The O.J. Verdict
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interviews: william hodgman
william hodgman

As assistant district attorney for the city of Los Angeles, Willliam Hodgman was one of the lead prosecutors, arguing pretrial motions and working on the jury selection process. However, in late January 1995, he took on a less prominent role due to health reasons. In this interview, he explains the prosecution's reasons for making Simpson's domestic violence a key part of their case -- and one that had little impact on the jury -- as well as their decision to use Detective Mark Fuhrman, despite knowing about his previous racist remarks. Hodgman discusses how, in retrospect, he might have handled the case differently, but feels that it probably would have mattered little in the end. He believes the public, and possibly the jurors, were seeking "payback." "This is cognitive dissonance: this feeling, this sentiment that somehow the score was going to be even by acquitting O.J.," Hodgman tells FRONTLINE. "I have no idea if those jurors … felt that maybe O.J. did it, but that they were simply going to let him go -- a jury nullification -- or, if they really carefully deliberated and felt that somehow the evidence was inadequate." This interview was conducted on April 4, 2005.

What was the O.J. Simpson trial all about? Was this just a murder trial, or was it something else as well?

... I've often likened the O.J. Simpson case to a perfect storm, a crashing together of these external dynamics of celebrity, of media, of race, of enormous financial resources, all thrown together and achieving this sort of alchemic reaction that was the O.J. Simpson experience.

And you're accurate when you question whether this was a trial. Indeed, it was a trial, but I can tell you I've tried many murder cases, and I've never had a case that felt less like a murder trial than the Simpson case.

Why?

Because of the swirl of media, the unusual dynamics. Everything seemed sensationalized. It became more of a phenomenon -- to some degree a spectacle -- than a more sober, serious trial.

What was your role in the trial?

Well, initially I had an administrative position in the office. I had oversight over our Special Trials Division. When circumstances arose that we had to proceed to a preliminary hearing very early, the district attorney at the time, Gil Garcetti, asked me to work with [prosecutor] Marcia Clark to get through the prelim. The preliminary hearing took about a week. At the conclusion, Mr. Garcetti asked me to stay on, and so I took a more active role in the case. Marcia Clark and I argued the pretrial motions. We performed the jury-selection aspect of the case together, and then, as we approached trial per se, my role was much more limited thereafter.

In retrospect, does the selection of a predominantly black, female jury appear to have been a big obstacle to the prosecution's case?

My job is to try and bring home justice ä so that everyone feels like the system works. And we failed at that in the Simpson case. We failed for the Browns; we failed for the Goldmans.

Well, it took us 11 weeks to pick a jury, and that was the most arduous jury-selection process I had ever been through. The dynamics were quite palpable. There was quite a bit of hostility emanating towards us on the prosecution side. The racial dynamics were certainly palpable in the courtroom. The playing of the "race card" was something that occurred very early on in the case, and you could feel it. You could feel that dynamic even during the course of jury selection.

How?

Well, for instance, at one point in time, the two defense attorneys in court, Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran, determined that I was asking questions differently of African American jurors as opposed to non-African American jurors. And during one break in the jury-selection proceedings, they both ran to the different media spots in the courthouse to announce this to the entire country. And the implicit message was somehow I was being racist. And both of them know me, and both of them know that I am certainly not that way. And yet that was something that they felt gave them some sort of tactical advantage, and so they played the card.

Do you really think so?

Absolutely. ... I've read quotes by Shapiro where he said indeed they played the race card, and they dealt it from the bottom of the deck. I can't speak for Bob, but from observing him and from reading some of his later comments, I think while he may have been willing to play the race card in the beginning, I don't think he liked the way the race card was played, particularly after Johnnie Cochran took control of the defense case.

But didn't the entire case have to do with the defendant's race? Wasn't it more of a "race deck" than a race card?

Well, there was an environment that was conducive to the defense playing that card. The O.J. Simpson trial occurred not terribly long after the Rodney King phenomenon here in Los Angeles, and for many African Americans, their experience on the streets of Los Angeles was one where they felt they had been unfairly treated by the LAPD. And as a result, that attitude, that atmosphere, carried over into the case. Had the O.J. Simpson case been tried five years later, perhaps that dynamic would not have been as powerful as it was. ...

Did that environment have anything to do with the prominent role [attorney] Christopher Darden played in the prosecution?

Chris Darden came into the case to handle a discreet side aspect of the case, an investigation that needed to be conducted while we were on the run, moving forward with the main case, vis-à-vis O.J. Simpson. Marcia was more familiar with Chris and knew him to be a good investigative attorney. Not all attorneys are good at coordinating an investigation. Mr. Darden was operating on a parallel course, you might say, while we were moving forward with the main case. And again, it was Marcia Clark and I who selected the jury. We were the ones that went through the almost three months of jury selection on the case.

When Mr. Darden finished his discreet aspect of the case, we now had someone who was up to speed as an attorney on a lot of the factual material surrounding the case, and we were finding out at that time that the sheer management of the case was becoming difficult if Marcia Clark and I were sitting in court all day long and then trying to deal with the management of the case at 5:00 p.m. when we got out of court. So a decision was made to give Chris a more prominent role in court, and I would assume more of my natural role as a manager.

But you noticed that Darden was black.

Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And I don't think it escaped anyone's attention that it achieved some sort of balance perhaps, regarding Johnnie Cochran. But the way in which Chris became involved in the courtroom was [another] manner, [though] the end results, and perhaps the perception, was the same. ...

What was the prosecution's strategy?

The strategy of the prosecution was to successfully and persuasively prove the case against O.J. Simpson. An integral part of that strategy was to first attempt to knock O.J. Simpson off that celebrated pedestal that we knew he enjoyed based upon his exploits as a college football player, as a professional football player, as a sportscaster, as an actor, if you will. We knew he enjoyed a very positive public image, and we wanted to commence the trial with evidence of the history of spousal abuse of Nicole Brown at the hands of O.J. Simpson.

And we hoped to establish a historical context. ... These were murders which occurred as part of a cycle of domestic violence, and it wasn't just a drop-from-the-sky episode. So we led with the domestic violence evidence and did not proceed to prove up the facts of the corpus of the crime -- that is, the murders of Ron [Goldman] and Nicole -- until we had established this history.

And after that, the effort went into proving up that the person who committed these horrible crimes, who slaughtered Nicole Brown, who slaughtered Ron Goldman, was in fact O.J. Simpson, and through the DNA evidence, the blood evidence, the fiber evidence, the hair evidence, the circumstantial evidence connecting all the crime scenes, that we felt it would paint a very compelling picture that it was indeed O.J. Simpson who committed these horrible crimes.

Why didn't it work?

Well, ultimately, as far as the domestic violence evidence, it appeared that it was a situation of what they call cognitive dissonance. It was just a refusal to either accept or to value that evidence of abuse, of Simpson beating Nicole and the evidence of O.J. Simpson being convicted by the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office of spousal abuse.

The other evidence that we presented we found in Nicole's safety deposit locker, where apparently she took Polaroid pictures of herself battered and left indication that O.J. did this to [her]. It was a very heartrending, poignant, sad train of evidence that led ultimately to her murder.

And yet it didn't impress the jury?

It did not impress the jury, and we knew that even midstream in trial, where after several jurors were excused for a variety of reasons, they were interviewed, and their reports became known in the press and in the media that they didn't understand why the prosecution spent all that time proving up the history of domestic violence. They felt it had nothing to do with the murder case. It had everything to do with the murder case, but the jury didn't get it. ...

Was the testimony of Detective Mark Fuhrman really necessary to the prosecution's case?

Mark Fuhrman ... was problematic. Interestingly enough, for all of his tortured history with the LAPD in terms of trying to obtain a stress disability from LAPD at one point and everything that went along with that, I personally feel that by the time he was a detective out at the West L.A. division of the LAPD, he was a good cop; he was a good detective. And from all the people I talked to, the people he worked with, the people he interacted with, he was a different man than he was earlier, when he apparently was trying to obtain a stress disability off the LAPD.

His detective work at the Bundy crime scene [location of Nicole's condo] in particular was good work while he was still on the case. Some of his other work, when he was up at Rockingham, O.J. Simpson's home, was very intuitive and very sharp. And he was the one who indeed found the bloody glove at Rockingham. He was the one that followed the information that [O.J. lodger] Kato Kaelin had provided the detectives who were there. And it was Mark Fuhrman who took the initiative to go look and see what might have led to the strange noises that Kato Kaelin heard. And in the course of that he found the glove which was saturated with the blood of Nicole Brown, Ron Goldman and Simpson himself.

But he perjured himself on the stand regarding his use of the "n" word.

Well, the blood evidence didn't evaporate. The blood evidence remained, and frankly, that was the core of the case. In Judge [Lance] Ito's mind, in the minds of most people who were experienced with the criminal justice system, the blood evidence told the tale. The blood evidence connected the Bundy scene with the Rockingham scene in the form of the Bronco; Nicole's blood, Ron's blood and O.J.'s blood [was] found in the Bronco as well. Objectively, that chain of evidence was very, very compelling to those who were open to it.

But he was racist. Did that have no bearing on your case, on your decision to use his testimony?

Again, that tapped back into the celebrity and race dynamic that was coursing through this case. Bob Shapiro told me one morning during the trial, he said: "You know, of all the people on the LAPD, of the 7,000 blue suits who were available to have been at the Rockingham crime scene, it has to be Mark Fuhrman, the one with that history, who picks up the glove. The glove is a key piece of evidence, and it has to be Mark Fuhrman." That was a quirk of happenstance that is part of the case, but it certainly played into the strategy of the defense.

What would you have done differently if you could go back and retry this case?

Well, I think there are things that could have been done differently, stylistically, from even having a different array of lawyers and the like. But substantively, the case was pretty much there. I think I would have tried to compress the DNA evidence. It took us an intolerably long period of time to get the DNA evidence presented. Not all of that was our fault. We had [attorneys] Mr. [Barry] Scheck and [Peter] Neufeld on the other side, who adroitly prolonged the examination of that evidence.

In terms of other things, there was a myth associated with the case, if you will, that somehow Gil Garcetti moved the case from the Santa Monica Judicial District or the West Judicial District downtown, and that was not the case. At the time, all long-cause cases in Los Angeles County were being tried on the very floor, in the very courthouse, here in downtown L.A. where the O.J. Simpson case was tried. Many, many cases, from Pomona to Long Beach to the Valley and elsewhere, which had a time estimate of three weeks or more all were being sent downtown, and unfortunately, it was a lot of murder cases, because the long-cause courtrooms could process those cases, try those cases faster. It was something that had been a subject of some dispute between my office and the courts.

So then you had some choice in deciding where the case would be tried?

Well, we had a choice. We could have very well filed the case in Santa Monica. And if we could have done something differently to avoid all the grief that flowed thereafter, it would have been smarter for our office to have filed the case in Santa Monica. And then, if the court wanted to move the case downtown or the defense wanted to move the case downtown, they could have brought their motion, and it would have been granted or denied, appealed or not. But by practically filing the case where we knew it was going to end up, it has generated a lot of controversy, and again, I think some of that controversy has been unfair to some people.

Because it gave the impression that the district attorney was choosing a venue where it would be guaranteed many black jurors?

Yeah, I think some people felt that that was pandering to the black community by having it here. It had nothing to do with that at all really. It was the practical awareness that the case was going to be tried here, so let's not beat around the bush. Let's get the case cued up, and let's get it going.

How would you have handled things differently?

If it were up to me, if I were the elected D.A. or had that sort of horsepower, I would have filed the case in Santa Monica. Now, interestingly, since the O.J. case, that is precisely what is done. The cases are filed in the appropriate venue, and it's something the courts now recognize and insist upon. It's something that my office is certainly much more sensitive to. That was one of the byproducts of the Simpson case, is that there was a sense in the O.J. case of justice not done, and in part because of the location where the case was tried. Now there is a greater awareness by the courts and by our office to try the case in the community where the crime occurred.

Did the O.J. Simpson trial change anything about the criminal justice system?

Absolutely. Some years ago, I was speaking to a group of forensic criminalists in Colorado, and the basic subject matter of my remarks had to do with high-profile cases and media cases and the like. And during a break, a criminalist from the state of Colorado came up to me, and he said, "You know, O.J. was the case that changed everything." And it's true.

I've talked to groups of judges, prosecutors, detectives, civic leaders, cops, criminalists throughout the country, and all of them talk about the O.J. Simpson case as kind of a benchmark. And many of them took the O.J. Simpson case as a catalyst, as inspiration to examine their own procedures and protocols. ... What if [they] had a case of this magnitude occur in their community? How would they react? How would the coroner's office react? How would they protect the integrity of their evidence? What sort of resources would have to be drawn upon in order to affect the trial of the case?

Many a detective, many a criminalist looked at what was happening to [Detective] Phil Vannatter and Dennis Fung from the LAPD crime lab, and thought, there but for the grace of God go I. And so they took steps to improve how they went about their business, to do it better. So in that sense, and I think in a systemic sense, [the case] changed rules here in California [from] attorney commentary during a trial to how judges now more rigorously enforce the jury service and compel people to come in and follow up with prospective jurors. ... All of these things have happened as a result of O.J.

I think one thing that has happened as well is that judges are more reluctant to allow the gavel-to-gavel [TV] coverage. And we've seen that in many instances, and I've talked to many of the judges who have been involved in those trials, and they all look back at the O.J. case and said: "I learned a lesson from that. I'm not going to do it the same way."

Would we have learned those lessons if Simpson had been convicted?

No, I don't think so. I think a conviction in the Simpson case would have cured a lot of ills, a lot of the excesses, a lot of the missteps that were involved in the whole O.J. phenomenon in terms of the trial of the case, the judicial oversight of the case. There would have been a sense held by many -- I would say the majority -- that justice had been done. And even though stylistically it could have been done better, I don't think the lessons would have been learned. It was the sense of injustice, of justice gone awry, that caused this sort of examination of the roles of the media, of how society views celebrity down to the level of how a criminalist picks up a blood sample at a crime scene and the avoidance of potential contamination. All of these things were affected by the Simpson case.

So some good came out of it?

There was certainly good that came out of it. Some people have suggested to me that it took the train wreck of the Simpson case, that judicial disaster, to bring about this sort of reform and to heighten the awareness of the importance of jury service by everyone, to heighten the awareness of domestic violence in our society, and how for a long time it could be argued the system [turned] a blind eye to the scourge of domestic violence.

And quite frankly, I had seen, going into the Simpson [trial], an increasing trend towards more and more cameras in the courtroom, allowing the sort of gavel-to-gavel coverage. And I have nothing against the public's right to know, but I question at what expense. Do we allow this at the expense of justice?

And my job is to try and bring home justice, to make the system work so that everyone feels like the system works. And we failed at that in the Simpson case. We failed for the Browns; we failed for the Goldmans. To this day, I have people come up to me, sometimes with tears in their eyes, holding their toddler, asking: "Are things going to be all right? Is our system so broken that it can't work?" And that's all because of their impression, their perception of the Simpson case. Part of the reason I remain a public prosecutor, a deputy DA, to this day is to try and make it right and try and say, "You know, if we work a little harder and do it a little better, the system can work."

Do you think the system failed in the O.J. Simpson case?

I think the system did not work. I think the verdicts were an injustice, a failure of justice. And I felt they were wrong. And I felt they were wrong for the wrong reasons.

What reasons?

Well, I think the all too brief amount of time that the jurors spent with the case was indicative of the fact that there was no true deliberation. There was a conclusion that was sought. And to borrow a phrase from Johnnie Cochran about how the LAPD rushed to judgment, I think at the end of the case, there was a rush to judgment in favor of O.J. Simpson. And in light of the evidence that was presented, I think that was the wrong result.

Have views about the verdict changed at all within the African American community?

Since the trial, I've spoken with many African Americans, and many have come up and told me how supportive they were of our case, of the prosecution and our effort, and that they felt that Simpson was guilty. And that sort of response has been very encouraging to me. And frankly, I have received more of that response than I have had in terms of a negative reaction, like "You guys were way out of line prosecuting O.J." -- that sort of thing.

How do you explain the images of the black community rejoicing at the O.J. acquittal?

I think it can be summed up in four words: payback for Rodney King.

The afternoon after the verdicts came in, I was in my office, and after having spent time briefly with the Brown family, more time with the Goldman family, attempting to console them as well as console the junior members of our own team who were quite distraught over the verdicts, ... there was a knock at the door, and a couple deputy sheriffs came in. They had been with the group of deputies who had transported the jurors who had been sequestered out to a sheriff substation to be released back to their loved ones and boyfriends and others. And they described the scene as joyous, high-fiving, smiles, laughter, hugs. And these two deputies told me, they said: "Bill, you guys never had a chance. We were standing there in the parking lot, and all we could hear was, 'That was payback for Rodney King. That was payback for Rodney King.'"

And that sank in about just how powerful that sentiment was, how powerful that feeling was in that segment of the community. Now, years later, I happened to meet one of the jurors, who happened to be white, but he was a juror who had been excused from the panel almost midway through. And he told me in almost the exact same words what he had observed and saw with the jury panel when we were still in the midst of trying the case and before this juror had been excused. And he said, "Bill, you guys never really had a chance." He said, "I was hearing from the very beginning of the case, 'This is going to be payback for Rodney King. This is going to be payback for Rodney King.'"

So this is cognitive dissonance: this feeling, this sentiment that somehow the score was going to be even by acquitting O.J. And I have no idea if those jurors who voted that way felt that maybe O.J. did it, but that they simply were going to let him go -- a jury nullification -- or if they really carefully deliberated in their own minds and felt that somehow the evidence was inadequate.

When did you know you had lost the case?

I could not read the jury. I didn't know what to expect. We had had some jury readback the first day of so-called deliberations, and the readback had to do with a witness, Allan Park, the limousine driver, who I felt was a very good witness for us -- in many ways, one of the critical witnesses in the whole case. So I felt encouraged by the fact that that readback had occurred, but I didn't know how to place it: How did this come up? Why did they need to hear that? And it was not long thereafter that we received word that the jury had verdicts and that the verdicts were going to be taken the next day. And I looked at my watch, and I thought, they couldn't have deliberated. There are issues of first- and second-degree murder. There's thoughtfulness, there's a mountain of evidence that has to be reviewed and determined, and I didn't see how anyone exercising reason or common sense could come to conclusions one way or the other that fast.

But I didn't know that going into the next day. I was certainly hopeful. And as I stood there in court, any trial attorney will tell you, time seems to stand still in that ritual as the verdicts come around and the judge reviews them and then ultimately the clerk reads them. Your heart stops as you listen to the first words: "We, the jury in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty." My first reaction, quite frankly, was I went numb. I literally felt like I lost all feeling and almost had what you might call an out-of-body experience. And I had to check myself: Did I just hear that, or did I imagine that? And I knew it was true when from behind me and to my right I could hear the sound of Kim Goldman's just heartbreaking sobs. It just cut through everything and cut through this little fog I felt myself in, and I realized it's true; they've walked O.J. Simpson. And that's when I knew.

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posted oct. 4, 2005

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