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Simpson Prosecution Guilty of Incompetence? : NONFICTION : OUTRAGE: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Got Away With Murder. By Vincent Bugliosi (W.W. Norton: $25, 356 pp.)

July 07, 1996|Gerald Petievich | Gerald Petievich, author of "To Live and Die in L.A.," is working on a novel based within the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department

After watching the entire televised O.J. Simpson murder trial, I didn't believe there was anything else to know about it. Then along comes Vincent Bugliosi, former L.A. County deputy district attorney, prosecutor of Charles Manson and author of "Helter Skelter" and other nonfiction books about the world of crime and courtrooms. What could he have to say that would be more compelling than the real thing?

Someone once said that experience is a hut constructed from the ruins of the palace of our illusions. Bugliosi not only shatters our illusions about the Simpson case, he defines and clarifies the experience of the trial. With anger evident on every page, he throws back the shabby curtain of the "trial of the century" and acts as a tour guide to the inside of the D.A.'s office and to the minds of the cops and the prosecutors.

Through the eyes of the quintessential prosecutor who lost only one of the 106 cases he tried as a deputy district attorney, we are led to the heart of the matter quickly. He leaves no doubt that he believes Simpson is guilty: "How did it come to pass that someone we now [know]--not believe, but know--committed these two savage murders . . . is now walking among us, enjoying life with a smile on his face?" He points the finger of blame at Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti.

From the first page, Bugliosi expresses anger and astonishment at the actions of most of the major players in the case. Few are spared his dagger. His chapters follow the reasons he believes caused the verdict: an atmosphere engendering the belief that Simpson was going to get off; having the trial in downtown Los Angeles instead of Santa Monica; Judge Lance Ito's rulings and behavior; prosecutor incompetence, including weak summations by Chris Darden and Marcia Clark.

He points out that a major cause of the acquittal was Simpson's astonishing popularity--that the general belief he might get off despite the conclusive evidence of his guilt, was a self-fulfilling prophecy. This notion, galvanized by the media, changed everyone's perception of the case. Bugliosi says that there never was any reason to believe that he would get off--that, based on the facts, the evidence against him was conclusive from the outset. What happened?

Part of this media-created legend held that Simpson was being represented by a Dream Team of lawyers. But Robert Shapiro had never taken a criminal case to trial and Howard Weitzman, Simpson's first lawyer, allowed him to be interviewed by the police--something no criminal lawyer should ever do. As for F. Lee Bailey, his career was on a downhill slide since losing the Patty Hearst case. And Bugliosi says Johnnie Cochran's reputation was as a civil rather than criminal lawyer.

In one of the more interesting things to come to light in "Outrage," Bugliosi tells of how he tangled with Garcetti over the D.A.'s reasons for trying the case downtown--one of the most important factors in losing the case. Garcetti said he was "stuck downtown" and, when challenged by Bugliosi on this, said he was "under the impression" he was stuck. As for the other reasons Garcetti gave for not trying the case in Santa Monica (too few seats in the courtroom, ongoing earthquake repairs, little space for the media, poor security, not a large enough jury pool), Bugliosi convincingly makes a case that Garcetti's reasons were at best wrong and at worst "deliberately false."

Next in line to the scaffold: Judge Ito. Bugliosi, citing case law, says the decision to let LAPD Det. Mark Fuhrman be questioned about his use of a racial epithet was poor judgment.

But Bugliosi proposes that the case was substantially lost by the prosecutors themselves. Whether or not some jurors had chosen not to render an impartial verdict, the entire jury's lightning-fast decision to acquit meant there was more wrong than just a lack of evidence. Bugliosi says the prosecutors were astonishingly incompetent, that they bowed to an imperious, incompetent judge and that they spent less than a minute of their final summation rebutting the defense's key argument: that the LAPD had framed Simpson. Finally, Bugliosi offers us his own summation. This alone is worth the price of the book.

When it comes to the Simpson murder trial, Bugliosi, digging through the details as if it were a case he would be handling the next week in Department 103, establishes himself as the expert. No one who reads this book will ever again believe that the most publicized acquittal in the history of American jurisprudence was solely the result of juror prejudice or the machinations of unscrupulous defense attorneys. The D.A. and the prosecutors have been called before the bar of justice.

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