Simpson millions of dollars in damage claims, he may have no choice but to testify at least in private, and maybe on the witness stand in open court, legal analysts said yesterday.

And, the analysts added, he very likely would have to come forward personally with some alibi for the night of the murders of his former wife and her friend. At his criminal trial, he did not testify, but his lawyers offered alibis; at the civil trial, he might seem to be lying if he tried to come up with a different explanation.

Mr. Simpson "has much less wiggle room" in a civil lawsuit than he had at his criminal trial, said American University Associate Law Dean Jamin Raskin. Aside from having a greater need to put forward a convincing alibi, Mr. Raskin said, Mr. Simpson probably cannot avoid testifying under what would be "very far-ranging" questioning by lawyers pursuing the damage claims.

Since last spring, as Mr. Simpson's team of lawyers carried on their defense of him in a Los Angeles criminal court, damages lawsuits have been waiting in California civil courts for the end of that trial.

Now, with Tuesday's not-guilty verdict in and Mr. Simpson free of all murder charges, there is no legal reason that the survivors of the two victims cannot press ahead with their claims that he actually did cause the deaths.

The only way he could head off a trial of the lawsuits, it now appears, would be to make an out-of-court deal with his former wife's father, and with Mr. Goldman's sister, mother and father. But legal commentators suggested yesterday that both sides, at this point, might not be inclined even to consider a settlement.

"If I were on O. J.'s civil defense team," Mr. Raskin said, "I would think long and hard about settling this suit." But, he added, the families of the victims might want satisfaction that went beyond money, and could resist any deal.

The lawyer for Mr. Goldman's father and sister, who together are seeking unspecified damages for their son and brother's "wrongful death," made clear yesterday that their legal claim will be pursued aggressively.

"I would say that justice for Goldman would take every penny Mr. Simpson has," the family lawyer, Robert Tourtelot, said in an interview on the cable TV program, CNN Morning News. "I don't think Mr. Simpson ought to be walking around with 10 cents left in his pocket if justice is to be served."

Ronald Goldman's mother, Sharon Rufo, also has filed a "wrongful death" lawsuit against Mr. Simpson, as has Nicole Simpson's father, Louis Brown. In addition, Mr. Brown's lawsuit also makes a separate claim on behalf of Nicole Simpson, seeking damages to be paid to her estate for suffering she underwent before dying from her wounds (a so-called "survival action.")

"The acquittal," Georgetown University Law Professor Anita Allen said yesterday, "by no means eliminates the right of injured parties to bring a lawsuit for wrongful death. Such lawsuits are very common, they are perfectly standard, and they are no surprise." She said "survival" claims are less common.

The civil and criminal cases surrounding Mr. Simpson, legal analysts noted, would be entirely separate legal events, with their own rules and processes. Still, the evidence that the prosecutors put before the criminal jury in Los Angeles could be brought up again at the civil trial. The crucial differences between the two events are these:

* Those seeking damages in civil court need to satisfy only the most relaxed legal standard in order to win their case -- that is, proof that it is "more likely than not" that Mr. Simpson killed Ms. Simpson and Mr. Goldman. That is what is called, technically, the "preponderance of the evidence" standard -- far easier to meet than the rigorous "beyond a reasonable doubt" ("moral certainty") standard for criminal guilt.

* Mr. Simpson could be subpoenaed to testify at an out-of-court inquiry, called a civil deposition, and might be subpoenaed to testify in open court if the case ever went to a trial. At the criminal trial, he had the option of refusing to testify, and he did.

* At a civil deposition or trial, he generally could not refuse to answer questions by relying upon his Fifth Amendment privilege not to incriminate himself, as he could throughout his criminal trial. He might be able, however, to convince the judge that answers to particular questions might expose him to new and different criminal charges; he cannot be tried again for murder.

* The pretrial questioning at a civil deposition very likely would occur behind closed doors.His lawyers could try to keep the deposition private, but only until a trial -- if there were a trial.

* Under California law, only nine of 12 jurors would have to agree on an outcome, not all 12 as in the criminal case.

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