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Simpson Legal Fees Could Run Into Millions

July 09, 1994|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The best defense money can buy costs big, big bucks. And for O.J. Simpson, the meter is ticking.

During his preliminary hearing, the superstar athlete turned accused murderer was surrounded by as many as five attorneys, led by Robert L. Shapiro. At least two other big-name lawyers--F. Lee Bailey and Alan M. Dershowitz--are acting as advisers but have not appeared in court so far.

Top criminal defense lawyers command from $250 to $400 an hour, although most legal experts believe Simpson probably has signed a flat-fee agreement, with a lump sum to be paid for the preliminary hearing and another for the trial, which a judge ordered Friday. In any case, experts speculated, the legal bill is already well into five figures, probably six.

Then there is the supporting cast: the paralegals, investigators, criminalists, psychiatrists, forensic experts and DNA scientists. Each will demand a paycheck. Some bill by the hour, some by the day. Some will demand appearance fees for testifying--and don't forget travel expenses.

The final tab, experts said, is almost certain to run well into the millions and strain, if not drain, Simpson's considerable net worth, once estimated in court papers at more than $10 million--perhaps at the expense of his children's financial future.

In recent days, family members have expressed concern about the financial future of Sydney Simpson, 8, and Justin Simpson, 5, with their mother dead and their father in jail.

"I assume Simpson will be bankrupt or broke by the end of the trial simply because the money, whatever he has, will have been spent legitimately on his defense--and that's without any make-work b.s.," said Santa Monica criminal defense attorney Charles Lindner, a veteran of 13 capital cases.

Los Angeles lawyer Bradley Brunon, who has tried nearly three dozen murder cases, said: "If the client has an unlimited budget, the legal fees can approximate that. Remember that old saw about the football coach, George Allen, being given an unlimited budget and exceeding it? That may prove true in a case such as this.

"Because," Brunon said, "what corner would you want to cut when a man's life is at stake?"

Prosecutors have not decided whether to pursue the death penalty in the case against Simpson, charged with murder in the slayings of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman, 25. Though Simpson was ordered Friday to stand trial in Superior Court, that decision is still weeks away.

It is virtually impossible, experts said, to quantify the cost of a death penalty case. In large part, that is because defense lawyers have long kept such costs shrouded in secrecy, believing that itemizing the bill would tip prosecutors to secret defense strategies.

It is well-known around any courthouse, however, that defense costs in any death penalty case typically reach well into seven figures.

"On the other side of the coin no expense will be spared," San Diego defense attorney Elisabeth Semel said, referring to prosecutors. "So when someone's life is at stake, it behooves the defense to exploit every resource it can."

Even if prosecutors do not opt for the death penalty, the overall cost to Simpson is still likely to be substantial. Should the case go to trial, a conservative estimate, said Los Angeles defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., would be $2 million.

"It's going to be major," Cochran said.

Shapiro signaled the intensity of the campaign ahead as he left the courthouse Friday, saying: "We are going to be working very hard throughout the weekend getting ready for the trial. . . . We are going to start working tonight. We are not going to waste time."

With that kind of legal effort, one issue, experts said, is how much O.J. Simpson, who turns 47 in jail today, can afford.

An accountant hired by Nicole Brown Simpson in connection with the couple's 1992 divorce fixed O.J. Simpson's net worth at $10.8 million.

But most of that, according to court records, is in real estate, not cash--the home in Brentwood, valued at $5 million, a house in Laguna Beach and various condominiums.

In recent months, Simpson had been divesting himself of real estate. The house in Laguna Beach was sold in August for $1.55 million, according to property records. Last November, Simpson sold a Monarch Beach condo that he had acquired in 1989 for $300,000, absorbing a $116,000 loss.

According to court records, accountant Edward J. Lieberman said in 1992 that Simpson earned $1.5 million in 1991, much of it under contracts with NBC and Hertz Corp. In the prior five years, he earned an average of $1.2 million a year, Lieberman said.

Simpson argued that his income was substantially less, about $881,000 annually.

He also said he stood to lose money that year, saying his investments in Pioneer Chicken restaurant franchises were worthless.

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