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Man behind Simpson guilty verdict

It was the rookie lawyer versus the hall of fame defendant, whose dream team had just convinced the jury in the criminal case that O.J. Simpson was not guilty. Ten years later, for Dan Petrocelli, the civil trial still seems like yesterday.
Dan Petrocelli
Dan PetrocelliDateline NBC
/ Source: Dateline NBC

When he took on the O.J. Simpson case, attorney Dan Petrocelli had only argued one case start to finish before a jury. By his own admission, he was the last person in the world Fred Goldman should have hired for his wrongful death lawsuit. It was the rookie lawyer versus the hall of fame defendant, whose dream team had just convinced the jury in the criminal case that Simpson was not guilty. Ten years later, for Dan Petrocelli, the civil trial still seems like yesterday.

Dan Petrocelli: "I wish the country could have seen Simpson lie over and over and over again. Because then there would not be anybody rational or reasonable who would believe in his innocence."

The evidence is still fresh for Dan Petrocelli, the man who succeeded where prosecutors failed, convincing a jury that O.J. Simpson was responsible for the deaths of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. Because it was broadcast live on national TV, the evidence in Simpson's criminal trial is seared into our memories. To avoid another media circus, Petrocelli and his legal team asked that cameras be banned at the civil trial.

But in retrospect, Pertocelli wishes all of America could have been watching as different trial rules allowed him to present evidence the *criminal* jury never heard.

Stone Phillips: "You had things they didn't have during the criminal trial."

Petrocelli: "The single biggest advantage that we enjoyed in this civil case was that we had the ability to call O.J. Simpson to the stand and force him to testify."

While the trial itself wasn't televised, some of Simpson's testimony was recorded. Petrocelli claims the tapes capture Simpson lying about virtually every key issue in the case -- starting with the cuts on his hands.

Question: "How did you suffer the cut on your middle finger?"
Simpson: "I broke a glass when I was in Chicago."

Remember that well-publicized story about Simpson cutting his hand on a broken glass in a Chicago hotel room? That's what Simpson said under oath during the civil trial.

Question: "Exactly how did you cut it with the glass?
Simpson: "I was trying to scoop the glass into the sink.

But Petrocelli says there was plenty of evidence that's not really the way it happened, including Simpson's very first interview with police the day after the murders. Although he mentioned Chicago, he told detectives he cut himself before that, back has his house.

Petrocelli: "He said, ‘I got it at my house last night, while I was rushing to get ready to go to the airport.’ This is all on a tape.

Simpson: "It was cut before, but I think I just opened it again. I'm not sure ..."
LAPD: "Do you recall bleeding at all in the -- in your truck, in the Bronco?"
Simpson: "I recall bleeding at my house and then I went to the  -- the Bronco."

Simpson remembered bleeding, but wasn't sure why.

LAPD: "How did you get the injury on your hand?"
Simpson: "I don't know. "

Petrocelli: "So Simpson admitted to the detectives that he suffered a major wound to his finger that dripped blood all over his house, at the very same time that the murders occurred. And when they asked him, ‘Okay, well how did you get that cut?’ He said, ‘I don't know man.’"

LAPD: "What do you think happened? Do you have any idea?"
Simpson: "I have no idea, man."

And it wasn't just one cut. There were others -- made by fingernails, Petrocelli argued, as Simpson's victims fought for their lives.

Phillips: "Not just a big one on his one finger."

Petrocelli: "He had 10 other smaller cuts, for a total of 11. And when I asked him, repeatedly, how he got those cuts, he was unable to tell the jury."

And then there was the issue of whether Simpson ever abused Nicole. Simpson flatly denied it.

Tape: "Never once did I ever hit her with my fist, ever … Never once have I ever slapped Nicole."

Petrocelli: "That stands out as one of the most powerful moments of the trial. We put up a big image on a television screen, of a photograph of Nicole Brown Simpson. She had that photograph, preserved by putting it in a safe deposit box."

Phillips: "This was the 1989 incident?"

Petrocelli: "This was a New Year's Eve 1989 beating that she suffered at the hands of Simpson."

A screaming woman had called 911. Police found Nicole cowering in the bushes outside. Simpson was charged with spousal battery and pleaded no contest.

Petrocelli: "And there was a very vivid photograph of it. And we displayed the photograph that was within two feet of where Simpson was sitting on the witness stand."

Phillips: "It was withering questioning. ‘How many times did you strike Nicole?’ ‘Never.’ ‘How many times did you slap Nicole?’ ‘Never.’ ‘How many times did you beat her, sir?’ ‘Never.’

Petrocelli: "And yet the jury could see, looking at this pitiful picture of this woman who now lay dead in the grave, that she had been beaten to a pulp. And Simpson was lying to the jury about probably the most important issue in the case."

And there were the shoes.

Question: "Do you know why the shoe prints found at Bundy matched Bruno Magli shoes?"
Simpson: "No."

Instead of focusing on the bloody gloves, like at the criminal trial, Petrocelli focused on those rare size-12 Bruno Magli shoes. Under oath, Simpson had claimed he never wore them.

Question: "Did you ever buy shoes that you knew were Bruno Magli shoes?"
Simpson: "No."
Question: "How do you know that?"
Simpson: "Because I know if Bruno Magli makes shoes that look like the shoes they had in court that's involved in this case, I would have never worn those ugly ass shoes."

Simpson claimed that a single photograph that seemed to show him wearing the murder shoes was a fake --but midway through the trial, there was a dramatic development.

Phillips: "There was a Christmas recess during the civil trial, and you got a little present sent during the break."

Petrocelli: "Well wouldn't you know, someone delivered 31 additional photographs of Simpson wearing the murder shoes."

Photographers covering the Buffalo Bills had taken them nine months before the murder, photo after photo with Simpson in the same "ugly ass" shoes.

Petrocelli: "So we called him back to the stand and we said, ‘Now Mr. Simpson, you said that this first photograph was doctored. Are you saying the next one is doctored, and the next one?’ And we proceeded to show him picture after picture, until the jurors couldn't even look at him anymore. And they started looking down at their shoes. And it was as obvious as it could possibly be that a witness was lying."

For Petrocelli, it was a mountain of evidence, all collected in the so-called "war room" across from the courthouse. He admitted he became so immersed in the detail, he forgot almost everything else.

Phillips: "Is it true that you were so obsessed with this case that you forgot to pay your phone bill?"

Petrocelli: "All true. Forgot to pay the phone bill, the utility bills, the electricity was turned off, the phones were turned off. I was totally consumed by this case."

It was a year after the criminal trial, more than two years since the murders, and finally, after 49 days of testimony, the case was going to the jury.

Phillips: "After six days of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict. What do you remember most about that moment?"

Petrocelli: "That moment is suspended in time for me…There were literally thousands of people outside and cramming the halls inside. And then to hear the clerk announce the verdict."

Petrocelli: "I just closed my eyes and thanked God for prayers had been answered."

Phillips: "And when you open them, who were you looking at?"

Petrocelli: "Fred Goldman… I looked at Fred Goldman and I was so proud and privileged to have represented him. There was a very strong feeling that resonated throughout the country, following the Simpson criminal trial, that the system was broken. And so people were losing confidence in their legal system. And the Simpson civil case helped restore a measure of that confidence."

Phillips: "The jurors in the civil case did not have the power to send O.J. Simpson to jail. But they did hand out a pretty stiff financial punishment: $33.5 million."

Petrocelli: "To this day, Mr. Simpson has not paid a nickel of that judgment out of his own pocket."

The court auctioned off some of Simpson's property, including his Heisman trophy. But Simpson moved to Florida, where state law protects his Miami area home and much of his income, including $300,000 a year in pensions from his NFL football days.

Phillips: "If he has dodged this financial punishment, how does it restore faith in the system?"

Petrocelli: "Well it's not a perfect solution. The case was about branding Simpson as a killer. And the fact that Simpson has to wear this badge for eternity, that a jury of his peers found unanimously that he was a killer, is really the best that the civil system could do."

And Simpson may have dodged more than just that multi-million dollar verdict. After the civil trial, Petrocelli says he thinks Simpson should have faced new criminal charges for lying under oath.

Phillips: "Particularly the issue of the shoes, on the issue of domestic violence, could he have been wrung up on charges of perjury?"

Petrocelli: "Simpson could easily have been tried and convicted on perjury charges, had the district attorney's office pressed the issue."

Phillips: "What kind of a penalty might that have carried?"

Petrocelli: "Imprisonment for some period of time."

What's more, Petrocelli thinks there may be others still free who played a role in one of the most publicized crimes in American history.

Phillips: "Do you still believe O.J. Simpson had an accomplice, someone who helped him try to cover his trail?"

Petrocelli: "Simpson was the lone killer. But I believe that there were close friends of his who helped him clean up afterwards."

But Petrocelli says after authorities lost the criminal trial, they didn't seem interested in pursuing that or charging Simpson himself with perjury.

Phillips: "Did you raise that with the prosecutor's office?"

Petrocelli: "We made some inquiries, but they had had enough. And they perhaps believed that the city had had enough. They wanted just to move on."

Petrocelli has moved on, too, to another high profile case you've probably heard about. Petrocelli is defending Jeffrey Skilling, one of the figures in the Enron scandal, vowing to prove he's a scapegoat, wrongly accused.

But no matter how many times he goes to trial, Petrocelli admits nothing will matter more than the case that began 10 years ago, along a street called South Bundy.

Petrocelli: "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about this case, Stone. I moved a year ago, and on my way to work every day, I drive by the murder scene every single day."

Phillips: "On South Bundy."

Petrocelli: "And I'm quiet for the rest of the ride into the office. And I think about Ron Goldman and I think about Nicole Brown Simpson, two people I never met. But that somehow I've grown to know like my closest friends."