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WINNING WASN'T ENOUGH

Defense lawyer Robert Shapiro puts his own spin on his role in the O.J. Simpson trial

THE SEARCH FOR JUSTICE: A Defense Attorney's Brief on the O.J. Simpson Case,\o7 By Robert L. Shapiro with Larkin Warren (Warner Books: $24.95; 363 pp.)\f7

April 21, 1996|Henry Weinstein | Legal Affairs writer Henry Weinstein was part of The Times' team of reporters who covered the O.J. Simpson case

The O.J. Simpson murder case, an aberration in virtually every respect from what happens in the nation's criminal courtrooms every day, has now brought us a commodity almost as rare as a well-financed defense--the sore winner.

Robert Shapiro and his colleagues gained an acquittal in the most watched trial in history. Yet, he's not satisfied with legal victory. Fearing that outrage over the verdict reflects badly on him, he seems to have written this book in no small measure to persuade readers--dare I say white readers in particular--that controversial defense tactics were not his idea and that someone else deserves the blame.

In "The Search for Justice," Shapiro provides a mostly chronological narrative of "the Trial of Century." He contends that a verdict of acquittal was fully justified because the defense team made Swiss cheese of critical parts of the prosecution case against the former football star: "Their mountain of evidence collapsed under an avalanche of incompetence, contamination and lies."

Shapiro, who loves to refer to himself as the defense team's "quarterback," says that he is proud of his work on behalf of Simpson. Clearly, he rightly can claim credit for making, in the weeks after the grisly June 12, 1994, murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman, a number of critical moves that were instrumental in his client's eventual acquittal. Among them were hiring forensic scientists Henry Lee, Michael Baden and Barbara Wolf and a top-flight group of attorneys, who came to be known as "the dream team." By aggressively pushing the case fast, he kept the prosecutors off balance, and his skilled cross-examination of coroner Dr. Irwin Golden at the preliminary hearing provided an early glimpse of serious problems that undermined the prosecution's case.

As much as anything, Shapiro's goal seems to be to convince readers that he is the Atticus Finch of this tragic tale: a good guy who tried honorably to defend a seemingly guilty client in the best American tradition--unlike some of his colleagues, who are less flatteringly portrayed.

In particular, he chastises Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who supplanted him as Simpson's lead lawyer, for being an irresponsible advocate, unnecessarily escalating the racial dynamics of the case; for engaging in discovery violations and over-promising what the defense could prove in his opening statement. He also derides F. Lee Bailey, his old friend turned enemy, for poor lawyering and for leaking information to the tabloids.

Since the trial ended, Shapiro has managed to wreak some measure of revenge on Bailey, helping federal prosecutors secure Bailey's incarceration in Florida in a complicated drug case. He may have a more difficult time damaging Cochran, who became a hero among African Americans during the trial.

In his book (for which Shapiro received a $1.5-million advance) and in television appearances hawking it, Shapiro loudly deplores Cochran's playing "the race card." Shapiro says the defense did such a good job of creating reasonable doubt that Simpson could have prevailed without Cochran's dramatic entreaties to the jury in his closing argument to draw a line in the sand against racist police abuse.

Reader beware: Whatever you think of the verdict, whatever you think of Cochran, don't kid yourself that the so-called "race card" started with him. Shapiro played that card early, as soon as he learned about some of the problems in detective Mark Fuhrman's past. That set the tone for one of the critical issues of the case and Shapiro's attempts to distance himself from it are unconvincing. It is dicey to try to rewrite history if you're a lawyer and you've left tracks.

Keep in mind, Shapiro was no stranger to high-profile cases, having represented actor Marlon Brando's son Christian in a murder case, as well as movie mogul Robert Evans and New York Mets outfielder Vince Coleman. In fact, Shapiro was known in the Los Angeles legal community for his ability to shape perceptions about a case.

Well before Simpson became his client on June 13, 1994, Shapiro wrote a widely cited article in a legal journal advising other lawyers on how to deal with the press. He advised his colleagues to avoid describing a homicide for which a client was accused as a "tragedy." Instead, he suggested using a phrase like "horrible human event." If such phrases are repeated continuously, he wrote, "they will be repeated by the media. After a while, the repetition almost becomes a fact. That is the lawyer's ultimate goal." Those are the words of an experienced spin doctor.

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