Is O.J. Running Out of Juice? Civil Suit Makes Tougher Fight

Defense lawyers, facing tough job, are likely to paint the defendant as a loving husband

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When O.J. Simpson's 12 jurors sit down at the end of his current civil trial, their main question will likely be: Do I trust Mr. Simpson's version of events?

If so, after his long-awaited testimony this week, the former NFL star, on trial for the "wrongful death" of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, has some rough legal running ahead of him - much of it uphill.

Simpson's performance on the stand was considered so inconsistent and contradictory that many legal scholars are now focusing on Part 2 of the civil trial: Simpson's defense strategy, and the problems associated with it.

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Not only must Simpson "rehabilitate" his image when his defense begins, probably later next month, but his legal team will have to articulate a credible theory of defense - something they have not yet attempted.

"The biggest problem is that now O.J. has testified," says Erwin Chemerinsky, law professor at the University of Southern California. "The defense has to persuade the jury that Simpson is a believable person when his own testimony is at odds with most of the other presentations."

On the stand for two days, Simpson was hammered by lawyer Daniel Petrocelli. He often had either no answer or made a simple denial to a range of questions about June 12, 1994, when Mrs. Simpson and Mr. Goldman were killed: A polygraph test Simpson failed, unexplained cuts on his finger, statements in Mrs. Simpson's diary, a photo of Simpson wearing shoes said to be identical to those of the murderer, 911 recordings, and photos of a battered Mrs. Simpson taken after a domestic violence report in 1989, among them.

Testimony

"I'm amazed at how poorly Simpson did on the stand," says Myrna Raeder, an American Bar Association criminal-justice expert. "Given the type of trial this is, O.J. had to have a stellar performance. Now his rehabilitation is going to be a major problem for the defense."

Ms. Raeder felt Simpson's exchange with Mr. Petrocelli over testimony about 1989 photos of Mrs. Simpson was especially damaging. Simpson was asked in a series of questions if he ever hit, struck, slapped, kicked, or beat his wife, Simpson consistently said "never."

In civil cases, defendants don't have to be proved guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." Rather, jurors must only believe that "a preponderance," or most, of the evidence implicates them. Moreover, only nine of 12 jurors must find the defendant guilty.

Simpson's defense team is likely to rely heavily on experts to represent testimony of allegedly corrupted and contaminated physical evidence from the crime scene. Also, it is assumed an elaborate presentation of Simpson as a loving husband to an emotionally unstable wife will be needed to counter the past five weeks of testimony from the plaintiffs' side of the case.

Close observers of the sequel to the so-called "trial of the century" feel the best defense argument is the time line: How could Simpson have committed such a bloody murder in so short a time?

Stricter judge

Yet Simpson lawyer Robert Baker must contend with a judge, Hiroshi Fujisaki, who has been more restrictive than criminal trial Judge Lance Ito. Judge Fujisaki has demanded evidence before Mr. Baker can suggest a variety of alternate murder theories, such as a Colombian drug link to the murder; and the judge has said in court that "the LAPD is not on trial here" when Mr. Baker offered police conspiracy theories.

Still, it is expected that Fujisaki will give Baker some leeway when the defense opens on issues of police bias.

After the defense presents its case, there will be a round of rebuttals, and closing arguments. Jurors then must decide both the issue of guilt and of monetary compensation, if it applies.

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