The bizarre saga of Rosa Lopez ended Friday, at least temporarily, with Judge Lance Ito imposing sanctions on two of O.J. Simpson’s lawyers - and stopping just short of reporting them to the California bar - for withholding from prosecutors an audiotaped interview with Lopez, an important defense witness, last summer.
Ito fined the lawyers - Johnnie Cochran Jr. and Carl Douglas - $950 each for failing to give prosecutors the recording, in which Simpson’s chief investigator questioned Lopez about the night of June 12.
Despite a battering cross-examination, Lopez remains Simpson’s most crucial alibi witness, having said she saw his Bronco outside his home when, prosecutors maintain, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were killed.
More stinging than the fine Ito levied, however, was his language. By assuring prosecutors and the court that the defense had handed over everything that California’s reciprocal discovery law requires, he wrote, Cochran “made untrue representations in reckless disregard of the truth.”
And Douglas, he noted, was a repeat offender, having been punished for discovery violations before.
Ito also ruled that should defense lawyers choose to play the videotape of Lopez’s testimony, the jurors will be told the defense violated the law. They will also be told that Simpson’s lawyers were responsible for delaying the case for four days.
“You may consider the effect of this delay in disclosure, if any, upon the credibility of the witness involved and give to it the weight to which you feel it is entitled,” the judge said he would tell the jury.
After Friday’s court session, Cochran reiterated that he had known nothing about the tape. But he would not say whether the defense planned to play for the jury Lopez’s often-shaky and contradictory testimony, a highly risky maneuver even before Ito’s ruling that it would come with an admonition attached to it.
Earlier, prosecutors who have spent the past two days challenging the precise time when Lopez, out walking her employers’ dog, said she saw Simpson’s Bronco, moved to show she remained so close to her home that night that she could not possibly have seen the car at all.
Before concluding her testimony - and, she insisted, returning to El Salvador - Lopez retraced the path she took shortly after 10 p.m. June 12, when she took her employers’ aged, arthritic golden retriever out for its evening constitutional.
The people for whom she worked, Lopez acknowledged, had forbidden her to take the tired animal to the street. But focusing on Lopez’s various phobias - of the darkness, of snakes and rats, and of a prowler she thought she had just heard - Deputy District Attorney Christopher A. Darden tried to show that her walk was considerably more confined and the ivy surrounding the yard would have limited her range and vision.
Prosecutors did not show photographs they had taken from ground level from the inside of that yard, which would show what Lopez could have seen.
But after the witness retraced her path that night, placing arrows near two trees where she and the dog walked, Prosecutor Marcia Clark walked back to two associates and smiled. “That, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of Rosa Lopez, and you saw it,” she said.
Darden continued his attempt to prove that Simpson’s chief investigator, William Pavelic, either coached Lopez or, when that failed, placed words in her mouth.
Several times, he played Pavelic’s taped interview with Lopez, in which she first stated that she had walked the dog around 10, quickly amended that to 10:15 or 10:20, then did not object when Pavelic pushed the time back to 10:30 and even 11.
“I never agreed on anything,” she testified, often so vehemently sometimes that the interpreter had to restrain her. “He would say that, and I would say, ‘Well, OK.”’
When she first heard on television that Simpson’s lawyers were saying she saw the car at 10:15 or 10:20, she said, she called Cochran’s office to complain. “I said I have never given them a specific time, thank you,” she testified.
But Lopez then insisted just as strenuously that she never said anything about 10:15 or 10:30, even though the taped interview clearly contradicted her. At the conclusion of the tape, Lopez can be heard telling Pavelic - in English - “I hope it helps a lot.”
Darden tried to depict Lopez as selectively far-sighted and illiterate - able to understand English when she seeks unemployment benefits but not when it appears on a potentially impeaching document - and capable of dissembling on something as simple as her birth date.
A transcript of a colloquy at the bench Friday revealed the dates of birth Lopez listed on her unemployment application and her driver’s license differed by seven years.