Simpson saga looks far from over Appeal: The civil case against O. J. Simpson is expected to wind its way through appeals courts, perhaps into bankruptcy court.

Sun Journal

February 06, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

In the floodlit street outside the courtroom, Fred Goldman shouted, "Justice."

He had the verdict he wanted: A jury had held O. J. Simpson responsible for the deaths of Ronald L. Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.

But is the case over? Not likely, lawyers say.

The saga of Simpson will probably continue through appeals courts, perhaps into bankruptcy court. His story will remain on the front pages. And it could be a long time -- years, perhaps -- before the Goldmans and Browns receive any financial compensation from Simpson, if their case survives appeals.

Goldman had sobbed after the end of the criminal trial, in October 1995, when a jury found Simpson innocent of the murders. He sat through the months of the civil trial to hear a different result.

How could one jury find the defendant innocent while another declares him responsible for two deaths?

"It's a totally different case with a totally different burden of proof," says Neal Sonnett, a Miami attorney who is past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "A verdict against O. J. Simpson [in the civil case] does not mean the verdict in the first trial was wrong. Each case is individually tried before a jury."

The question in both cases was the same. But the cases were argued in separate legal systems, each with its own standards and rules.

The criminal court, in which the accused's freedom is at stake, demands that the jury find the defendant guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt," the highest legal standard. Lawyers say that means a certainty of more than 90 percent.

The civil court, in which only money is at issue, requires that the case be proved by "a preponderance of the evidence." Jurors must be convinced just that it's more likely than not that the defendant is responsible.

For a criminal conviction, the jury must return a unanimous verdict. The civil court in California required only that nine of 12 jurors agree on a decision.

But the differences in the Simpson trials go far beyond the court rules.

"The plaintiffs in the civil case did not overtry the case, as I think the prosecution in the criminal case did," Sonnett says. "Sometimes you can confuse a jury by presenting too much. The civil case was much more succinct, much more direct."

Instead of Judge Lance A. Ito, who let the criminal trial ramble for the better part of a year, Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki sternly kept the civil case moving forward. He shut out the television cameras that had beamed the first trial's proceedings, like installments of a soap opera, to the networks.

The swaggering, bickering lawyers from the criminal trial were replaced by lower-key attorneys in the civil court. And the Goldman and Brown families' lawyers had the benefit of watching the criminal trial -- to see what worked and what didn't.

"The plaintiffs in the civil case learned a great lesson from the mistakes of the prosecution in the criminal trial," says Fred R. Joseph, a Greenbelt lawyer who is president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. "And they were able to pounce on some issues that were not considered in the criminal case."

Some evidence that had become the subject of public debate in the first trial was missing here or was introduced in a less elaborate form.

Fujisaki limited the defense's attempts to suggest a racist police conspiracy against Simpson. Los Angeles police Detective Mark Fuhrman, who in the criminal case was at the center of allegations of a police conspiracy, did not testify in this trial.

The judge did not allow weeks of testimony about DNA testing of the blood found at the crime scene and in Simpson's home. Simpson did not demonstrate the fit, or lack thereof, of the gloves that the prosecutors alleged he wore at the killings.

The judge allowed the jury to hear about Ms. Simpson's diaries and letters, including a note to her husband that read, "You beat the holy hell out of me." Jurors heard phone conversations between Detective Tom Lange and Simpson as he and Al Cowlings traveled on freeways in a Ford Bronco. They also heard that Simpson had taken a lie-detector test and failed -- though the judge directed jurors to disregard that comment.

In one of the biggest differences from the criminal trial, Simpson himself took the stand.

Protected by the Constitution, he did not have to testify in his criminal case. But the Fifth Amendment offers no such shield in civil cases. In four days of testimony, Simpson denied that he ever hit his wife and sometimes contradicted himself about events on the night of the killings.

He apparently did not convince the jurors.

But his trials held the country rapt. "It's not often you get a true national figure who becomes a murder defendant," says Byron Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "It was the case of the century, though we seem to get more than one case of the century every century."

Where does the case go now?

Beginning today, lawyers will present their arguments on punitive damages.

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