Commentary

How to talk the talk at the O.J. Simpson trial

Originally Published: September 23, 2008
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- As the O.J. Simpson robbery-kidnapping trial enters its third week in Las Vegas, the legal procedures and the conflicting evidence can be confusing. What does it all mean? To really stay on top of the trial's progress, you need to speak its special language. Here is a glossary of terms that should help one and all understand what's happening.

[+] EnlargeJudge Jackie Glass
John Locher-Pool/Getty ImagesOnce upon a time, Clark County District Judge Jackie Glass was a broadcast news reporter.
Babe: Is Clark County District Judge Jackie Glass a babe? Rather than take offense at the question, Her Honor seems to love to answer it. Described in media reports as a "former news babe" for her brief career in broadcast journalism, Glass laughs and says she was not a babe. She was, she insists, a serious news reporter.

Back, back, back: It's a phrase Glass uses frequently in her attempts to rein in the seven lawyers working on the trial. It sounds like a home run call, but it is her signal to the bickering lawyers that she has heard enough from them and wants them to leave her bench and return to their tables to continue the trial. She waves both hands at them and repeats "back, back, back" two or three times. It always works. The lawyers all turn and slowly walk back to their tables, heads down, without another word.

Barry Sanders: Bruce Fromong, a memorabilia dealer who says he is a victim of a robbery orchestrated by Simpson, was asked in cross-examination about Simpson's interest in sports memorabilia. A lawyer for Simpson was trying to show that Simpson had no interest in sports souvenirs and so would not try to steal them. Smiling and very pleased with himself, Fromong suggested Simpson was interested in Barry Sanders memorabilia. He was trying to be cute, mentioning one of Simpson's rivals in the greatest running back ever debate. Fromong laughed and thought he was very funny. It was funny, but Simpson did not laugh and glared at Fromong, a former friend and partner in lucrative postmurder-trial autograph sales.

Best dressed: See: Dominick Dunne.

Dominick Dunne
Ethan Miller-Pool/Getty ImagesOne of the few touches of class in the courtroom: writer Dominick Dunne's daily presence.
Chain of custody: Hoping to recapture the courtroom magic that led to Simpson's acquittal on murder charges in 1995, his legal team has focused on who had possession of the audio tapes made of Simpson and his crew before, during and after the robbery. The late Johnnie Cochran used attacks on chain of custody to establish serious doubts about the integrity of the investigation into the murders. The current legal team hopes to establish doubt in the minds of the jurors about the audio tapes. They will focus on an eight-day period during which Thomas Riccio, the auctioneer who set up the meeting between Simpson and the dealers, recorded everything and sold the audio tapes. Riccio testified he sold the tapes to four news and gossip purveyors -- TMZ.com, "Entertainment Tonight," a Howard Stern sponsor and ABC -- for a total of $210,000. Anything could have happened during those eight days, Simpson's lawyers will argue, claiming that Riccio somehow could have altered what was on his digital recorder. It worked for Cochran and Simpson in the murder trial, but it is unlikely to work this time.

Dominick Dunne: Who is the star of the trial? Simpson thinks he is, but the immortal Dominick Dunne, an icon of American journalism, is the real star. Sitting in a reserved seat on the aisle in Judge Glass's courtroom and impeccably turned out each day, Dunne's presence elevates the proceedings. You simply don't want to miss his conversations and recollections about the murder trial and other celebrity trials, which bring context to the current proceeding that no one else can offer. He is battling bladder cancer and is struggling a bit, but his observations and insights continue to dazzle all who listen.

The Sleaze Factor

The coterie of opportunists and bottom feeders who've come together in O.J. Simpson's trial on robbery and kidnapping charges have one thing in common, writes Lester Munson. It's sleaze. Story

Dream team: In the murder trial, Simpson enjoyed splendid legal representation by Cochran and a dream team of excellent lawyers. The team managed to produce a not-guilty verdict in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt. No one is using the phrase dream team to describe Simpson's current lawyers, Yale Galanter and Gabriel Grasso. If there is any dream team in this trial, it is the one for whom the prosecutors, Clark County District Attorney David Roger and Deputy District Attorney Chris Owens, are playing. They distinguished themselves early in the trial with a dazzling 54-minute opening statement that combined audio and visual tapes with photos and other evidence in a compelling presentation. They offer their evidence efficiently and effectively. Even the great Cochran would have some difficulty keeping up with these prosecutors.

Goldman family: After the jury in Los Angeles found Simpson not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman 13 years ago, the Goldman family pursued him in a civil, wrongful death case, arguing that Simpson was responsible for Ron Goldman's death. Relying on powerful evidence of guilt from the murder trial and from investigations by the National Enquirer, the Goldman family won a judgment of $33.6 million. Its attempts to collect from Simpson and his attempts to avoid payment led directly to the incident that could send Simpson to jail. Fred Goldman, Ron's father, and Kim Goldman, his sister, are listed as prosecution witnesses and may soon appear at the trial.

[+] EnlargeChris Owens
Jae Hong-Pool/Getty ImagesIn a role reversal from Simpson's 1995 murder trial, the dream team of lawyers this time around is on the prosecution side, led by deputy district attorney Chris Owens.
Interrogatories: In its continuing attempts to collect from Simpson, the Goldman family periodically submits written questions -- known as interrogatories -- that Simpson is obligated to answer under oath. The Goldmans and their lawyers ask him whether he has any money or other assets, and he is required to respond. A few months before the alleged robbery, Simpson submitted written answers under oath that he had no assets. He then assembled a crew in Las Vegas to recover what he claims is his property. He went into a hotel room to obtain property he swore he did not have. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for Simpson to explain the contradictory statements. See also: Simpson testimony.

Mike Gilbert: The story that leads to the robbery and kidnapping charges starts with Mike Gilbert. Shortly after the jury awarded $33.6 million in damages in 1996 to the Goldmans, Simpson was warned that the family was coming to his house to seize anything of value. Gilbert, who served as Simpson's manager at the time, and Simpson's sister, Arnelle, quickly gathered a large quantity of memorabilia from the house and hid it in several storage lockers. When Gilbert and Simpson fought over money in 2005, Gilbert grabbed various things from storage, throwing Simpson into a rage that endures to this day. When Simpson heard that the items would be available in Las Vegas, he was still in a rage; and, according to the police and prosecution, he organized his crew of gunmen to recapture what he thought belonged to him.

National treasure: For many years, O.J. Simpson was a kind of national treasure. For many Americans, he became a national disgrace when he was charged, but acquitted, of murdering his former wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman. Whatever happens in the robbery trial, Simpson's status will remain the same. But if Clark County District Attorney David Roger and Deputy Assistant DA Chris Owens succeed in convicting Simpson and putting him in jail, they will become national treasures. They will be flooded with requests from TV shows and book publishers, and they will be the featured speakers at law enforcement seminars and conferences and corporate meetings for years to come.

Offshore accounts: In what was a bad moment for Simpson, memorabilia dealer Bruce Fromong, whose merchandise was taken in the robbery, is heard on an audio tape exclaiming, "I helped [Simpson] set up his offshore accounts!" Simpson, of course, denies the existence of any offshore accounts and claims he is unable to pay a nickel to the Goldmans. The Goldmans will pursue Fromong for more information on accounts that Simpson says do not exist.

Ron and Patti Goldman
AFP/Getty ImagesThis isn't the first O.J. trial the Goldmans have watched. Fred (Ron's father) and Patti Goldman watched the 1995 murder trial very closely, too.
Piece: This may be the single most-important word in the trial. In a tape-recorded conversation after what the prosecution says was a robbery, Simpson is clearly heard asking one of the gunmen, "You didn't take the piece out in the hall, did you?" He was apparently worried about a gun appearing on a security camera video tape. If that's what Simpson said, he is in trouble. It would be clear evidence that he knew about the guns and was participating in a robbery. It is the closest thing to a smoking gun (or piece) that the jury will see or hear. Simpson and his lawyers will insist he was talking about "peace." If the jury concludes the word is piece, Simpson is on his way to a long jail term.

Please: Judge Glass uses the word please more often than any other in the English language. When a lawyer objects to a question from the opposing lawyer, the judge has two options. She can say the objection is "sustained," ruling that the question is bad. Or the judge can say "overruled," ruling that the question is a valid question and must be answered. Glass rarely says "sustained" or "overruled" until she absolutely has to. Instead, she says "please," somehow thinking the lawyers will agree on the right question. But please never works. It only leads to additional argument, rhetoric and turmoil. Glass seems to assume she can change the behavior of lawyers with her words, a very bad assumption.

Recovery: Simpson's answer to the robbery charge is that it was a recovery rather than a robbery. His lawyers insist he was involved only in the recovery of personal heirlooms that were stolen from his home on Rockingham Drive in Los Angeles. The problem for Simpson is that he and his crew took not only his personal things (photos and game balls) but also lithographs of Joe Montana, a football signed by Army's three Heisman Trophy winners and baseballs signed by Pete Rose and Duke Snider.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Simpson
AP Photo/Jae C. HongSomebody, at least, still wanted Simpson's autograph after a court session last week.
Simpson testimony: Will Simpson testify at the trial? It is possible that he will take the witness stand and try to explain to the jury that he knew nothing about any guns and was only trying to recover significant parts of his legacy for his children. Simpson can be very charming, and it is easy to see how tearful testimony might help his cause. But it would be risky. He would face blistering cross-examination about his crew and their guns. He would be confronted with audio tapes that appear to include his voice raging at the victims and talking about the guns. And he would be confronted with his own sworn statements that he has no assets but somehow was in the hotel room seeking to recover assets. Simpson did not testify at the murder trial in 1995, but the prosecution had fumbled so badly that his testimony was not necessary. With the prosecution now doing so well, Simpson could be forced to take the witness stand in one final, high-risk attempt to avoid the penitentiary. See: Interrogatories and Piece.

Smoking gun: See: Piece.

Suits: On a hot day in Las Vegas last September, two of Simpson's crew (Walter Alexander and Mike McClinton) were wearing dark suits. Videos show dozens of hotel customers wearing shorts, but they were in suits. Other than hotel and casino employees wearing uniforms, they might have been the only people in all of Las Vegas wearing suits. Why suits? Because they had the guns. The coats of their suits covered the guns in their waistbands as they entered the hotel lobby before the robbery and as they exited through the lobby after the robbery. The suits will help the prosecution convince the jury that the incident was planned as a robbery with guns, and with suits to hide them.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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