LOS ANGELES - O.J. Simpson's defense team, a celebrated collection of lawyers and investigators from across the country, is wrestling with communications snafus, strategy disputes and a shifting balance of power between Simpson's leading lawyers, according to sources in and close to the Simpson camp.
With jury selection set to begin in less than three weeks, Robert Shapiro continues to serve as the lead attorney in the case, handling interviews, supervising lawyers and signing most motions.
But Johnnie Cochran Jr. is the team's premier trial lawyer, and sources close to the case say he increasingly is asserting himself as trial draws near. According to friends and associates of both lawyers, Cochran has been critical of several moves by his colleague, and it is Cochran, not Shapiro, who has the closest relationship with Simpson.
"They're the ones with a bond," said one source. "O.J. feels comfortable with Johnnie."
Cochran and Shapiro are among Los Angeles' best-liked and most respected defense lawyers. Shapiro is best known for cases involving celebrity clients while Cochran is famous for his courtroom skills. Those who know them believe that they will subordinate any disagreements to win an acquittal for Simpson.
Still, the picture painted by people in and close to the Simpson team is a far cry from the defense camp's pronouncements. Shapiro - who built a star-studded defense team that includes respected legal scholar Gerald Uelmen and well-known attorneys F. Lee Bailey and Alan Dershowitz - has likened the group to "the three tenors" and has raved about its smooth coordination, calling it a "well-oiled machine." Taking that cue, some journalists and commentators have dubbed it a "legal dream team."
In fact, sources say, the team often has been subject to tense contests of wills and a babble of conflicting strategies. And the disagreements, mostly private, have sometimes flared in public.
In an interview this week, Shapiro conceded there have been disagreements and that, on occasion, "we yell and scream at each other." But he downplayed the significance of those disputes, comparing them to arguments between a husband and wife.
"Are there disagreements? On almost every issue," Shapiro said. "But a lot of this is like a jazz group playing together. Sometimes it's time for someone to play a solo. Sometimes the whole band plays together. This band plays together very well."
Nevertheless, associates say Shapiro has complained privately that Cochran is trying to wrest control of the high-profile case and capitalize on the publicity from it. According to several people, Shapiro was angered that news of Cochran's appointment to the defense team leaked out before Shapiro could announce it - which Shapiro is said to have blamed on Cochran.
Those same people add that Shapiro did not initially set out to hire Cochran but instead was concentrating mostly on lawyers outside of Los Angeles to bolster the trial team. According to several people, Simpson and his family felt comfortable with Cochran and urged Shapiro to turn to him.
"There was some concern in the Simpson family circle that Shapiro seemed untested," one person familiar with the case said. "The family felt strongly about that, and Simpson insisted that Johnnie be part of the team."
Shapiro denies that: "My condition of employment in this case and every case is that the client is responsible for the fees. I am responsible for tactics and strategy. It was my decision as to what lawyers would be on this team, 100 percent my decision."
Choosing his words carefully to avoid antagonizing Shapiro, Cochran says that Simpson asked him personally to join the defense team.
The signs of discord within the Simpson defense team have caught the eye of prosecutors, who subtly are trying to take advantage of any possible rift. During one recent court session, they berated Simpson lawyers for failing to communicate with each other regarding evidence in their possession.
Cochran acknowledged that there have been problems but said the team is working to resolve them quickly.
"There is such an overwhelming amount of documents in this case," he said. "They do have to be distributed to the various offices. We have to have a clearinghouse, and that's been difficult."
As trial approaches, more disagreements are not only likely but inevitable, sources in and around the defense team concede. Who will deliver opening and closing remarks to the jury? Will Simpson testify? Who will question key witnesses such as the Los Angeles police detectives who investigated the case and the police personnel who collected evidence?
Most observers believe that Cochran, at the very least, will insist on playing a key role in each of those decisions. And Shapiro, who once proclaimed that he was the sole leader of the Simpson team - this week said he and Cochran would jointly tackle those and other questions.
"Everyone has a responsibility, whether it is for motions or strategy or whatever," Shapiro said. "Johnnie and I oversee everything."