Monday, June 7, 2010
Bugliosi vs. Garcetti: Author Opens Fire on District Attorney
By ROGER M. GRACE
123rd in a Series
GIL GARCETTI was widely berated over his supposed choice of the courthouse in which the nine-month O.J. Simpson murder trial, which ended in an acquittal, was held. Before the trial commenced and afterward, railing the loudest against the district attorney—on talk shows, in an interview with Playboy, and then in a book—was Vincent Bugliosi.
He’s the well-spoken egocentric who succeeded, as a deputy district attorney, in gaining the murder convictions of Charles Manson and his followers, failed in his bids for election as DA in 1972 and 1976, and has attained the status of a top-selling author, whose latest tome calls for the prosecution of President George W. Bush for murder in connection with the war in the Middle East.
Garcetti blundered, the ex-prosecutor insists, in choosing to file the information in the Criminal Courts Building (“CCB”) in the Los Angeles Civic Center rather than in the Santa Monica Courthouse which serves the West District. That district includes Brentwood, where the June 12, 1994, mutilation-slayings of Simpson’s ex-wife and her male friend took place. Nine African Americans—that is, persons of the same race as Simpson—were on the downtown jury. Bugliosi’s notion (shared by many) is that demographics being what they were, had the case been tried in Santa Monica, the composition of the panel would have been whiter, and the verdict more objective.
What Bugliosi did not realize, what other critics were oblivious to—and what Garcetti, for whatever reason, did not speak up and reveal—is that the Los Angeles Superior Court, not Garcetti, determined where the trial would be held, as reported in my last column.
Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Robert M. Mallano of this district’s Div. One, who was the Los Angeles Superior Court’s presiding judge at the time, says he approved the determination by Judge Cecil Mills, who supervised the criminal courts (and is now retired), that the trial should be held on the high-security floor of the CCB. Could Mallano’s recollection be off? On so significant a matter, that seems unlikely. Indeed, the independent recollection of Mills is precisely in accord with Mallano’s.
As Mills remembers it, he told Deputy District Attorney William W. Hodgman, co-prosecutor with Marcia Clark at the outset of the Simpson case, that the trial would take place in the Criminal Courts Building downtown. (Hodgman assumed an out-of-sight supervisorial role after health concerns emerged.)
Hodgman, still a deputy DA, tells me that he does recall a conversation with Mills, but says he does not have a recollection of talking about where the trial would be held. However, he apparently would have ascribed little significance to any such discussion; he relates that it was never supposed by his office that any place other than the CCB would be the situs of the trial.
“The Superior Court had a policy that all long cause cases were transferred downtown, to the Ninth Floor,” he recounts.
In fact, Hodgman says, criminal defense lawyers with cases in outlying districts would “sometimes puff time estimates” because it was “a handy way to get...cases diverted downtown.”
He labels the notion that Garcetti made any decision, at all, as to where the Simpson case would be tried a “myth.”
Sandra Buttitta, who was Garcetti’s chief deputy, agrees: “Downtown was the place where you filed high-profile cases.” She says there was “never any question” as to where the case would be tried.
A point-by-point case against Garcetti’s supposed decision is set forth by Bugliosi in his 1996 book, “Outrage: the Five Reasons O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder.” He devotes the entirety of Chapter II to it. It’s titled, “The Change of Venue,” and subtitled, “Garcetti Transfers the Case Downtown.”
The “change of venue” was, Bugliosi contends, one of the five reasons for the verdict. He explains that “if the case had been tried before a normal jury in Santa Monica, the very strong likelihood is that the verdict would have been guilty.”
(The other four reasons he gives are prejudicial matter being “in the air” and probably known by the jury; judicial error in allowing race to be interjected; incompetence of the prosecution in presenting the case; and a weak summation.)
Bugliosi speaks, as others do, of the case having been “transferred downtown” from Santa Monica. The case never was in Santa Monica, so it couldn’t have been “transferred” from there.
Moreover, even if it had been transferred from the Superior Court’s West District to its Central District, there would not have been a “change of venue.” As set forth in Gray v. Municipal Court (1983) 149 Cal.App.3d 373, at 375: “Venue in felony proceedings is the county where the crime was committed….A change of venue entails removing the proceedings to another county. A transfer between judicial districts of the same county is not a change of venue….” Penal Code §1033 speaks in terms of a change of venue being a transfer “to another county.”
The chapter title and subtitle are boo-boos. So are other aspects of Bugliosi’s discourse.
Putting aside for the moment the erroneousness of his core assumption—that Garcetti is responsible for the trial being held in the CCB—his assaults on policy considerations, delineated by Garcetti at the time as supporting the setting of the case there, are misguided.
●Bugliosi brands as “ridiculous” the notion that security concerns dictated that the trial take place in the CCB (now known as the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center), pointing out that the courthouse in Santa Monica was “already equipped with a metal detector and staffed with security guards.”
Note that he says “a” metal detector.
The minimal precautions at the courthouse near the ocean hardly rendered it a “high-security” facility.
By contrast, around $3 million had recently been spent upgrading security at the CCB—particularly on the Ninth Floor, where bullet-proof glass separated the spectators’ section from the rest of the courtroom.
Was such security necessary in the Simpson case? Potentially.
This was a trial that evoked intense emotions. A hero to the African American community was charged with murder, with allegations that the police, highly distrusted by that community if not loathed by it, had planted evidence to frame him. The atmosphere was still crackling from the 1992 Rodney King riots following the acquittal of four white Los Angeles Police Department officers who had severely beaten a black suspect.
In fact, when the Simpson jury commenced deliberations, both the Los Angeles Police Department and the county Sheriff’s Department went on tactical alert. The prospect loomed that if Simpson were convicted, a riot would ensue.
By that point, Simpson’s lead lawyer, Johnnie Cochran Jr. (since deceased), was flanked by six bodyguards when he entered and left the courthouse.
Occurring only 31 years after unpardonably lax security allowed the suspected assassin of the president of the United States to be gunned down while in custody…29 years after the Watts riots and two years after the Rodney King riots, the violence in each instance stemming from racial tensions…the lesson appropriately was in mind that where tempers are hot, precaution must be intense.
●The ex-DDA disputes Garcetti’s contention that the Santa Monica Courthouse was in too sorry a state, in the aftermath of the Jan. 17, 1994, Northridge earthquake, to accommodate the Simpson case. Bugliosi says a court administrator advised him that the facility had been repaired “by the time Garcetti transferred the Simpson case downtown.”
“With all due respect to Vince—who I know and I like—Vince is simply wrong on that.”
There were, he says, “holes in the wall, holes in the ceiling” of the courthouse. Hodgman notes that he had “been out there,” and also had received reports on the condition of the structure.
He comments that Bugliosi “simply did not” prepare his book in the manner in which he prepared his cases as a prosecutor, “thoughtfully, comprehensively.” Hodgman relates that Bugliosi admitted to him that he “rushed to get his book out” after what Bugliosi originally intended to be an article in Vanity Fair “morphed into a book project.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Hank Goldberg, a member of the Simpson prosecution team, recalls that the Santa Monica Courthouse, where he had been stationed, was “very badly damaged.” He says it was “closed for a time” for asbestos removal, and even after it reopened, “the walls of the various courtrooms did not go up to the ceiling.”
Mallano says that in light of the earthquake damage and configuration of the courthouse, “it would have been a nightmare” to hold the Simpson trial there.
Even aside from the earthquake damage, the 40-year-old structure simply wasn’t all that stable. On July 27, 1995—at a time when the Simpson trial was in progress—an incident occurred reminiscent of cowboy movies in which the good guy has been errantly placed in the hoosegow and gets out by forcing loose some stones in the rear wall (or a compatriot outside the jail ties a horse’s reins to the bars, with the equine pulling the bars from their base). A man who had been convicted of carjacking was able to extricate himself from a lock-up in the Santa Monica Courthouse by kicking a hole in the wall, comprised merely of plaster and chicken wire. He escaped into the building’s inner passages…and it took about 28 hours for authorities to find him in a crawl space.
Then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Neidorf (since retired) is quoted in the Aug. 1, 1995, edition of the Daily News as saying “security stinks” in the courthouse and suggesting: “The county should build a criminal courts building somewhere on the Westside and have this one for civil cases.”
Mallano now observes: “The proof of the pudding is that they don’t do criminal cases there anymore.”
The Airport Courthouse, on La Cienega Boulevard, is the West District’s criminal justice center. It officially opened Dec. 13, 1999, and full-fledged operations commenced in February 2000.
If Garcetti had made the call that the Simpson trial would be held at CCB, he would not have acted contrary to his duty to seek a conviction. There was a manifest need for high level security, which would not have existed at the Santa Monica Courthouse. The piggies who constructed that house used straw, and the piggies downtown had recently shored up the house with bricks.
●Bugliosi goes on to declare: “Nothing, however, is more personally odious to me than the DA’s office saying that one of the factors considered in transferring the case downtown was that the downtown courthouse could better accommodate the [news] media.” He thunders: “[S]ince when is justice not the only concern” and asks, rhetorically: “Since when should justice be jeopardized in any way at all by media considerations? If our society doesn’t take murder, the ultimate crime, seriously, what do we take seriously anymore?”
Hopefully, what we do not take seriously is Bugliosi’s melodramatics.
Obviously, murder is taken seriously by society, and by Garcetti—whom Bugliosi blames for causing the trial to occur in the CCB— and by Mallano and Mills who actually determined that it be set there.
No one regarded the gruesome murder of two persons as trivial. (By virtue of there being multiple victims, and possibly on the basis of torture, special circumstances could have been alleged which, if found true, could have led to the death penalty had there been a conviction. Seeking the death penalty had been contemplated, though Garcetti did decide against it.)
Bugliosi terms the “transfer” of the case downtown a “monumental blunder, one that all by itself was a reason for the miscarriage of justice in the Simpson case.” In other words, the cause of “justice” dictated a conviction, and nothing else, certainly not the interests of the press, mattered.
In looking at accommodation of the news media without even considering the public’s right to know what transpires in a court proceeding, a pragmatic consideration emerges. An element of security was the need for crowd control—and a large part of the crowd was compromised of reporters and technical crews.
Hordes of reporters were here from all over the nation, all over the world. Members of the news media were crammed into space on the 12th Floor, and those for whom there wasn’t room there had the opportunity to buy spots for trailers across the street in a parking lot, dubbed “Camp O.J.”
A Feb. 15, 1996, article in the Orange County Register recites that the “logistics were staggering: 2,000 journalists, 1,300 passes, 50 news organizations, 31 full-size broadcast trailers, 80 miles of cable snaking in and around the county courthouse.” It quotes the court’s public information officer as saying that there were 250 phone hookups inside the CCB and 650 in Camp O.J.
Orderliness was not altogether achieved...but what was a “media circus” downtown might well have been in Santa Monica “media pandemonium.”
Tomorrow, I’ll take a further look at Bugliosi’s “Outrage.”
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company