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The Unsung Hero of the O.J. Trials (Part I)

Dan Petrocelli - OJ Trials - Seattle Criminal Lawyer Blog

Dan Petrocelli.

What a guy! Moreover, what a lawyer! This guy demonstrates everything that is good about lawyers and lawyering. Which is great, because decent lawyers were few and far between around the O.J. Simpson cases.

As discussed previously, the O.J. trials had it all: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly… and, of course, being LA, the Beautiful People. The only thing it sorely lacked, in my not so humble opinion, was great lawyering.

Take the prosecutors for example. They weren’t horrible. But they weren’t great. Simply put, this case, and the memories of Nicole and Ron Goodman, deserved better. It’s not totally the prosecutors’ fault; they suffered from prosecutor-itis. It comes from years of perfecting “masterful” trial techniques, like repeating the same question over and over: “And then what happened?”


Or, my personal favorite, “Good Morning Officer”, followed by two hours of perfectly rehearsed professional witness testimony, delivered by a beaming Pepsodent smiling cop who has been trained to turn frequently towards the jurors, especially the more entranced women (or men), and beam those pearlies, while shrugging and smiling and ‘aw-shucksing’ their way through whatever it is they are told to say to get a conviction. Occasionally the prosecutor may need to add some brilliant repartee like, “What happened next?” But for the most part, they set their brains on auto pilot, while literally ticking off topics on their check lists, prepared by someone else, and just sit back and enjoy the ride.

It makes them lazy.

There were enough decent lawyers on the defense side, such as Barry Scheck, a fantastic trial attorney. He helped them get a not guilty verdict out of the favorably skewed jury pool, and getting that jury in place did take some decent legal work by the defense. But basically, my overall opinion of the huge defense attorney team, and that of most of my peers, was just “meh”.

Not so with Petrocelli. I admit that when I first saw him on TV, I despised him. Well, maybe despise is too strong of a word, but in those days I was so busy hating prosecutors that I couldn’t get past my inherent bias when I saw him on camera talking about how they were going to go after O.J. in a civil trial. It was insulting to my defense attorney self.

Looking back, I see that I was a bit over the top at the time, due in large part to working daily with a few especially corrupt and incompetent prosecutors up in Island County, who have fortunately all either been fired or ‘moved on’ since those days. I still fight with prosecutors daily, but I have learned to take it less personally. Well, most of the time. It can be hard when they are trying to lock up innocent people for long periods of time for crimes they did not commit. But I have learned that at times like that you have to put away your mad dog persona and drill down on strategy and tactics, objectively and thoroughly.

Petrocelli, as shown in the excellent A&E show about his work, did exactly that. He is a real lawyers’ lawyer, I now realize.

One thing I enjoy about writing these little ditties is that they keep me sharp. Not so much sharp about legal techniques and so on; my day job takes care of that. But sharp about finding out new information and making connections that had previously eluded me. This happened concerning Petrocelli, as I was researching his background just now.

Turns out I was a fan of his long before writing this; I just didn’t realize it. Didn’t put two and two together until I linked his work up online. You see, several years ago I was watching coverage of the Enron case. I know, it is a sick lawyer mind that craves TV coverage of big cases after working on them personally all day. Even right now, I have some major cases going on but still manage to relax by writing about other major cases.

It’s just my nature.

And it is obviously Petrocelli’s nature, too. Because what I saw that made me respect him so much has nothing to do with O.J.  In fact, until just a few moments ago, I did not even realize that the guy I saw talking about the Enron case was the same guy that went after O.J.

Ironically, what I enjoyed so much about his work on the Enron case was that he wasn’t going after a criminal defendant: he was going after the U.S. Government and their relentless pursuit of his client, Jeff Skilling, the Enron executive who took advantage of all those people who had put their trust in him before he basically stole their life savings.

Petrocelli was on camera, spewing righteous venom about the wicked evil U.S. Attorneys, always a fair point, and how they were railroading his client. It was a classic bit of stagecraft, working the public opinion machine with an intensity one rarely sees — unless it’s Trump talking about his hair. It was masterful, the way he was raging against the politically motivated “criminal justice” machine.  I told all of my lawyer friends to find that clip and watch it.

So imagine my surprise when I googled Petrocelli just now and realized that the righteous Enron guy was the same righteous guy who had vilified O.J. Now that is what great lawyering is all about. Going after the evil murderer so many people loved one day, attacking the precious federal legal system so many people worship the next. It’s how it’s supposed to be.

What was so great about his work on the O.J. trials? Well, pretty much everything. You really need to watch the recent TV shows to see for yourself. From beginning to end, he was flawless. The amazing thing is that he was not really even qualified to take the O.J. trials on:  he was a business lawyer. Ron Goldman’s dad found him through a civil client of Petrocelli’s, the owner of the Guess clothing company, who had taken an interest in the O.J. case (just like most of LA, and the country for that matter).

You see, for anyone who is too young to remember or who lives in a cave (hi trolls!), O.J. had been acquitted of murdering Nicole and Ron on that beautiful summer evening in L.A. That means the case was not proved beyond a reasonable doubt to a unanimous jury. However, in order to sue him for wrongful death, a civil case, you only need to prove that he did it by a preponderance of the evidence. Simply put, you have to prove that it was more likely than not that he did it, a much lower burden of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt.

The most amazing thing about Petrocelli’s work is that he took it on at all. Not only was he in way over his head, he was basically committing the entire resources of his firm to a case where there was no guarantee of ever being paid. After watching the A&E show I kind of wonder if he did this out of the goodness of his heart, or what? He obviously hoped to recover some money from the rich former football star, but it was pretty obvious that O.J. didn’t have two thin dimes to rub together after paying for his two million criminal lawyers.

It appears that Petrocelli was largely motivated by his desire to see that justice was done. Let’s face it, no matter how biased you might be (for whatever reason), there can be little doubt that O.J. did it. It’s one thing to be open-minded; it’s something altogether different to be stewpud.

That said, there are some interesting alternative theories about what happened here which are worth exploring in another post. For now I want to focus on Petrocelli and his work. I have tried to set the stage for what came next by describing who Petrocelli was and how he got involved in the O.J. trials. Now that we know who Petrocelli was, we need to talk about exactly what he did. Which I will do in my next post…

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