The mud hit the fan in time for Monday's news and talk shows.
With one lightning strike, O.J. Simpson's team tried to spin their defense onto a new course with stories in the New Yorker and Newsweek that the accused killer was framed by a rogue police detective with a history of racism and a desire to be the hero of the case.
When I talk about mud, I don't mean to imply that the defense's tactics were dirty, although I was always taught that making an unsubstantiated allegation, such as Simpson being framed, isn't exactly clean. Rather, I chose the word for the impact that the charge will have.
The maneuver was like tossing a boulder into the unfathomable pool of public opinion. When the rock hits bottom, mud and sand rise, clouding the water.
I called a political consultant for advice because the latest maneuver in the Simpson media wars has little to do with the law. Rather, it's like the closing days of a dirty political campaign, complete with smears and leaks. My source was Arnie Steinberg, a respected pollster who has been a strategist for Mayor Richard Riordan and many other candidates.
Steinberg is better qualified than most to talk about spinning a criminal case. In 1986, he found himself being investigated by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, who had filed charges against his client, Bobbi Fiedler, a San Fernando Valley congresswoman running for U.S. Senate, and her political aide, Paul Clarke. The investigation ended when a judge threw out the charges.
Fiedler and Clarke had been indicted on charges of offering a $100,000 campaign contribution to lure an opponent out of the race. As a Fiedler strategist, Steinberg was worried about the investigation, a concern heightened when he realized he was being tailed by the D.A.'s detectives. After charges against Fiedler and Clarke were dismissed, the tail was dropped, but memories of that experience remain with him.
As it is with the Simpson case, shaping public opinion was important in fighting the D.A.'s attack. So in talking to Steinberg, I was more or less getting the view from the inside.
Their strategy was to get the case, which was weak, dropped before the trial. Steinberg said his brother, defense attorney Herb Steinberg, advised him that "we have to create a media environment in which a judge, if he were to grant this motion (to dismiss), would not be attacked by the newspapers for letting a bunch of crooked politicians off."
"It was my brother's feeling that the judge does watch television, does read the newspapers," Steinberg said.
Defense attorney Harland W. Braun, a pioneer in criminal defense news management, was brought into the defense team to provide a steady flow of tips, hints, analysis and leaks to reporters, whom he persistently cultivated. Media-sharp defense attorneys Roger Diamond and Howard Weitzman, who was Simpson's initial attorney, volunteered advice. The goal, Steinberg said, was to "provide a media environment" friendly to the defendants.
A crucial event was a news conference at the Sportsman's Lodge in Studio City. The defense had gained access to 20 hours of conversations taped by D.A. investigators. These were supposed to really nail Fiedler and Clarke.
"We scheduled a daylong press conference," Steinberg said. "We played all the tapes, no holds barred. It was like a marathon thing." In the end, he said, the press went away bored and unimpressed with the D.A.'s evidence.
Steinberg figures that with the money at the defense's disposal, the Simpson lawyers have done public opinion surveys to determine how the community is reacting. As is the case with a political campaign, the polling is probably helping shape strategy.
If that's true, then making sure the story appears in Newsweek and the New Yorker makes perfect sense, an elegantly timed ploy, coming out six days before Simpson appears in court, hot enough to make two national publications. By Monday morning, the talk shows had chimed in and this morning you're reading more details in this paper.
What's the impact? First of all, it influences the potential jurors, a subject I've written about before. It muddies the waters and may fuel the suspicions of minority jurors who already are skeptical of police.
The defense could be doing what the Fiedler-Clarke team did back in 1986, creating a friendly media environment. In this case, the goal would be to cast more doubt on the prosecution's evidence. Enough doubt, enough muddying of the water, and the press and public might not protest much if Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti makes a plea bargain deal in the event the Simpson team decides to abandon its innocence defense.
A final word. Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman's past was exposed to the public along with a theory--no better than saloon speculation--that he framed Simpson. He told Newsweek that his career is pretty well shot, and knowing the bureaucratic LAPD, he may be right.