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Attacking accusers in court

The Nation

Using a tactic that has been successful in other cases, Simpson's attorneys question the victims' motives.

September 21, 2008|Ashley Powers and Harriet Ryan | Times Staff Writers

LAS VEGAS — Bruce Fromong's nose reddened and his eyes welled with tears. He was testifying in a courtroom here about his tarnished relationship with "best friend" O.J. Simpson -- who is accused of robbing Fromong at gunpoint.

Fromong, a sports memorabilia dealer, said the football great didn't scare him during their encounter in a hotel room last year -- in fact, minutes after it ended, he was looking to cash in.

"I'll have 'Inside Edition' down here for us tomorrow," Fromong told a business partner, according to a recording played for jurors. "I told them I want big money."

Last week, Simpson's attorneys employed a strategy common in celebrity trials: Attack the accusers' motives and character. The tactic was partly responsible for the acquittals of singer Michael Jackson and actor Robert Blake in their high-profile criminal prosecutions in recent years, lawyers said.

Simpson's defense, however, doesn't need much help: The victims come off as alternately smitten with the former NFL star and willing to make a buck off his fame.

Simpson's other accuser, Alfred Beardsley -- who has yet to take the stand -- was characterized in court testimony as "delusional," "criminally insane" and an "O.J. disciple" who, if given the chance, would buy Simpson's underwear.

"Do you want to be a witness in this case?" Dist. Atty. David Roger asked Beardsley during one pretrial hearing.

"Not really," said Beardsley, glancing at the defense table.

Simpson, 61, faces a dozen charges; the most serious -- kidnapping -- carries a potential life sentence. Prosecutors say he rounded up five associates -- two of them armed -- to confront Fromong and Beardsley. The dealers said they were expecting to meet a wealthy buyer at Palace Station Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

Simpson maintains that he was merely trying to retrieve stolen mementos, including pictures of his late parents, on Sept. 13, 2007. He contends that he never saw a gun.

Simpson, of course, has his own image problems. He was acquitted in the 1994 slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman in the televised "trial of the century." In 1997, a civil jury found the NFL Hall of Famer liable for the deaths, but he has paid little of the $33.5-million judgment.

And, while defense attorneys last week tried to undermine the credibility of the victims, prosecutors attacked Simpson's character, suggesting that he purposely hid valuable memorabilia with friends and associates to avoid turning the items over to the Goldman family to satisfy the civil judgment.

How the memorabilia at the center of Simpson's robbery trial ended up in the hotel room remains unclear. According to an audio recording, Beardsley said the items came from Simpson's trophy room and his late mother's storage unit. Simpson, however, said in a recording that a former agent stole them from him.

What impact exposing the backgrounds of the alleged victims and the defendants has on the jury remains to be seen. Jeffrey B. Abramson, a professor of law and government at the University of Texas who edited a book about Simpson's 1995 murder trial, initially thought jurors' memories of that trial would hurt Simpson. But as testimony began last week, his opinion changed.

The jury, he said, might think, "gee, the reason they are prosecuting him in this case is not because there is a real victim, but because of who he is, because it is a springboard back in time."

In both the Blake and Jackson cases, lawyers for the high-profile defendants put the motives of the victim -- or in the pop star's case, alleged victim -- on trial. In the Blake case, the actor's slain wife was portrayed as a gold-digging grifter who invited her own slaying. Jackson's lawyers shredded the credibility of the teen accusing him of molestation with evidence that his family had scammed charities, other celebrities and the government.

"If a jury relates to a victim . . . they want to vindicate them because they can imagine themselves being hurt in a similar fashion," said Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., who defended Jackson. "I said to the jury in my closing argument that [the alleged victim and his family] were hoping to hit the lottery and never have to work again. All they needed was the jury's approval."

In cross-examination last week, Simpson attorneys hit hard on Fromong's desire for money, in addition to how his account of the incident has shifted over time. In the coming days, the defense is expected to similarly pounce on Beardsley, who according to court records has convictions for stalking and assault with a deadly weapon.

Beardsley's version of the alleged robbery, however, has been more favorable to Simpson than Fromong's. Though recordings show an enraged Simpson hurling accusations and profanities, Beardsley has described the USC football legend as "basically a little upset."

"I think he felt violated and gave me a lecture. . . . I had no problem with him. He was under control," Beardsley testified at the preliminary hearing.

But for all the ways the alleged victims weaken the prosecution's case, they also are its bedrock. In the key dispute in the trial -- whether men in Simpson's group were armed -- both memorabilia dealers come down on the prosecution's side: They saw at least one gun.

"I would be boring in like a laser beam on the gun," said former San Diego County Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst. "If there's no gun, then the jury can say, everyone got what they deserve, let them rot in the sewer together.

"But when a gun is introduced, the potential for death is introduced. You just can't do that in a civilized society."

--

ashley.powers@latimes.com

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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