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Key Simpson Defense Witness Contradicts Self

February 25, 1995|JIM NEWTON and ANDREA FORD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A potentially key defense witness struggled on the stand Friday, contradicting herself again and again--raising doubts about her credibility and creating problems for defense attorneys who need her to bolster O.J. Simpson's alibi on the night of the murders he is accused of committing.

The witness, housekeeper Rosa Lopez, did succeed in convincing Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito that she was ready to flee the country for her native El Salvador and she nearly forced the trial into an unusual late-night session. Ito brought the jurors, who had not been present for Lopez's testimony, to the courthouse Friday evening, but canceled the session after Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark, a single mother with two young children, complained that she could not attend.

That left Ito with the problem that Lopez might leave before court could be reconvened. But he headed that off by extracting a tearful promise from her that she would stay in the country at least until Monday.

"I will do it for you, Your Honor," she said.

When trial resumes Monday, Lopez will testify out of order, forcing an interruption in the prosecution's case and raising risks for both sides as they prepare to question a crucial witness with little preparation.

The Lopez testimony occupied the entire court day Friday, but behind the scenes, defense attorneys were faced with another possible setback: Sources said Ito tentatively has decided to remove another juror from the panel--a 46-year-old African American man who sported a San Francisco 49ers cap during the recent jury field trip to Brentwood. Sources said the man, about whom prosecutors have long expressed reservations, failed to disclose a past incident of domestic abuse on his extensive jury questionnaire.

Those sources denied that he had made a bet on the outcome of the case, as a recent television report alleged, but they said the man's ouster from the panel appears imminent if Ito follows through with a decision he has tentatively shared with the attorneys.

The shifting composition of the jury has been a source of much speculation and commentary, but Friday's events were dominated by the testimony of Lopez, who could prove key to the case.

Simpson has pleaded not guilty to the June 12 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman.

In attempting to spell out why Simpson could not have committed the crimes, attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. announced during his opening statement that a witness would take the stand to say she saw Simpson's car parked in front of his house about the time authorities say the murders were committed. Lopez is the person who Cochran has said could supply that testimony.

Although the jury was not present for Lopez's testimony, her obvious missteps threatened to undermine one prong of the defense and offered prosecutors a wealth of material with which to challenge her credibility.

*

Dressed in a purple sweat suit and testifying after a short night's sleep, Lopez contradicted herself on several points. Among other things, she at first said she had made reservations to fly to El Salvador today, then admitted she had not. She also initially alleged that she feared for her safety if she did not immediately leave the country, but then she was confronted with evidence that she had booked a round-trip ticket to El Salvador just three days ago--suggesting that she intended to return to the United States.

Under questioning from Cochran, Lopez said she was planning to leave for El Salvador today to flee news reporters who she said have hounded her since her name first became linked to the Simpson case. Breaking down in tears at one point, Lopez, who testified through an interpreter, said her daughter told her she was no longer welcome at her house.

"She told me that if I came to testify, she didn't want me in her home," Lopez said.

"Did that make you sad?" Cochran asked, as Lopez dabbed at her eyes with tissue.

"Very," she replied.

Lopez's testimony struck a nerve with some television viewers. The court received job offers, as well as offers of food, cars and other gifts for the former housekeeper, who said she gave up her job because of the pressure on her. Carl Jones, Lopez's lawyer, said his office was similarly deluged.

But prosecutors focused on her testimony, not her plight. And in the process, they found a number of inconsistencies that raised questions about whether she was telling the truth.

Lopez said, for instance, that she had packed her bags and was ready to catch a plane for El Salvador. She added that she already had made plane reservations for the trip, saying she planned to leave tonight.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden, who led the prosecution's questioning of Lopez, announced during his cross-examination that prosecutors had uncovered evidence casting doubt on that sworn testimony.

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