Less than four months after he walked out of court a free man, O.J. Simpson--still under siege but now under oath--was compelled Monday to begin answering questions concerning the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman.
The onetime football star's four-hour interrogation occurred on the first day of a pretrial deposition in the wrongful death suits that have been filed against him by the victims' family members and estates. "This is in some ways his day of judgment, because people have been waiting to hear what he has to say under oath since the day of the murders," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, who has followed the case from the beginning.
One of the attorneys who took part in the questioning, Michael Brewer, said some of Monday's questions centered on the letter Simpson left behind the day he fled arrest in the company of his longtime friend, A.C. Cowlings. According to Brewer, who represents Goldman's mother, Sharon Rufo, Simpson also was asked to describe "what he was doing and how he was feeling and why he was doing certain things" when he and Cowlings led police on a chase.
Brewer said today's session will center on where Simpson was on the day of the murders, his alibi and his relationship with his former wife. The attorney said this phase of the deposition may continue for seven days. Although the questioning is being conducted behind closed doors, lawyers are free to release transcripts of the exchange at any time.
Simpson's interrogation was conducted in the West Los Angeles office of Goldman family attorney Daniel M. Petrocelli, just a little more than a mile from the Brentwood condominium complex where the murders were committed. Simpson arrived about 9:30 a.m. in a black Ford Explorer and avoided dozens of reporters by driving directly into an underground garage. After the session concluded about 2:30 p.m. he left the same way.
Journalists did catch a glimpse of him on a video monitor mounted at the security desk in the office tower. Simpson appeared to be waiting for an elevator. He was accompanied by two of his lawyers, Robert C. Baker and Robert Blasier.
Ronald Goldman's father, Fred, also was present for the deposition. Afterward, he was terse and somewhat subdued as he briefly spoke with the press.
Fred Goldman said the questioning, which was conducted by Petrocelli, was proceeding "very meticulously. We have a long way to go."
When he was asked what it was like to sit at the same table with the man he has called a coward and a murderer, Goldman responded, "Necessary, but difficult. Let's just say, you know what my feelings are and it would be difficult to be in the same room."
When asked if he thought Petrocelli had been effective, he said, "Absolutely."
Goldman said Simpson had responded to many questions with simple "yes" and "no" answers.
According to Brewer, Simpson's initial testimony contained "some inconsistencies" with his previous statements. The lawyer acknowledged that minor contradictions in testimony are not uncommon, given the imperfection of human memory. But, he said, "The issues I'm talking about are fairly major issues, as far as my case goes. There are some inconsistencies that I think are fairly important, that unless he changes his testimony are certainly going to [come up] at trial."
Brewer characterized Simpson's manner during the questioning as "subdued," adding, "I have not found anything that Mr. Simpson has said in the past to be credible with respect to some of these issues, and my opinion hasn't changed after today's deposition."
In a deposition, a witness is placed under oath and the proceedings are recorded by a court stenographer and, in this case, a video camera. Simpson cannot avoid answering by invoking his constitutional protection against self-incrimination because he already has been acquitted of both murders.
The Brown and Goldman families are seeking significant monetary compensation. If they prevail at trial, scheduled to begin April 2, Simpson could be ruined financially.
UCLA professor Gary Schwartz, a specialist in tort law, said it was not clear precisely why the Goldman and Brown family lawyers began their interrogation with questions about Simpson's now-famous "low-speed chase." But he noted that many legal analysts had criticized prosecutors for not going into the flight during Simpson's murder trial, since a jury could interpret it as "consciousness of guilt."
Veteran Los Angeles civil lawyer Arthur Rutledge said that the plaintiffs' approach made sense because Simpson is an "adverse witness." Rutledge said that when he deposes a friendly witness he normally questions the individual about events sequentially, but said he often uses a different approach with an adverse witness.
"Sometimes, lawyers like to cross up a deponent by starting out of sequence and then moving back and forth to test the person's honesty."
In a brief hearing shortly after Monday's deposition, Santa Monica Superior Court Judge Alan B. Haber issued a written ruling rejecting a defense motion asking that the Brown family's suit be dismissed because it was improperly filed.
After the brief hearing, Brown family attorney John Q. Kelly of New York emerged from the Santa Monica courthouse and walked into a mob of reporters and cameramen. He declined to describe any of the content of the first day of Simpson's deposition.
Asked if Simpson's attorneys were putting up roadblocks to questioning, Kelly responded: "It's running pretty smoothly."
Asked what role the plaintiffs' lawyers were playing in the case, Kelly said that all the lawyers were participating in the questioning. "All the plaintiffs' attorneys are working closely. We're in agreement about what to cover."
Times staff writer Tim Rutten contributed to this story.