Simpson needs to make positive impression His credibility is key to countering evidence

November 24, 1996|By BOSTON GLOBE

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- There were times when O.J. Simpson was persuasive.

With sincerity that appeared heartfelt, for example, he insisted on the witness stand Friday that it was his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson who wanted him back after a failed final reconciliation -- not the other way around.

"I think everyone, including her family, knows that it was her pursuing me," the defendant said. Asked if he was certain about that, he replied forcefully: "I'm 1,000 percent sure."

But more times, Simpson's testimony sounded less convincing. Because the rules of a civil trial differ so markedly from those in a criminal case, that could present a major problem for him.

In a criminal proceeding, such as the one in which Simpson was acquitted of murder last year, jurors must reach a unanimous decision and must be certain beyond a reasonable doubt before finding someone guilty.

In a civil trial, however, only nine of the 12 jurors need agree on a verdict. And they have to believe only that most of the evidence points toward his guilt to find against him.

Legal analysts agree that Simpson needs to present a formidably positive impression, one that will act as a counterweight to the physical and circumstantial evidence presented against him. He resumes his testimony tomorrow.

It is too early to determine whether he has accomplished or can accomplish that task. There is no way of knowing what the jury thought of his demeanor or explanations on Friday. Moreover, the defense has yet to present its case.

What is clear, though, is that the plaintiffs' attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, generally prevented Simpson from exhibiting his charm or rhetorical persuasiveness by restricting him to "yes" or XTC "no" answers; painted an often-damning portrait of him as a jealous, mean and philandering husband; and sought to show that Simpson was capable of lying.

Petrocelli peppered his questions with instances of Simpson's seeming to be less than honest, but one example stood out Friday.

It came when he read aloud from Nicole Simpson's diary. Petrocelli got Simpson to agree that each specific incident was recounted pretty accurately -- until he arrived at a damaging section, in which Ms. Simpson wrote that Simpson had threatened to embroil her in legal problems and had called her vile, sexist names.

"So everything in these diary entries are true except when Nicole reports what you said to her?" Petrocelli asked.

"Yes," Simpson replied.

"And that's all a pack of lies?"

"Yes."

A second potential pitfall for Simpson arose from his insistence that he didn't pick up a telephone message from his former girlfriend Paula Barbieri early on June 12, 1994, the day Ms. Simpson and Ronald Goldman were slain. Barbieri's message was that she was leaving Simpson, and his accusers maintain that her departure drove him further into an emotional frenzy.

Simpson said on the witness stand Friday that he never retrieved his messages that day and therefore could not have been affected by Barbieri's rejection.

Petrocelli then delivered a bombshell not used in the criminal case: telephone records showing two calls to Simpson's message center from his phone, one at 6: 56 p.m. and the other at 8: 55 p.m.

The stakes in the civil trial are far lower than they were in the criminal one, in which Simpson could have lost his freedom. Here, the families of the two victims -- suing Simpson for the "wrongful deaths" of their relatives -- can only force him to pay damages.

They have made it clear, though, that it's not money they're after; it's vindication for themselves and psychological punishment for Simpson. If the satisfied looks on the plaintiffs' faces as they left court Friday were any indication of how the trial is going so far, the accused and his lawyers have work to do.

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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