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Coroner's Office a Prime Target of Simpson Defense : Trial: Work described by deputy examiner who handled autopsies is questioned. His boss calls him 'competent.'

October 02, 1994|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A homicide detective walked into the Los Angeles County morgue a few years back and asked Deputy Medical Examiner Irwin L. Golden what he was up to.

Golden, according to the officer, responded by bending over a suicide victim and wrapping the still-attached noose around his own neck. "I'm just hanging around with my friend here," the detective quoted Golden as saying.

Until now, stories about Golden's style and performance have generally stayed within the circle of hardened veterans who work Los Angeles homicides. But as the man who performed the autopsies on Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, Golden--rightly or wrongly--now finds himself in the public spotlight focused on the O.J. Simpson murder probe.

Golden has become a target in the defense strategy of attacking virtually everyone who collected, handled or tested more than 240 pieces of physical evidence since the June 12 murders. And for defense attorneys seeking to undercut the government's case, the 15-year veteran of the county coroner's office presents an attractive target--in part because of his on-the-stand demeanor.

He sometimes looked tentative or confused when he testified during Simpson's preliminary hearing in July, several experts noted.

Perhaps more serious, based on his statements on the witness stand, the experts contend he may have mishandled the autopsies.

Although that point will be debated during the trial, records and interviews show Golden made mistakes in an October, 1990, shooting case in which he had the fatal bullet going the wrong way. A judge dismissed murder charges against a suspect in the case after other forensic experts exposed the error, records show.

In light of such difficulties, prosecutors are scrambling to find another pathologist with a national reputation to help with the case. They have been turned down by medical examiners in San Francisco and Miami, officials in those cities say.

Simpson defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. said that Golden's competence will be a "real issue" in one of the most closely watched murder cases in history.

"You would think that a case of this high profile, they (the coroner's office) would want to have their very best people," Cochran said. "And if they had their best people on this case, then the citizens of Los Angeles County should probably have some questions."

Golden, 54, declined repeated requests for interviews. But a woman at his Burbank home said the deputy medical examiner "doesn't think he has anything to defend."

"He did his job," she said.

Los Angeles County's chief medical examiner-coroner, Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, declined to discuss the Simpson case autopsies. He called Golden a "competent" medical examiner.

Defense attorneys routinely attack how police and coroner's offices gather and preserve evidence, especially in murder cases that depend largely on circumstantial evidence and scientific results--such as the Simpson investigation.

Their goal: to create a reasonable doubt in the mind of jurors by implying that evidence has been contaminated, samples confused or the chain of custody broken.

And, being human, detectives, criminalists and medical examiners almost always make mistakes while collecting hair, blood, clothing, gunpowder and other trace specimens amid the chaos and pressure of a crime scene, say former prosecutors.

"Police departments throughout the world, in the investigative process, frequently bungle," said Vincent Bugliosi, the former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the Charles Manson clan.

In the Manson case, Bugliosi worked around the facts that one police officer had ruined fingerprints on a gun by grabbing it by the handle, while another had lost hair specimens when he dropped the evidence vial and it shattered.

With the case against their client resting heavily on scientific tests, Simpson's attorneys have tried to show similar mistakes in the case against the football great, who has pleaded not guilty.

So far, they have established in court that police used a criminalist trainee to lift some of the most crucial bloodstains at the Bundy Drive murder scene; a crime lab employee mislabeled one blood sample; police left Simpson's white Ford Bronco unattended for a period of time, and, according to Judge Lance A. Ito, a lead detective made "reckless" statements to justify a key search warrant.

Bugliosi said he doubts that any of these miscues will ruin the case. "I expect stuff like this," he said.

But many say the part of the investigation most vulnerable to attack is how authorities handled two of the most important pieces of evidence--the corpses of Nicole Simpson and Goldman.

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