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The O.J. trial and the lethal paralegal, 20 years later

O.J. Simpson is shown with with his lawyers during a pre-trial hearing January 12, 1995. (Photo by Lee Celano/WireImage)
O.J. Simpson is shown with with his lawyers during a pre-trial hearing January 12, 1995. (Photo by Lee Celano/WireImage)

By Jenna Greene, From The Litigation Daily

It’s all coming back: the white Bronco, the too-small glove, the bloody, size 12 Bruno Magli shoe prints.

On Saturday, it will have been 20 years since a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.

Two years later, a civil jury found him liable for their deaths and ordered him to pay their families $33.5 million.

One of the behind-the-scenes players in the civil trial was a 21-year-old named Stephen Foster, dubbed the “lethal paralegal” by Goldman family lawyer Daniel Petrocelli, then a partner at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp, now at O’Melveny & Myers.

For Foster, what was supposed to be a part-time summer job at Mitchell Silberberg before he went off to become a forest ranger turned into a two-year odyssey.

Leading up to the trial, he slept at the firm for days on end—his family brought him fresh clothes. Once the trial began, he earned his seat in the courtroom for his mastery of the exhibits—to the point where Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki would look to him to nod or shake his head to verify that the lawyers got the numbers right.

Foster never did become a forest ranger. Instead, he went to law school and rejoined Mitchell Silberberg as an associate. He’s an equity partner now, specializing in insurance, real estate and construction disputes.

“In some ways, the highlight of my legal career came before it even started,” he said.

His rise within the firm and role in the Simpson trial stand as a potent reminder to partners everywhere: Don’t discount the contributions of team members just because they’re nonlawyers.

As Petrocelli said in an email, “Steve was critically important to every phase of our case. I am not sure we would have won without him. His immense contribution is a testament to the invaluable role of paralegals, assistants and other nonattorney team members in the success of a case.”

Among Foster’s catches: During Simpson lawyer Robert Baker’s opening, Foster realized that he mentioned a motion in limine that had been excluded. He slipped Petrocelli a note, and he successfully objected.

During DNA testimony, both Foster and a juror fell asleep in court. The juror was kicked off the case, and Foster, exhausted, decided to take the next day off. But at 8:30 a.m. the following morning, his phone rang. It was Petrocelli. The judge was asking where he was, and didn’t want to proceed until he was in court.

In his book “Triumph of Justice,” Petrocelli called Foster “a one man-army,” and “a godsend.”

Foster joined Mitchell Silberberg at the lowest rung: a gofer whose main job was carrying boxes. But he was soon promoted to project assistant, and later to paralegal.

When he was tapped to help out on the Simpson case, it was supposed be temporary—just until the firm hired two new full-time paralegals to work on the matter.

As it turned out, the firm never hired the outside paralegals. “I got my foot in the door, and I kicked it wide open,” Foster said.

Among his early assignments: tracking down and serving reluctant witnesses with subpoenas, which Foster described as “awesome”—he even took summer associates (and six-packs of beer) along.

To get Simpson friend Joe Stellini to open his door, Foster said he told him through the crack that he was a neighbor and had seen people casing his house. “Who have you seen?” Stellini asked, opening the door. “Me,” Foster said, and served him.

For Simpson golfing buddy Craig Baumgarten, Foster said he told the receptionist at Baumgarten’s office that he’d met him at the Riviera Country Club and was here to borrow a book. When she went to check, he followed her down the hall and barged into Baumgarten’s office with papers.

After he served another Simpson friend, Foster said the friend tried to run him over and crashed his new BMW into a fence.

“I felt duty-bound to contribute in any possible way,” Foster said. “I really grew emotionally involved in the pursuit of justice for the Goldman family.” People who evaded service were “stalling the process,” he said.

Over the years as a lawyer, Foster said he’s carried with him the lessons he learned during his first—and biggest—trial. While not every case can be litigated with the same intensity, there’s one constant, he said: “Preparation and mastery of the evidence and facts and law is key to success.”

IMAGE: Lee Celano/Getty Images

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