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Nature of a Knife Attack Sets It Apart : ON THE SCENE: Images From the Simpson Drama : Crime: There is more physical and emotional involvement than a shooting, experts note. It does not necessarily mean an attacker's intent was more evil.

July 09, 1994|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The double slaying for which O.J. Simpson stands accused is everything the typical Los Angeles killing is not.

This is a city renowned for its impersonal murders--drive-by attacks, stray bullets, indiscriminate violence often inflicted by anonymous assailants from a safe distance with a high-powered gun.

Homicides caused by stabbing accounted for only 9% of the 2,065 killings in Los Angeles County last year. They are often characterized by excessive slashing or puncture wounds that far surpass what is necessary to end the victim's life, according to detectives, psychologists and other students of criminal behavior.

Unlike most shootings, in which the perpetrator never touches his victim, an assailant with a knife usually has to engage in a hand-to-hand struggle. Unlike the armed robber who can coolly eliminate his witness with a pull of the trigger, a knife-wielder must fervently want his victim dead. Unlike the average drive-by, in which a carload of gangbangers may speed off without even knowing whether their target was struck, a killer with a knife often cannot escape without being doused by his victim's blood.

"If you got a gun, it's real easy and clean--you don't have to get yourself dirty," said Kris Mohandie, the Los Angeles Police Department's in-house psychologist. "Using a knife entails a lot of something else--a lot more work, a lot more involvement, a lot more investment, both physically and emotionally."

Testimony on the last day of Simpson's preliminary hearing focused on the graphic details of the June 12 knife attack at his ex-wife's Brentwood condominium.

A coroner's examiner said that the killer slashed Nicole Brown Simpson's neck so deeply that the blade cut into her vertebrae. Ronald Lyle Goldman's neck was also sliced, a lung was pierced and a critical artery was punctured by a five-inch-deep gash. More than a dozen other cuts scarred his body, indicating a fierce struggle with his attacker.

"When you have something like a severed head or someone disemboweled, the first thing you think is, what kind of person, what kind of thing, what kind of animal would do something like this," said veteran LAPD Detective Andy Cicoria, who has responded to more than 1,000 homicides.

For every rule, of course, there are exceptions, and experts are quick to caution that many people who kill simply seize upon the most readily available weapon. Moreover, they add, a blood-soaked crime scene may appear more brutal, but it does not necessarily mean that the attacker's intent was any more evil.

Stuart Fischoff, a psychology professor at Cal State L.A., recalled his experience last year outside a friend's Hollywood restaurant, where three skateboarders whizzed by and knocked over a potted palm.

When his friend protested, one of the skaters clubbed him over the head with his board. Fischoff said he instinctively grabbed a chair and swung it at the teen-age assailant before being restrained by an onlooker. It was only afterward, he said, that he even became aware of how fiercely he had reacted.

"When you're in the throes of it, you lose a sense of what's going on, you're just thrashing and bashing," said Fischoff, who studies aggressive behavior.

Ironically, in the criminal subculture that stretches from the streets to the jails, men with the stomach for such intimate warfare generally are held in high regard. It is not uncommon to hear veteran gangsters lament the passing of more honorable days, when beefs were frequently resolved with face-to-face combat.

In the gang world, a person with enough ruthlessness to kill with a knife "would be considered loco, psycho, straight crazy," said John Berge, an instructor at the California Youth Authority facility in Chino. "For some reason, in that subculture, they get a lot of respect for that."

Jim Galipeau, a longtime probation officer, believes few criminals have the appetite for such up-close bloodshed. He tasted it back in Vietnam, strangling to death a Viet Cong soldier while rescuing a wounded comrade behind enemy lines.

"I think you either have to be survival-oriented, like in my case, or actually sociopathic," Galipeau said. "I know guys who will shoot somebody at a distance or driving by in a car. But there's probably only one-half of 1% out there who have the heart to come up to you and stab you until you die, all the while smelling your blood and your sweat."

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