The reporter O.J. talks to

From Manson to the Simpson case, AP's Linda Deutsch has chronicled LA's most sensational trials

Holly Bailey, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

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Linda Deutsch, an AP reporter, comments on the visit of the jury to the home of music producer Phil Spector to view the crime scene Thursday, Aug. 9, 2007, in Alhambra, Calif. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, pool)

Linda Deutsch, an AP reporter, comments on the visit of the jury to the home of music producer Phil Spector to …

His lawyers told him to keep his mouth shut, but that only seemed to make O.J. Simpson want to talk more.

It was November 1995, a month after the Pro Football Hall of Famer had been found not guilty of the savage murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman.

In theory, Simpson was a free man, back at his mansion on Rockingham Drive in west Los Angeles after 15 months in an isolated 9-foot by 7-foot cell at the county jail with its sliver of a window and thick concrete walls. Now he could wander through rooms at whim, go out to dinner and even leave town if he wanted to.

The only thing Simpson shouldn’t do, his lawyers advised, was talk to the media. It was risky, since he was still the subject of a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the Brown and Goldman families. There was also another incentive for staying quiet: He could eventually sell his story — an appealing prospect to Simpson, who was unemployed and on the hook for millions of dollars in legal fees.

But the truth was, Simpson was still a prisoner, even if he wasn’t locked up. Once swarmed by adoring fans when he went out in public, he was now tainted by notoriety — tracked by the accusing eyes of people who believed he had gotten away with murder. All he wanted was for  the world to see him as the old O.J., “the Juice.” He was consumed by how the public viewed him, and suddenly, the temptation to talk, to give his side of it all, was too much to resist.

So on a random Thursday afternoon, Simpson picked up the phone and cold-called Linda Deutsch, a longtime Associated Press reporter who had spent nearly every day of the previous year sitting a few feet away from him in court faithfully chronicling the twists and turns of his double-murder case.

He could have called on any of the many celebrity journalists who were swarming the case, like Geraldo Rivera or Dominick Dunne, who wrote a monthly diary of the trial for Vanity Fair. Instead Simpson turned to Deutsch, a stalwart wire reporter who had been a fixture of the monolithic Los Angeles County Courthouse for three decades, covering every notable trial from Charles Manson to the Menendez brothers.

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In this June 21, 1995, file photo, O.J. Simpson holds up his hands before the jury after putting on a pair of gloves similar to those allegedly used by the killer of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Linda Deutsch, an AP reporter who covered the trial, is pictured over Simpson's left shoulder in a blue suit (AP Photo/Vince Bucci, pool, file)

In this June 21, 1995, file photo, O.J. Simpson holds up his hands before the jury after putting on a pair of gloves …

Simpson and Deutsch had never formally spoken, save for an occasional word here and there in the courtroom during the trial. But while in jail, Simpson read the newspapers, and he had come to know her byline as well as her reputation. Over the years Deutsch became the reporter Simpson would talk to the most — an O.J. whisperer, in some ways, with an ability not only to get him on the phone but also to coax him into telling her things he wouldn’t say to other reporters.

In the two decades since the Simpson saga began, Deutsch has interviewed the former football star dozens of times, starting in the immediate aftermath of the murder trial. And their interactions have continued on through the bizarre personal and legal drama that has overtaken Simpson’s life since — including a Las Vegas armed robbery that landed him in a Nevada state prison in 2008 and where he will remain until at least 2017.

That relationship has given Deutsch and her readers a front-row seat to a sensational tale of tragedy, the rise and fall of a gridiron hero who seemingly once had it all only to lose everything amid the lingering mystery of what really happened outside his ex-wife’s house on a cool June night 20 years ago.

If you ask Deutsch why she thinks Simpson talked to her so often, her answer is simple: “He trusted me. He knew I would be fair to him.”

But it also says something about the stubborn relevance of old-fashioned reporting values in what was a burgeoning age of tabloid journalism. Even before the era of O.J., Deutsch was considered the reigning queen of the trial beat, a veteran reporter known for filing dispatches that showed an uncanny eye for detail and an understanding of the judicial system that few of her contemporaries could match.

That was because she’d had decades of practice. Since joining the AP’s Los Angeles bureau in 1967 when she was just 24, Deutsch has covered some of the biggest courtroom dramas in modern memory. She was the AP’s lone reporter on the Manson murder trial, which began in 1970 and lasted more than a year, and she later covered dozens of other high-profile cases, including Patty Hearst, Pentagon leaker Daniel Ellsberg, John DeLorean and the 1992 trial against the Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King. She was a walking, talking encyclopedia of some of the most notorious trials in history, which often came in handy in other cases.

During the Simpson trial, when her younger colleagues would marvel at the bizarre theatrics of the courtroom, Deutsch would regale them with wild stories from the Manson trial, where people would arrive in court high or have LSD flashbacks during testimony. Manson and his followers often did whatever they could to disrupt the proceedings, including one morning when Manson lunged at the judge and tried to stab him with a pencil. And then there was the docket of unusual witnesses. “Everybody was Kato Kaelin,” Deutsch laughed, referring to Simpson’s flaky houseguest. “If that trial had been televised, the whole country would have ground to a stop.”

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Charles Manson sits in the courtroom during his murder trial in 1970 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Charles Manson sits in the courtroom during his murder trial in 1970 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael …

In many ways, Deutsch is an unlikely doyenne of the court beat. In a reporting environment that has grown increasingly aggressive over the years, she has been considered the antithesis: a reporter who has managed to break news and get the story without being cutthroat. A petite blonde known for her warm smile, throaty laugh and colorful business suits, she is a rare specimen at the courthouse — a persistent reporter who always gets the story but does so in a way that is not off-putting to the people she’s writing about.

While no one disputes she’s a tough reporter, those who have dealt with her the most also speak of her gentle touch, one that encourages people to open up to her in ways they usually don’t with the media.

Part of that can be linked to Deutsch’s approach, which she describes as simply “being a professional” and covering trials and those involved with no predetermined judgment. But what has also driven her career is an interest in human emotion and a genuine curiosity about the people she covers.

Deutsch, who is 70, is single and has never married, though she often jokes that she’s “married to the AP.” But she hasn’t lacked for family. Some of her closest friends are fellow reporters she’s met while covering trials. And her office is covered with pictures of the children of lawyers she’s come to know on the beat, many of whom view her as a motherly figure, both personally and professionally.

“She’s very maternal,” said Harland Braun, a former Los Angeles prosecutor turned defense attorney who first met Deutsch during the Manson trial and has interacted with her on many cases over the decades. “She’s a listener. She’s not looking for the gotcha moment or trying to embarrass anyone.”

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Courtroom pool reporter Linda Deutsch describes the proceedings to reporters outside the Criminal Courts building in Los Angeles as jury selection begins in the involuntary-manslaughter trial of late pop star Michael Jackson's doctor Conrad Murray September 8, 2011. (David McNew/Reuters)

Courtroom pool reporter Linda Deutsch describes the proceedings to reporters outside the Criminal Courts building …

Deutsch believes her most important role is serving as a witness for the public—both in and outside of the courtroom. Opinion, she insists, has no role in her reporting.

“I want to give people enough information so that they could decide for themselves [about a case],” Deutsch explained in an interview. “If they knew what I was thinking, then I wouldn’t be doing my job.”

According to attorneys who have worked with her over the years, that alone has made her a rarity at a courthouse where the press corps has slowly become more and more polarized over the years, fueled in part by the rise of televised trials and 24-hour cable news, where former legal types stand ready to offer instant expertise on anything and everything.

“I like to say there is Linda Deutsch, and then there is everybody else,” said Mark Geragos, a veteran Los Angeles defense attorney who has represented clients including Michael Jackson, Winona Ryder and former Clinton Whitewater figure Susan McDougal—all trials that Deutsch covered. “She is really a throwback to real journalism ... You can trust her, and she will be fair. She understands things, and she usually gets it right.”

And that’s presumably why Simpson first reached out to Deutsch that November day. His call was so unexpected that the secretary who answered the phone at the AP’s Los Angeles office initially thought it was a prank. But an editor confirmed it was Simpson, and quickly had to track down Deutsch, who had just left town in what was her first real vacation since the O.J. saga began.

When Simpson finally reached Deutsch at a friend’s house in Neptune, N.J., near where she grew up, he told her he’d just called to say thanks for how she’d covered his trial.

“The one thing that was consistent throughout this ordeal was that you seemed to be fair,” Simpson said, according to the story she later filed about the call.

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O.J. Simpson appears in court in 2007 for a preliminary hearing on charges related to a Las Vegas armed robbery. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

O.J. Simpson appears in court in 2007 for a preliminary hearing on charges related to a Las Vegas armed robbery. …

Simpson told her he really didn’t want to talk about anything else. But he lingered on the line as Deutsch, determined not to let the moment escape, asked him questions about the trial and his life in the aftermath. Her tone was what she had become known for over the years at the courthouse: curious but not pushy.

Gradually, Simpson began to open up. He insisted that despite evidence to the contrary, his encounters with the public had been “totally positive” and that he genuinely believed he could get his career and life back on track. As he talked, Deutsch carefully listened, taking written notes as she always had. She wasn’t one to interrupt. As she often told people, being a good listener was the first step to being a good reporter, especially a trial reporter, because when people sensed you were really listening to them, they would talk.

And Simpson, for one, loved to talk. “He was the ultimate talker,” Deutsch recalled. “He was very charismatic, a charmer.” Their chats, she said, made it easy for her to understand how people had become so captivated by him. But she and Simpson weren’t friends. They didn’t socialize — though one year he did randomly call her on Christmas. “I was his connection to the media,” she said. “When he wanted to say something, he knew I would listen.”

While Simpson has repeatedly lashed out at the media over the years, blaming them for convicting him in the eyes of the public for the murders of his ex-wife and Goldman, the former football star continued to talk to Deutsch, considering her different from the rest of the press.

It was Deutsch to whom he defended his decision to write “If I Did It,” a pseudo-confessional book that included a chapter — which he insisted was fiction — about how he would have committed the murders. And he went to Deutsch first to try and explain his role in the Las Vegas robbery, insisting that he’d only been trying to retrieve memorabilia that had been stolen from him.

Sometimes Simpson called Deutsch just to talk, to unload about the life he felt had been taken away from him or to reargue the merits of the murder case against him. Over the years, he spoke of feeling isolated and vilified and of missing his dead ex-wife, wondering what their lives might have been like if not for that fateful night of June 12, 1994.

“Not the life I imagined for myself,” Simpson told Deutsch in 1999. But he took solace in knowing that he had “two terrific kids” and a handful of friends who had stood by him.

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Associated Press reporter Linda Deutsch and other journalists demonstrate in front of a federal courthouse in Los Angeles, Wednesday, July 6, 2005, in support of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, who were in legal jeopardy over refusing to identify sources amid a federal prosecutor's investigation into the leak of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. (AP photo/Nick Ut)

Associated Press reporter Linda Deutsch and other journalists demonstrate in front of a federal courthouse in Los …

Many of their chats, which were all on the record, seemed almost like therapy sessions for Simpson, who didn’t speak in such personal terms with other reporters.

Simpson, through his attorney, declined to comment for this story, because he’s chosen not to speak out on the 20th anniversary of his ex-wife’s death. But in 2007, Simpson told Editor & Publisher that Deutsch is the only person in the media he could talk to and trust.

“She’s the only reporter who has my number,” Simpson said.

And that’s an extraordinary position for Deutsch, who had a decidedly unflashy New Jersey upbringing compared with the drama and sensationalism she’s chronicled for a living. But there were early hints of her attraction to the kind of mass-audience stories that would define her career.

A native of Perth Amboy, N.J., Deutsch always knew she wanted to be a writer, though initially she thought she might be a novelist or poet. But she became interested in news when, at age 12, she started one of the first Elvis Presley fan clubs and began writing and editing a newsletter that she sent to hundreds of Elvis fans around the world.

Not long thereafter, while still in high school, she began writing for several local newspapers — mostly entertainment stories, though she had a column about teenage life. When she was 19 and in college, she convinced the Perth Amboy News, where she was interning, to let her cover Martin Luther King’s 1963 freedom march on Washington, D.C. She hitched a ride with members of the local NAACP, and her story of the “I Have a Dream” speech ended up being her first-front page byline. “Even though I was young, I knew I was witnessing history,” she said.

Back in New Jersey, there were other firsts. Deutsch was assigned to cover one of the Rolling Stones’ first American concerts and was even taken backstage to meet the band. But she gave the Stones a bad review — something that people have teased her about over the years. “I thought they were terrible,” she laughed. “But what can I say? I was an Elvis fan.”

After graduating from college, she briefly worked at the Asbury Park Press, where she got her first taste of court reporting. She was assigned to cover the Sunday-morning arraignments, which usually consisted of a lineup of people who had been arrested on drunk-and-disorderly charges. She was good at it, but Deutsch was fascinated by glamour and Hollywood and thought she wanted to cover entertainment.

In 1966, she was lured west by an uncle who was an editor of a paper in Thousand Oaks, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, and who sold her on journalism and life in southern California. She got a job with the San Bernardino Sun, where she made $90 a week as a general-assignment reporter. After a few months, she applied for a job at the AP in Los Angeles, where she was hired as the only woman in a 20-person bureau.

Her first big story came in 1968, when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated during a campaign stop at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Deutsch worked the night shift, and was one of the only people in the bureau when the call came in from a reporter on the scene just after midnight announcing Kennedy had been shot. She recalled “filing and filing” throughout the night. “That story changed my life,” she said.

That led to her first big court assignment, when she was asked to serve as a backup reporter for the trial of Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy’s assassin.

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Pool reporter Linda Deutsch, left, of the Associated Press speaks at a news conference about the hearing of accused Los Angeles airport shooter Paul Ciancia. (Alex Gallardo/Reuters)

Pool reporter Linda Deutsch, left, of the Associated Press speaks at a news conference about the hearing of accused …

The following summer, she was covering President Richard Nixon’s arrival at the airport when she checked in with her editor at the bureau. “Forget the president, there’s been a mass murder,” he told her, and diverted her to the secluded hillside neighborhood of Benedict Canyon in west Los Angeles, where actress Sharon Tate and four others had been found stabbed to death. The following night, there were two more murders, later linked to Manson and his followers. According to Deutsch, she worked “day and night” tracking every development in the Manson saga, and when the trial came, she was again asked to be a backup reporter.

But Deutsch got her big break when a more veteran trial reporter from New York was so disturbed by the Manson scene that he backed out of covering the case. Suddenly, she was the lead reporter on the most famous trial in the world.

It was there that Deutsch began to hone her skills as a trial reporter. While much of the media was too scared to speak to the Manson followers, she often spent time outside on the sidewalk where members of the Manson Family camped out because they weren’t allowed in the courtroom. During breaks in the trial, she brought them food from the courthouse’s vending machines and spent hours talking to them. She wanted to understand how the kids, many from good middle-class families and with bright futures, were so taken with Manson and had gotten so far off course. She spent hours listening to them and asking questions, and they, in turn, trusted her. After the trial, many of them continued to write her letters and have stayed in touch throughout the decades since.

“They were intelligent and articulate. They had all the promise in the world, but they were just brainwashed by him,” Deutsch recalled.

In the aftermath of the Manson trial, Deutsch was given a variety of assignments. In 1974, at the request of her editors, she spent a year looking for Patty Hearst, traveling around and interviewing radical groups — a search that was ultimately unsuccessful. “I’m surprised I wasn’t killed,” she said. In 1975 she went to Guam to cover the evacuation of Saigon.

But all roads continued to lead back to the courtroom, where she has spent much of her half-century career as a journalist. Over the years, Deutsch slowly realized that her early dream of covering glamour had been fulfilled — only it was a different kind of glamour than she expected, one that was darker, as celebrities became defendants and those in the courtroom — the judges, the attorneys, the witnesses — were becoming famous, too.

Beyond the Simpson case, some of her biggest trials in recent years have been those of fallen stars—including Robert Blake, Phil Spector and Michael Jackson, who, like Simpson, reached out to Deutsch months after he was acquitted in a 2005 child molestation case.

The phone call, routed through the Prince of Bahrain, was Jackson’s only post-trial interview. The case, Jackson told her in a sad, quiet voice, “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

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Michael Jackson arrives for verdict at his child molestation trial at Santa Barbara County Courthouse in Santa Maria, June 13, 2005. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Michael Jackson arrives for verdict at his child molestation trial at Santa Barbara County Courthouse in Santa …

Over the years, Deutsch has come to equate her role as a trial reporter with being a kind of “social historian.” Every big trial she’s covered has been symbolic of what was happening in America at the time. The Manson trial, she said, captured the end of flower power and the drug-induced violence of the 1960s. Ellsberg’s trial reflected the national divide over the Vietnam War. DeLorean’s trial was about the excess of the 1980s. And the Simpson case was about many things, she said: race, celebrity and domestic violence.

“Every trial was this kind of passion play that represented something about the era, where an idea was put on trial,” she said.

But after a 50-plus-year career packed with moments that even she finds hard to believe, Deutsch is finally considering retirement, perhaps to write a book about all the trials she’s covered. That has many LA legal eagles anxiously contemplating trial coverage without Deutsch.

“It will be a tremendous loss,” says Tom Mesereau, a Los Angeles defense attorney who represented Jackson and Blake and who has known Deutsch for years.

The dismal state of court reporting hasn’t escaped Deutsch. She admits that if she were entering journalism today, she’s not sure if she could have had the same kind of career. In fact, she said, she’s not even sure she would want to be a journalist, especially at court.

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In this Tuesday, June 3, 2014 photo, Associated Press reporter Linda Deutsch poses for a photo with her book Verdict, The Chronicle of the O.J. Simpson Trial in Los Angeles.  (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

In this Tuesday, June 3, 2014 photo, Associated Press reporter Linda Deutsch poses for a photo with her book Verdict, …

Trial coverage is different—“more superficial,” she said—and with every subsequent case, there’s been more pressure on journalists to make a decision about whether they think someone is guilty or not. And in Deutsch’s case, she insists she’s still neutral on some of the biggest cases she’s covered—including O.J. Simpson's.

Over the years, Deutsch said, she’s asked Simpson again and again about the night of the murders, and his story has never changed. “I have never decided if he was there that night or not,” she said.

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the murders, Deutsch contacted Simpson in prison to see if he would talk. Simpson gave her a rare no, telling her he couldn’t because he thought it would be damaging to his children.

But Deutsch suspects she’ll hear from O.J. again. “He loves to talk,” she said.

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