Hearing about the death of F. Lee Bailey, triggered memories of an old and wonderful comedy bit from Harry Shearer, with Harry doing the voices of both Bailey and O.J. Simpson on the phone. The call has Bailey complaining to O.J. with words similar to, “Juice, they’re taking away my shingle,” and Simpson, completely missing the point, replying with something about Bailey needing to look around to find a good roofer.
After starting off with a huge bang, with the acquittal of Sam Sheppard, F. Lee Bailey had, to say the least, an interesting career, culminating with his membership on the Simpson criminal trial “Dream Team,” and ending with his disbarment in Florida, Massachusetts and Maine. At one time, Bailey was arguably, one of the two best known barristers in America, the other being Melvin Belli, who famously brought in his yacht from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, so he’d have a place to stay along with the services of his personal chef while he went after one of the tobacco companies in a local courtroom. I was there for that one too, but that’s another story.
F. Lee Bailey, may or may not have had a yacht, but he was right up there with Melvin Belli. Beyond being a legal heavyweight, he was an icon in the world of American jurisprudence. Consequently, it was a monumental development when we learned that he had signed on to take the lead in the defense of football icon, O.J. Simpson, charged with the slasher/stabbing deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown and her friend, Ron Goldman, who apparently happened upon the murder scene while trying to return some eyeglasses that were left at Mezzaluna, a west Los Angeles eatery where he worked as a server.
Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman weren’t just murdered, they were brutally punished, suffering multiple stab wounds to the face and scalp. Goldman was also stabbed in his neck. Brown had her throat severed, nearly to the spinal cord.
The problems for Simpson were numerous, including the fact that his blood had been found by police criminalists all over the place. At the murder scene, in his Ford Bronco and back at his house on Rockingham. Simpson’s blood, mixed in with the blood of Nicole Brown, was found on socks in an upstairs bedroom. There was also the famous bloody glove discovered by Mark Fuhrman behind Kato Kaelin’s bungalow in Simpson’s backyard. It held Simpson’s blood along with the blood of both victims. It was the same for Simpson’s Bronco, where criminalists found blood from Simpson, Goldman and Brown.
For his part, Johnnie Cochran, hammered away with his contentions that some blood from a vial the LAPD had, may have been “missing,” and that the prosecution’s evidence was generally “a cesspool of contamination.” As the blood evidence kept coming in some reporters privately began referring to Simpson as “the guiltiest man ever to be framed.”
There was also, and perhaps most damning of all, an eyewitness who said she saw Simpson racing away from the Bundy murder scene in his white Ford Bronco shortly after the murders were committed. It fit perfectly into the timeline, but prosecutor Marcia Clark, chose not to put the eyewitness, Jill Shively, on the stand, because she had been paid by a media outlet for her story prior to the trial.
So the jury never heard a word from the one and only person who could testify to seeing Simpson near the scene on the night of the murders. Nor was it ever discussed as to why the big Akita dog that lived with Nicole, apparently did nothing to drive off the person or persons that attacked her.
Based upon the blood evidence alone, things did not look good for O.J Simpson, commonly called “The Juice,” a nickname that went back to his days with the Buffalo Bills. The Bills offensive line was called “The Electric Company,” which would “turn on the Juice” by opening holes for O.J., who almost always gained yardage. But this time, as Jeffrey Toobin so aptly put it in the title of his book, O.J., was in for “The Run Of His Life.” It looked like The Juice was going to need every legal tool F. Lee Bailey had at his considerable disposal.
I first met F. Lee Bailey at the Criminal Courts Building in Los Angeles. I was on a pay phone in the lobby when I spotted the famous lawyer getting his shoes shined just a few feet away. He was sitting in the end chair on a bench containing several seats, so I sidled over and sat down next to him, introducing myself and telling him I was with KTLA-TV News. We started talking and I was shocked at how much he was willing to say. At about this same time, Furnell Chatman, a reporter for KNBC, saw what was happening and came over to Bailey’s other side. With me asking questions from one side and Chatman on the other, F. Lee Bailey, laid out his plan for the defense of O.J. Simpson.
According to Bailey, the murders were committed by unnamed Colombians in a white van. A bunch of dopers, who murdered Nicole using a method known as a “Colombian Necktie.” That is to say, they would cut someone’s throat and then pull the victim’s tongue through the hole in their neck in the fashion of a macabre necktie. It was done to send a message to someone, possibly because someone might have been double-crossed in a drug deal. Who knows why? Maybe Nicole Brown and her friends had gotten involved with some very dangerous people? The fact, Bailey argued, was that it had happened. The white van had been spotted by a witness. It was on the record and his client, poor O.J Simpson, was innocent of any and all wrong-doing. The police, he said, needed to go after the Colombians and not his client.
I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. The entire defense had been laid out for us. Chatman and I raced back to get in front of our live cameras on the 12th floor, where we both reported out what we had been told. According to F. Lee Bailey, the Colombians did it.
And that, friends, according to F. Lee Bailey, was the Dream Team’s original defense. Until Mark Fuhrman took the stand and lied about having used the “N-word.” With that, Johnnie Cochran took over, taking the focus off of Simpson and putting it on the L.A.P.D., forcing Bailey to play backup as Johnnie took the point in the trial of the century.
Even Judge Lance Ito was caught up in Cochran’s unending riptide of creating reasonable doubt, when it became known that Ito’s wife, LAPD Captain Peggy York, had been Mark Fuhrman’s boss at the police department’s West Los Angeles station. With that connection in play, it could be argued that Ito, never should have been given the case. It should also be said that no one had any idea of what was coming, of just how convoluted, angry and drawn-out the case would become with innumerable sidebars and a sequestered jury locked inside Ito’s jury room for hours and even days while Cochran and Clark did battle outside the presence of the jury with Ito struggling to control and contain a case that threatened to go off the rails at any moment.
Cochran went after Ito, like a bulldog with a chew toy, at one point reducing the judge to tears as he spoke of how much he loved his wife in open court. At the same time, Bailey, became almost irrelevant, to the point that some in the press corps began calling him “Flea.” This was the case, in spite of the fact that it was Bailey who had pulled the “N-word” testimony out of Mark Fuhrman, by questioning him “marine to marine” as the lawyer put it.
Why the jury bought into the arguments of Cochran, Bailey and the “Dream Team” continues to be open to debate. Some, including yours truly, believe it was as much a case of prosecutorial ineptitude and a judge who was unable to control his courtroom as it was a strong defense. For whatever reason, or perhaps we should say without the possibility of reason ruling the day, O.J. Simpson, was found to be “not guilty” and the theory about a gang of rogue Colombians, was never heard from again.