Final witness in Simpson trial riles defense lawyers


The O.J. Simpson armed robbery trial was all over but the shouting Wednesday.

Then the shouting began.

With the final witness in the 31/2-week trial on the stand, a misheard comment triggered a courtroom uproar that included cries of objection, scolds from the bench and calls for a mistrial that threatened to torpedo the trial so very close to its end.

The witness, Las Vegas police Detective Andy Caldwell, was testifying about meeting Thomas Scotto, a loyal Simpson friend. Scotto had testified on Simpson's behalf Wednesday morning.

Caldwell was asked how he had met Scotto in the courthouse hallway during Simpson's November preliminary hearing on charges related to the holdup of two sports memorabilia dealers at the Palace Station hotel. He said "Mrs. Scotto" had been kicked out of the courtroom for witness tampering, referring to Scotto's wife, Sabrina.

But defense lawyers heard Mr. instead of Mrs., and before Caldwell could finish his answer, the courtroom chaos was on.

Lawyers for Simpson and co-defendant Clarence "C.J." Stewart shouted objections and immediately asked for a mistrial.

"The only reason he said it was to kill the credibility of our sole and only defense witness," Simpson lawyer Yale Galanter said after the jury left the courtroom.

Even if District Judge Jackie Glass told the jury to ignore the comment, the prejudicial damage was done, they said.

"You cannot cure this. You cannot unring a bell like this," said Brent Bryson, a lawyer for Stewart.

Glass denied the motions for mistrial, saying she found it "hard to believe" Caldwell uttered the words to intentionally sabotage the trial. But that didn't stop her from scolding the detective.

"You put my case in jeopardy ... at this late stage, the very, very end of my case," Glass said sternly.

After prosecutor Christopher Owens finished questioning Caldwell in front of the jury, the panel again left the courtroom before more legal fireworks exploded between Owens and Galanter. The lawyers argued about whether Thomas Scotto had been kicked out of the preliminary hearing for making comments and gestures toward witnesses. By then Glass' patience had run out.

"I'm trying to get this trial back on track," she shouted. "I'm surprised you haven't seen my head spin around and fire come out of my mouth at this point."

Galanter empathized.

"It hurts me and my client the most," he said of Caldwell's comment. "So when you're talking about steam coming out of your ears and your head spinning, I can relate."

With calm restored about 45 minutes into the matter, Galanter watched the video of Caldwell's testimony to find out exactly what was said before beginning his questioning of the detective. The recording captured Caldwell saying Mrs., not Mr. Scotto, referring to Sabrina Scotto.

The defense lawyers said a mistrial was still called for, but the judge moved on and Caldwell clarified his answer in front of the jury.

With that, both sides rested their cases and began hammering out jury instructions. Court was scheduled to resume at 10:30 a.m. today with closing arguments followed by the start of jury deliberations.

In Wednesday's morning session, Thomas Scotto testified that two gunmen in the Palace Station robbery tried to extort him the next day.

"If I didn't give them $50,000, they would do whatever they had to do to get out of trouble," he said, referring to Walter Alexander and Michael McClinton.

Both men have pleaded guilty to reduced charges and testified for the prosecution.

Thomas Scotto also told the jury that he didn't call police immediately after the incident because he didn't want to push the matter, believing McClinton was a dangerous man who had threatened to "shoot everybody up."

He did contact police after receiving an Oct. 3 voice mail message from Alexander asking for help.

Alexander testified last week that he was asking for help to pay for a lawyer so he could fight the charges.

Thomas Scotto called Las Vegas police Oct. 9 about the voice mail and gave a phone statement to Caldwell. He also played the message through the phone so it could be recorded. He said he didn't mention the earlier extortion attempt on the call because police said they would schedule a later interview, but they never followed up with a phone call.

Prosecutors brought Caldwell to the stand to rebut that claim. The detective told the jury that he asked Scotto whether he had time for an interview when they met outside the courtroom during the preliminary hearing, but he said he didn't.

In earlier testimony, prosecutors tried to undermine Scotto's credibility by showing his loyalty to friends.

Under cross-examination by District Attorney David Roger, Scotto admitted he refused to help police identify Simpson friend and co-defendant Charles Ehrlich in hotel surveillance photos.

Roger also asked him whether he ever told Stewart he would put a murder contract on Alexander's head.

"Ridiculous," Scotto replied.

Roger told the court Stewart had given a statement to police about such a conversation.

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at bhaynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0281.

 

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