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THE SIMPSON VERDICTS : THE PROSECUTION: Another Stumble : The D.A.'s office adds to its list of high-profile defeats, which could leave Gil Garcetti vulnerable in next year's election.

October 04, 1995|ANDREA FORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rap on the Los Angeles County district attorney's office was that it could not win the big ones.

And Tuesday, the O.J. Simpson murder case was added to the list of high-profile, high-stakes trials--McMartin, Menendez, the first prosecution in the Rodney King case--that the office has lost in recent years.

At an emotional news conference, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti defended his team of Simpson trial prosecutors, saying he was "profoundly disappointed" in the not-guilty verdict, and urged the public not to lose faith in the criminal justice system.

"We tried as hard as we could to seek justice," he said.

But legal experts who have watched the trial unfold from inside and outside his camp say Garcetti may have something more personal to worry about--his own political career.

They noted that it is not yet certain who will be blamed for losing the Simpson case, but acknowledged that Garcetti--rather than Marcia Clark, Christopher A. Darden and the others on his staff--ultimately bears responsibility for the performance of the prosecution.

In particular, they cited the prosecution's decision to hold the trial in Downtown Los Angeles with its heavily minority jury pool, what some called Garcetti's micromanagement of the case, the ill-fated demonstration that appeared to show a bloody glove did not fit Simpson and the apparent failure to thoroughly investigate the background of former police Detective Mark Fuhrman.

With the district attorney's rightly or wrongly deserved reputation for incompetence when it counts, and with an election coming up in five months, Garcetti may find himself facing opponents who have fodder for a campaign, the experts said.

"I am certain that the potential candidates will start coming out of the woodwork," said Herb Lapin, a longtime prosecutor who is the president of the Los Angeles County District Attorneys Assn. "As leader of the office, he's going to be attacked whether he deserves it or not."

Harland W. Braun, a prominent criminal defense lawyer who once worked in the district attorney's office, said the Simpson loss by itself is enough to make Garcetti look vulnerable to challengers.

"When you win, you win, and when you lose, you lose, and this is a society of winners and losers," said Braun. "He wrapped himself personally in this case and is therefore responsible for the missteps of the prosecution."

Larry Feldman, another prominent lawyer who is active in political circles, said the chances of Garcetti being unseated would depend on the quality of his opposition, but agreed with Braun that someone could legitimately make an issue of the Simpson case.

"Whether it's true or not, I think the perception is that he made a tactical error in where this case was filed," Feldman said. He was referring to the decision to try the case Downtown, where the jury ended up with nine blacks, one Latino and two whites--a factor that many observers say may have influenced the verdict. The trial also could have been held in western Los Angeles, where the murders of Ronald Lyle Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson occurred June 13, 1994.

Garcetti, Feldman said, "had a lot of input into this case, and the case was lost. He can't help but get some of the blame."

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich blamed political maneuvering, ostensibly by Garcetti and other higher-ups, for not assigning more experienced prosecutors than those who were chosen. "I have some reservations about the performance of the D.A.'s office," he said.

Antonovich, however, made a point of saying he was not being critical of the lawyers who actually were in court every day.

At his news conference Tuesday, Garcetti would not comment on what might have gone wrong with the Simpson case, saying he first wanted to learn what the jurors said.

In the past, he has denied meddling in decisions by the Simpson prosecution team--a denial that some members of his staff privately have viewed with skepticism.

"He's the one who has approved everything that's been done in this case, so he should take the blame," said one prosecutor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He would take the credit if we had won."

But even the prosecutor said the district attorney's office is getting unfair criticism from those who say it cannot win big cases.

"I really resent that," he said, "because for every big one we lose, we win 15 others. They forget about the Hillside Strangler, the Nightstalker, the Bryant [drug-murder] case."

Indeed, for more than a decade, the office has won 75% to 80% of the more than 50,000 felony cases it tries each year. The cases the office has been criticized for losing include:

The 1990 McMartin child molestation case in which Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son were acquitted of sexually molesting children at their child-care center. At the time, the trial was the longest-running criminal proceeding and the nation's most expensive criminal trial.

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