[This is Part Five of a series of posts on the O.J. Simpson trial. Part One is here; Part Two is here; Part Three is here; Part Four is here.]
I attended the morning session of the O.J. civil trial in Santa Monica on October 29, 1996. I had recently completed my clerkship with a federal judge in downtown Los Angeles, and was taking a few weeks off before I resumed civil practice with the firm I’d been with before the clerkship. The transcript of the session I attended can be read here. There was a lottery to get in, but as I recall, there were only about 25-28 people competing for 20 spots, so the odds were that I was going to make it, and I did. (I had hoped to meet Harry Shearer, who was attending the civil trial and writing about it for Slate, but it turned out that he was in a media listening room instead of in the courtroom that day.) What I’m about to tell you is reconstructed from my memory of almost 10 years ago, and I apologize if I get anything wrong. However, my memory is refreshed somewhat by the transcript linked above.
I watched all of the testimony of LAPD Officer Donald Thompson and the very beginning of the testimony of LAPD Det. Ron Phillips. Officer Thompson’s testimony impressed me greatly. Officer Thompson, whom I stood next to in the hallway (along with Linda Deutch), was a towering but very soft-spoken and credible black man. If the evidence in the case was planted by racist cops, he had to be in on it. He saw only one glove at the crime scene. Hours after the killings, he saw blood droplets on the back gate of the Bundy crime scene — droplets that conspiracy aficionados claimed had been planted, some say days later. He saw blood inside O.J.’s Bronco that the doubters also claimed was planted.
It seemed baffling to me that this apparently gentle black man could have been a part of a hastily conceived conspiracy of racist white cops. Of course, having heard Lange try to talk O.J. out of committing suicide during the Bronco low-speed chase — evidence that the criminal jury never heard — it seemed inconceivable that Lange could have been part of such a conspiracy. But I never heard Lange testify in person. I did hear Thompson. And he had also testified at the criminal trial — although I believe that contemporaneous photos of the blood on the back gate had emerged since the time of the criminal trial (why that took so long, I have no idea).
How did the jurors in the criminal case simply ignore Officer Thompson’s testimony? I’ve never been able to figure it out. Maybe it got lost in the overly long presentation. I’m sure they didn’t discuss his testimony in the couple of hours that they deliberated. But I found it significant. If you’d seen it, I think you would have, too.
P.S. I have sometimes heard the pro-O.J. crowd claim that Fred Goldman hammed it up for the cameras. Well, I can tell you this: at the civil trial, I sat two rows behind him and his daughter. When the lawyers displayed exhibits of Ron Goldman, they hugged each other, and you could see Fred Goldman shaking a little bit, apparently crying. But you couldn’t hear it. It wasn’t melodramatic, at all — and I saw no evidence that anyone else noticed (though I’m sure some did). It seemed genuine. And you know what? There were no cameras anywhere in sight.
P.P.S. This series of posts will soon be (at least temporarily) drawing to a close. I’m on vacation and am reaching the end of what I have been able to write in off-hours. My goal has not been to re-hash the whole case, but rather to bring some personal insights that aren’t available in the public record. If you are looking for a summation of O.J.’s guilt, read Vincent Bugliosi’s “Outrage.” Also, tomorrow I will quote extensively from Petrocelli’s summation in the civil trial. There is a pretty good summation there.
Tomorrow, I plan to discuss the differences between the civil and criminal trials, to respond to those who believe that it was all about the lawyering. It wasn’t. There were many more important differences.