Goodbye to Alibi? Simpson Setbacks

AS prosecutors resume their case today in the O.J. Simpson double murder trial, they are bolstered by several serious setbacks suffered by the defense last week.

One was a ruling by Judge Lance Ito fining and sanctioning defense lawyers for withholding information from the court -- a move that will hang over them for months to come and could hamstring future strategies on how to use their key witness, Rosa Lopez.

Even more harmful, say legal analysts here, was the prosecution's ability to cast doubt on the veracity of Ms. Lopez. Most experts now agree that the testimony of Lopez, the Salvadoran housekeeper of O.J. Simpson's neighbor, may hurt more than help the defense.

She is the only person who has placed Simpson at home at the moment the prosecution alleges he was committing two murders. But she waffled under oath and finally admitted that she could not give the precise time at which she saw Simpson's car in front of his house.

''At best,'' says Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, ''Rosa Lopez is ineffective. At worst, she is an incredible, even lying witness.''

Lopez was allowed to testify early because of concerns that she might flee the country before her time in court would come up. But at the prosecution's request, she was videotaped rather than allowed to speak in front of the jury -- a step that now gives the defense several months to decide whether to allow the jury to hear her testimony.

Mr. Pugsley says defense lawyers will have to weigh her contradictory and ineffective testimony against the fact that they promised the jury an alibi witness in their opening statement. If they don't put her on, Pugsley says, ''the prosecution can hammer away at that in their closing statements.''

Further complicating the decision for the defense attorneys are the sanctions imposed by Judge Ito. If the jury ends up hearing Lopez testify via videotape, Judge Ito will have to inform the jury that the trial was delayed because the defense broke the law by not disclosing an earlier audio tape of Rosa Lopez.

Such a revelation could significantly undermine defense lawyers.

''Loss of integrity in the eyes of jurors can be the most damaging thing an attorney ever has to overcome,'' says Manuel Medrano, a legal analyst. ''If the jury begins to question your basic trustworthiness, you are sunk.''

The trial itself has taken an additional hit with the dismissal of another juror (March 1) for unspecified misconduct.

This is the fourth dismissal in five weeks, reducing the alternate pool to eight. ''This raises the specter of a mistrial if they go below 12 [alternate jurors],'' says Myrna Raeder, who chairs a committee of the American Bar Association.

Analysts are also calculating the consequences of news that chief prosecutor Marcia Clark's ex-husband has filed for custody of the couple's two young children. His contention: Ms. Clark spends too much time on the Simpson case to care for the children properly. ''This case has blurred the line between news and entertainment from the beginning,'' says Ms. Raider, citing this private dispute as another example.

But others say high-profile cases showcase important issues -- in this case the plight of working mothers, even if the issue is tangential to the trial itself. ''If the lead prosecutor in the highest profile case of the century is having this problem,'' says Kim Gandy, Executive Vice-President of the National Organization for Women, ''maybe we can have a discussion that will do something about the double standard this country has for working men and women.''

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