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THE SIMPSON LEGACY / LOS ANGELES TIMES SPECIAL REPORT : Trial & Error: FOCUS SHIFTS TO A JUSTICE SYSTEM AND ITS FLAWS : Weighing the Necessity of Change : How One Case May Reshape Criminal Justice in America : The Defense Bar / "To Scheck, to Schectify, to Cochranize are verbs in all our vocabularies from now on."

October 08, 1995

Few criminal defense lawyers doubt that there are lessons to be learned from the Simpson trial, but many are skeptical that they ever will get the opportunity to apply them.

And for every defense attorney who is eager for the chance to mount their own full-court forensic press, there are two others who fear that the only tangible results of the former football star's acquittal will be disappointed clients and frightened jurors. Those consequences, many lawyers fear, will reduce further the procedural and fiscal horizons that have narrowed drastically for California's defense bar in recent years.

"Are cases in L.A. County going to be tried differently from here on out? You bet," said Los Angeles attorney Gerald L. Chaleff. "There will be intense pressure on criminal defense lawyers from their clients and their families to attack the LAPD and its crime lab in every case, even when it's not an issue.

"When persons accused of crimes see a case like Simpson's end in an acquittal, they think, 'Why not me?' "

To answer that question, said Jill Lansing, who won a hung jury for accused double murderer Lyle Menendez in his first trial, "defense lawyers are going to have to find a way to explain to their clients the fact that they don't have available to them the sort of unlimited resources O.J. Simpson had. Those resources included numerous talented lawyers, internationally acclaimed experts and expensive graphics. Given the results in the Simpson case, it is going to be very difficult for less fortunate defendants to deal with the fact that they will not go into court similarly armed."

A veteran Los Angeles public defender, who asked not to be identified because of his office's policy of not commenting on the Simpson case, said he and his colleagues already are seeing such fallout among their clients.

"You go into the lockup to see these guys and the first thing out of their mouths is, 'Are you going to get me Barry Scheck? '

"Sometimes," the public defender said, "you patiently explain to them that they're charged with armed robbery and that DNA isn't really an issue in their case, since they were identified by six eyewitnesses and a surveillance camera. But sometimes you have to look them in the eye and tell them that the expert testimony that really could save their lives and restore their liberty just isn't there because we can't afford it--and neither can most of the private bar."

In fact, with only a few exceptions, private attorneys appointed to defend indigent defendants in death penalty trials in Los Angeles are now allowed just $10,000 to secure expert testimony.

To Anne E. Fragasso, president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the largest statewide organization of defense lawyers, the impact of such limitations is the unspoken lesson to be taken from the Simpson verdicts.

"In the usual criminal trial, the prosecution can outspend and out-staff the defense," she said. "If the Simpson case demonstrates anything, it is that the result can be different when prosecutors don't have carte blanche in the courtroom. "

The question of resources aside, Chaleff said that he and his colleagues have learned that "there is real merit to the line of attack adopted in the Simpson case. The dismantling of the crime lab personnel by Scheck and Peter Neufeld shows that this can be done and probably should be done in every case where scientific evidence is crucial to the prosecution.

"Given the depth of distrust of the LAPD expressed by the jurors in Simpson's case and the statements of many African Americans after the verdict," Chaleff added, "the area of police bias and integrity probably will be explored far more thoroughly in any case involving a black defendant."

But Lansing is one of those defense attorneys who fears that even if her colleagues take the lessons of the Simpson case to heart, the benefits will be outweighed by the trial's impact on future juries. "We seem to be developing a tradition of maligning juries which acquit," she said. "I think the message to any potential juror now, particularly in a high visibility case, is that the safest way to ensure you're not insulted afterward is to vote for a prosecution verdict."

Defense attorney Marcia Morrissey, by contrast, believes that the net impact of the Simpson case could be a far more vigorous defense bar. "This case clearly demonstrated the need for an aggressive defense," she said, "and, despite what people think, too few criminal defenses are aggressive enough.

"But after this verdict, defense attorneys are not going to take the prosecution's evidence, whether it's an eyewitness identification or the most sophisticated DNA test as gospel or even at face-value," Morrissey said.

Los Angeles attorney Gigi Gordon believes that Simpson's acquittal will lift the spirits of a defense bar that has seemed to many to be increasingly demoralized in recent years.

"We're coming in through the keyhole, we're coming under the door and over the wall. Weeee're baaaack, and we're defense lawyers," she said. "To Scheck, to Schectify, to Cochranize are verbs in all our vocabularies from now on. Johnnie has given us a blueprint and Barry wrote the manual.

"In the same way that Johnnie gave the jury the will and Barry showed them the way, they've given those things to the defense bar as well," Gordon said. "For all its ambiguity, it was defense lawyering at its best."

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