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Simpson Civil Trial Opens With Judge Limiting Defense

Court: Rulings curb strategy of attacking LAPD as incompetent and corrupt. Jurist indicates focus will be strictly on who committed killings.

September 18, 1996|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — The O.J. Simpson civil trial opened Tuesday with a flurry of rulings that significantly restrict the defense's strategy of attacking the Los Angeles Police Department as a group of inept bunglers and corrupt, racist cops who sought to frame Simpson for murder.

"The point to be addressed to the jury is whether the evidence that was collected tends to prove Mr. Simpson's culpability or not," Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki said. "This is not a case about did the LAPD commit malpractice."

As a few anti-Simpson demonstrators preened for the television cameras that swarmed the lawn of the Santa Monica courthouse and about 50 reporters packed the benches inside Department Q, Fujisaki served notice that he will not tolerate what he considers to be distractions.

He sped through a stack of pretrial motions several feet thick in just two hours on the bench, issuing 39 rulings and sometimes cutting off the lawyers when they sought to argue their points.

Fujisaki made clear he intends to keep the trial tightly focused on the key issue: Did O.J. Simpson kill Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman in a nighttime knife attack on June 12, 1994?

He agreed to allow the plaintiffs to introduce at least some evidence that the Simpsons' 17-year relationship sometimes flared into violence.

But the defense, he said, will not be allowed to swerve into topics he deems irrelevant or speculative. That means Simpson's lawyers will not be able to argue that the LAPD failed to examine all the blood from the crime scene, or that Colombian drug lords could have been behind the killings. More important, Fujisaki blocked them from introducing evidence that former LAPD Det. Mark Fuhrman is a racist--a linchpin of the defense theory that police conspired to frame Simpson.

Fujisaki explicitly ruled out the defense effort to turn the case into an attack on the Police Department, pointing out that "Mr. Simpson is not suing the LAPD."

In the criminal trial, the defense successfully beat back murder charges by charging that police officers botched the investigation; contaminated, compromised or planted evidence; and rushed to judge Simpson as a vicious killer without considering alternatives. But reprising those allegations in the civil trial will be tough given Fujisaki's opening-day rulings, according to legal analysts.

"What [the judge] is clearly saying here is that he is not going to let anyone speculate about anything," said civil attorney Larry Feldman, a well-respected Los Angeles litigator. "He's not going to let people try the fringes of the lawsuit. That generally does not bode well for the defense."

Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, who has closely followed the Simpson case from the beginning, agreed. "In the criminal trial, the defense presented a collage made up of the specter of racism and contamination which they said ultimately led to the identification of the wrong person as the perpetrator," Burris said. Fujisaki's rulings strip away some key elements of that collage. "That's going to hurt," Burris said.

The defense did get a few tidbits of good news Tuesday.

The judge ruled that it will be able to introduce videotaped testimony from their star forensic witness, criminalist Henry Lee, even though Lee refuses to take the stand in person. Fujisaki also decided that defense DNA expert John Gerdes can testify in general about contamination at the LAPD lab, though Gerdes did not observe flaws in the Simpson case in particular.

But the bulk of Fujisaki's rulings clearly favored the plaintiffs. Goldman's parents, Patti and Fred, and his sister, Kim, looked pleased as they chatted with their attorneys after the hearing. O.J. Simpson and relatives of Nicole Simpson could not attend the hearing in Santa Monica because they were fighting for custody of the couple's children in an Orange County court.

Juditha and Louis Brown of Dana Point, Nicole's parents, are seeking custody in Family Court in Orange. Those hearings are expected to continue throughout the week.

Action in the Simpson case also unfolded Tuesday in a third venue: the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

The appeals court found that two aspects of Fujisaki's sweeping gag order were so broad and vague that they "present grave constitutional doubt as to their validity." The justices temporarily lifted those two provisions: one banning witnesses from discussing the case with the press or in public, and one prohibiting lawyers from expressing opinions about trial proceedings. But rather than strike them altogether, the justices said they would ponder the issues further.

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