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Shapiro Now Faces His Defining Moment : Courts: After years of helping celebrities, the discreet attorney leads Simpson defense team.

June 26, 1994|RICHARD LEE COLVIN and TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

For some of the most emotionally gripping scenes in the rapidly unfolding drama of O.J. Simpson, the man at center stage has been Robert L. Shapiro, a discreet advocate who is known for deft damage control behind the scenes and in front of the news media.

Before dozens of journalists and cameras nine days ago, Shapiro said his client was suicidal and pleaded for him to return to face arrest. Last Monday, he comforted the subdued former football great as Simpson said he was not guilty of murdering his ex-wife and her friend. And, on Friday, the bushy-browed Shapiro won a victory when Superior Court Judge Cecil J. Mills decided that a tide of leaked information had tainted the grand jury that was considering murder indictments.

The decision to pull the jury off the case means that Simpson, who stands charged with murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, may have a chance to first hear the evidence against him at a public preliminary hearing scheduled for Thursday. Shapiro had hoped to avoid a grand jury indictment, which would have precluded a preliminary hearing where witnesses could be cross-examined.

With characteristic reserve, Shapiro did not gloat over what is being called a major setback for the prosecution, even though Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti supported the dismissal because of pretrial publicity. Shapiro merely said he looked "forward to finally presenting this evidence in a public courtroom."

The victory did much to at least temporarily dispel criticism that Shapiro, best known for getting celebrity clients out of relatively minor scrapes, was not up to the job of handling what is one of the most sensational murder cases of this century.

"He made a brilliant move," said Harland W. Braun, a former prosecutor who defended some of the officers accused of beating Rodney G. King. "The main thing is he's shaking them up on the other side."

The stakes in the trial are high for everyone involved. Simpson stands accused of crimes that could make him subject to the death penalty.

For Garcetti, the case is a chance to end a string of embarrassing defeats for the district attorney's office, including hung juries in the Menendez brothers' first trial.

And for the 51-year-old Shapiro, the son of a factory worker who later operated a catering truck and moonlighted as a bandleader, it may be the case that defines his place among the most famous attorneys in America.

Although he has counted among his clients a few murderers, drug dealers and blue-chip corporations during his 25-year legal career, Shapiro has made his name by representing entertainers such as Johnny Carson and Rod Stewart, sports figures such as Darryl Strawberry and Vince Coleman, and other lawyers, including F. Lee Bailey.

Instead of courtroom brilliance, his professional stock in trade has been his skill at negotiating plea bargains and winning sympathy for clients by shaping the public perception of their alleged misdeeds. And some lawyers, including New York attorney William Kunstler, have noted that Shapiro does not have an extensive record of arguing cases in court.

During the Simpson case, the ever-dapper Shapiro has appeared at each juncture to be unflappable, even serene, the antithesis of the confrontational lawyers often portrayed in movies and on television. Asked prickly questions by the media, he has opened his eyes wide and answered in detail without a hint of dismay. And inside and outside the courtroom, he has been the paragon of politeness, even when forcing the prosecution to admit it did not have a piece of widely reported evidence--a bloody ski mask.

Being polite, sincere and low-key has served Shapiro well personally as well as professionally.

Celebrity car valet Chuck Pick, a friend since childhood from the working-class Westside neighborhood where both grew up, attended a bar mitzvah for Shapiro's son recently at movie producer Robert Evans' house. Other guests included Garcetti, to whom Shapiro made a campaign donation of $5,000 last year, and such celebrity clients as Strawberry and Coleman and movie star Jack Nicholson.

Shapiro, Pick said, spent much of the party "hanging out with us guys that he grew up with."

Those characteristics also win points for Shapiro in the courtroom, said Alvin S. Michaelson, a criminal defense attorney who has worked with Shapiro on numerous cases.

Somehow, he said, Shapiro is able to be very nice and still get what he wants out of a system that is built on confrontation.

"It's absolute nonsense that he doesn't know how to try a case," Michaelson said.

Two members of the pantheon of legal stars come down on opposite sides of the debate over Shapiro's readiness to take the case.

Bailey, godfather to Shapiro's first son, described him as the only lawyer in America allowed to use Bailey's name on a letterhead. "The bottom line is O.J. Simpson is in perfectly good hands," he said.

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