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Jury Rules Simpson Must Pay $25M in Damages to Families

By William Booth and William Claiborne
The Washington Post
SANTA MONICA, Calif.

In a stunning financial punishment that exceeded even the plaintiffs' expectations, the civil trial jury that last week blamed O.J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife and her friend Monday ordered him to pay the victims' families $25 million in punitive damages.

That award, bringing the combined total of compensatory and punitive damages to $33.5 million, could leave the fallen football star, sportscaster and television pitchman with a lifetime of debt unless it is reduced or thrown out on appeal.

The six-man, six-woman, mostly white jury deliberated for just over five hours before reaching its split-vote damages verdicts against Simpson, who was acquitted in 1995 of the 1994 slashing deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman.

Without identifying themselves by name, eight jurors and alternates told a news conference that the evidence against Simpson had ranged from "above a preponderance" - the civil trial standard - to "beyond a reasonable doubt." One juror, a white woman, said: "It was 100 percent for me. I really believed Mr. Simpson was guilty. We went through all the evidence, and it had nothing to do with Mr. Simpson's skin."

The jury voted 10 to 2 to award Goldman's family $12.5 million. The jury also allotted $12.5 million to Nicole Simpson's estate, whose beneficiaries include her two children now living in O.J. Simpson's custody.

The jury voted 11 to 1 on whether to award punitive damages to each of the families and 10 to 2 on the amounts.

Almost all the jurors who spoke to reporters, with the exception of one black woman who served as an alternate, said they did not find Simpson to be a credible witness when he took the stand in his own defense.

"He really should have got his story straight before he got up there," the white woman juror in her twenties said. One white male juror said, "I find it hard to believe he can't remember where he got a scar-producing cut. I thought Kato Kaelin was more credible," referring to Simpson's erstwhile houseguest whose disjointed, sometimes bumbling testimony highlighted the criminal trial.

The jurors said they had considered the plaintiffs' allegations that police had planted evidence against Simpson and had uniformly rejected them. Several of the panelists said they attached considerable importance to DNA blood evidence and the bloody glove found by police behind Simpson's estate the night of the murders, but that their conclusion that Simpson committed the murders was based on the accumulation of circumstantial evidence.

Goldman's father, Fred, said after the verdicts: "I think what you saw in this trial was truth, and lies on the other side. I think that's what the jury saw and saw clearly."

Daniel Petrocelli, the lead plaintiffs' lawyer, said: "It was critical to expose that he wasn't telling the truth. We all felt it was absolutely essential to call O.J. Simpson a killer - to treat him like a killer if we wanted the jury to conclude that he was."

Petrocelli said his strategy was to try "a tight case" and put on as many police witnesses as possible, thereby forcing Simpson to contradict them all.

Michael Brewer, attorney for Goldman's natural mother, Sharon Rufo, said Rufo was "very emotional" and "extremely pleased" over the verdicts.

Simpson was not in the courtroom when the verdicts were read; neither he nor his attorney, Robert Baker, had any immediate response. However, Simpson's friend and spokesman, attorney Leo Terrell, angrily told reporters: "This verdict is illegal. This verdict was wrong. You can't award more money under punitive damages than the man has." Terrell said the law is clear in its intent to punish and not destroy a civil defendant.

The punitive damages is one of the highest ever returned against an individual. A Bronx jury last year ordered $25 million in punitive damages and $18 million in compensatory damages against Bernhard Goetz, who shot four black youths in a subway car.

Simpson can appeal - and is almost certain to do so - to stay the award, since the amount is far higher even than what the plaintiffs claimed Simpson is worth. But if Simpson does appeal, he will have to post a bond of one and a half times the total judgments. Unless he files such a bond, the plaintiffs can almost immediately seek to attach Simpson's assets. Legal experts said the post-trial motions and appeals could take years to resolve.

Filing for bankruptcy is an option for Simpson. Such a filing could allow Simpson to put the plaintiffs in line behind his creditors, including his attorney, who placed a lien on the defendant's mansion in Brentwood for payment.