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Simpson Balks at Topics, Pulls Out of TV Interview : Trial aftermath: Pending civil suits and fear of 'confrontation' rather than 'conversation' are cited. NBC had prepared pointed questions about murder night.

October 12, 1995|JIM NEWTON and HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

O.J. Simpson's widely publicized chance to reclaim an image marred by the murder charges that hung over his head for more than a year ended in a last-minute fiasco Wednesday, with Simpson backing out of a scheduled TV interview hours before it was to air because he feared it would be a "confrontation" rather than a "conversation."

According to Tom Brokaw, the anchor of the NBC "Nightly News" and one of two network journalists scheduled to conduct the session, Simpson's attorneys pulled out of the appearance after balking at topics that the network was preparing to broach--including pointed queries about Simpson's whereabouts on the night of the murders and about his relationship with his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson.

Simpson's lawyers said they were not aware of specific questions that were planned, but acknowledged that they were concerned about signals they were getting from NBC about the nature of the interview and the format for the program in which it would air.

"It was agreed that this would be a conversation, not a confrontation," Simpson said in a statement read by his lead trial lawyer, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. "Because of pending litigation, there would be some questions that I could not obviously address at this time."

In an interview with a New York Times television writer, Simpson said he had backed out of the NBC session because his lawyers "told me I was being set up. They felt the interview was going to be tantamount to a grand jury hearing."

Simpson did not discuss details of the murders, according to the New York Times, but reiterated his claims of innocence and acknowledged that he had been wrong to "get physical" with his wife during a 1989 altercation. He disputed reports that he was broke and that he was set to marry girlfriend Paula Barbieri, and he said he was willing to meet with battered women.

The abrupt cancellation of the NBC interview came after Simpson's attorneys unanimously recommended against going through with the interview, according to Cochran, who said he and his colleagues were concerned about the implications for three pending wrongful death suits against the former football star. Cochran called it "folly" for Simpson to address questions about the case while he had civil litigation pending.

But Simpson's decision, while legally prudent, was a public relations disaster, emboldening critics who called him a coward for backing out of the interview and raising new questions about his reluctance to field questions about murders that he has always denied committing.

"If he were innocent, we'd be seeing something else today," said Tammy Bruce, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, which had protested the scheduled interview with Simpson, a convicted batterer. "We've had enough of this pathetic display of bravado."

In an interview shortly after the scheduled appearance was canceled, Brokaw said Cochran had indicated to the network that his client would not answer questions about the timing of events on the night of the murders. As it happened, Brokaw said, those were the first questions that he and colleague Katie Couric intended to ask.

"We were prepared to begin with the many explanations for Mr. Simpson's whereabouts between 9:36 and 10:54 p.m. on the night of June 12, 1994," said Brokaw, adding that he intended specifically to ask Simpson why Cochran had told the jury that his client was chipping golf balls that evening when Simpson never mentioned that to police.

That night, according to testimony, Simpson told a limousine driver that he overslept, implying that he had been taking a nap. Then, after he was acquitted of murdering Nicole Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, Simpson called in during CNN's "Larry King Live" and said he had been packing to leave for Chicago when the limousine driver saw a tall, black person head into the front door of his house.

The same driver, however, testified that the lights in the house were off until the shadowy figure entered.

Brokaw said one of his questions was: "Were you preparing for a trip in the dark?"

Brokaw, who said he prepared for the interview by reading trial transcripts and other documents related to the case, added that he and his colleagues had prepared "an extensive section of the interview on his relationship with Nicole."

Former Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said he also prepped Brokaw.

Simpson would have been asked about past instances of domestic abuse and about his self-description as a "battered husband," Brokaw said, adding that he intended to turn to Simpson and say: "Mr. Simpson, you beat the hell out of your wife."

But Simpson's lawyers, mindful of their client's continuing legal troubles--he faces three wrongful death lawsuits filed by relatives of Goldman and Nicole Simpson--decided Simpson would be better off not fielding questions in front of a national television audience, even one tuned in to the network that employed Simpson as a football commentator for years.

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