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Judgment Day

TRIUMPH OF JUSTICE: The Final Judgment of the Simpson Saga.\o7 By Daniel M. Petrocelli with Peter Knobler (Crown: 644 pp., $25.95)\f7

July 12, 1998|HARRY SHEARER | Harry Shearer is an actor, writer and director who covered the Simpson civil trial for Slate magazine

I once had the opportunity to invite a friend of mine, a Kennedy assassination buff, to have dinner with Jim Garrison, the onetime New Orleans district attorney who propounded a famous conspiracy theory about John F. Kennedy's death. The next day, my friend prevailed on me to debrief one of his fellow buffs over lunch. As we were introduced, the stranger spoke these words of greeting: "So, do you love the assassination, too?"

The question struck me as ineffably goofy at the time, but that was before the O.J. Simpson trials. When the slow-speed Bronco chase ran the NBA finals off into a corner of the nation's TV screens, I became part of that large group of people for whom this drama became as gripping as Watergate, as addictive as crack. It's hard to "love" a double murder, but hard not to be alternately amazed, amused and revolted by the circus of characters, and character flaws, to which we were treated during the subsequent half-decade. I even talked my way into a press pass in order to attend the civil trial in Santa Monica; no ban on cameras would keep me from seeing Act Two.

Daniel Petrocelli, lead attorney for Fred Goldman in pursuing that wrongful death action against Simpson, has co-written a book that's not as good as attending the trial but far better than the alternative: to have only the TV images of the first proceedings and the sporadic press reporting of the second as one's mental legacy of the protracted saga. "Triumph of Justice" starts with Goldman interviewing Petrocelli as a possible attorney, a lawyer's audition. It ends with the victory celebration at the Santa Monica Doubletree Hotel following the verdict announcement that shoved the State of the Union address into a corner of the nation's TV screens. It is just possible that this may be the last of the towering pile of Simpson books, at least until O.J. confesses.

Yes, I believe the second jury was correct in its verdict that Simpson was responsible for the killings of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. With the advantage of having attended that second trial, I came to believe the first jury was correct, too, that Gil Garcetti's finest didn't prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Petrocelli did enjoy certain advantages in his turn at bat--the defendant could not refuse to testify, 31 pictures of O.J. wearing "ugly-ass" Bruno Magli shoes suddenly surfaced and Mark Fuhrman had decamped to Idaho, out of subpoena range. One thing this book will do for anyone not fortunate enough to have wintered at the Ocean Avenue courthouse, "O.J. by the Sea," is to demonstrate what a superior job of lawyering looks like from the inside.

The prose style is conversational, perhaps dictated, and in 600-plus pages there are some repetitions that read more like reminders for readers, whose attention may have strayed, than editing errors. The latter are present, too, perhaps evidence of publishing-house downsizing; but there's great stuff in here: damning testimony and evidence that couldn't make it into the court record because of hearsay problems; a scene in which one of Simpson's attorneys invites Petrocelli over to hang at Rockingham; the coaxing and coaching of Kato Kaelin into becoming a reasonably articulate witness, instead of the long-haired airhead we saw on TV; an account of the deposition process as detailed as that of the trial itself. You not only see the house, you get to see how the bricks were laid.

There are fine scenes that did not make it into any contemporaneous reporting, particularly the debate among Petrocelli's law partners over whether they should call Simpson to testify in the plaintiffs' case. In the wake of that devastating examination, a startlingly tense and dramatic two days that left the defendant's credibility more tattered than a Big Mac in an InSinkErator, this argument seems preposterous. But Petrocelli effectively presents the case of the doubters in his firm; at the time, it was anything but an easy call.

"Triumph of Justice" makes no pretense at the objective or omniscient tone that marks "American Tragedy"-style reportage. This is one man's recollection of the most memorable year and a half of his life. The work of his partners is sketched out with much appreciation, but one of the pivotal moments of the second trial--when defense pathology expert Dr. Michael Baden is forced, by a relentlessly brilliant cross-examination by Ed Medvene, to reduce radically his estimate of the time the murders must have taken--sails by more quickly than a "Rivera Live" promo. This doesn't read like egotism, just like an intensely personal memoir.

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