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Simpson case: How many hairs can noggin give up?


Like millions of other fact-hungry Americans, I turned on my TV to watch the high drama of the preliminary hearing in the O.J. Simpson murder case. And I was not disappointed.

Almost immediately, a fascinating battle was being waged by the lawyers: How many hairs could be plucked or combed from Simpson's head for scientific analysis?

The prosecutor, Marcia Clark, said she wanted as many as 100 hairs, so they would have valid samples from all parts of the scalp.

But Simpson's lawyer, Robert Shapiro, said he did not want to surrender more than one of Simpson's hairs. One hair, he confidently said, should be adequate for scientific purposes.

The prosecutor looked at Shapiro like he was daft. She said that just about everybody knows that you need about 40 to 100 hairs in order to properly analyze them. And she sort of implied that if Shapiro was such a hot-shot defense lawyer, she shouldn't have to tell him.

Being a high-priced lawyer, Shapiro didn't back down one bit. He said he had a hair expert at his disposal who didn't think more than one hair was necessary.

But Ms. Clark scoffed that she, too, had hair experts. And her experts would back up her demand for more than one paltry Simpson strand.

This put the judge in a bind. And she finally said that until she heard expert testimony, she would award the prosecution only 10 of Simpson's hairs. Sort of a compromise.

But Ms. Clark was clearly unhappy, and the attorneys were still arguing about Simpson's hair when they broke for lunch.

This gave me an opportunity to look in my World Book Encyclopedia for information on "hair."

And I found this interesting fact:

"The human scalp contains an average of about 100,000 hairs. . . . A person sheds from 70 to 100 hairs a day."

Of course, not everybody has 100,000 hairs. Some of us probably have fewer than 30,000. That's life.

But after I looked at Simpson's image, it seemed to me that his hairline had receded only slightly. So it appeared that he had about 80 percent of the average amount of hair. So let's guess that he has about 80,000 hairs.

If so, why would Shapiro be so stubborn about surrendering more than one of Simpson's thousands of hairs? Even if he gave up 100 hairs, Simpson would still have 79,900 hairs, a number many men his age would envy.

Looking at it another way, he would be giving up only 0.125 percent of his hair, which most of us could spare without any deep sense of loss. In fact, many people lose that many hairs to the bathroom sink in the morning. And they suffer this loss without paying a lawyer $500 an hour to protest on their behalf.

So I wondered: What clever strategy was Shapiro using in defending his client's hair? Although I have covered many criminal trials, this was my first exposure to a hair-quota issue.

Was Shapiro reaching out for sympathy to bald potential jurors?

Or could it be that because Shapiro had a large bald spot of his own, did a sense of compassion cause him to rebel against his client being required to give up more than one hair? Sort of a male bonding kind of thing?

Or could it be that Shapiro was trying to protect Simpson from the physical abuse of having 100 hairs plucked from his head. Actually, it would not be all that painful, since some of the hairs could be combed or brushed out. So only half would be plucked. And for an athlete who had spent years being tossed about and leaped upon by 280-pound hostiles, a quick hair-plucking should not be traumatic.

After lunch, the hair debate resumed. But this time prosecutor Clark played her trump card.

She put on a crime lab official who read from a book on scientific sleuthing. And the book clearly stated that to really check out hair, you need 30 to 100 hairs from different parts of the noggin.

Then she gave the names of the three experts who had written the book.

And it turned out that one of the authors was none other than the expert who had been hired by Shapiro.

Talk about feeling foolish. There, in front of a worldwide TV audience, Shapiro was saying that his hired expert believed one hair was enough. But then it came out that the very same expert had written that at least 30 hairs were needed to do the job right. And he was charging Simpson $500 an hour?

That was enough for the judge. She said Simpson would have to give up 40 to 100 hairs. Shapiro could do nothing more than smile weakly.

So for the millions of TV viewers, the first day was more than gripping drama. It was an educational experience. It sent a clear message to any man who might anticipate being accused of murdering his wife: Shave your head first and it will cut down on your legal bills.

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