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Making Sense of Simpson

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CALL THEM THE O.J. ALL-STAR TALK TEAM—THE CAcophony of cops and lawyers, Marcia Clark fashion critics and DNA experts who provide nonstop commentary on every sneeze. In the midst of this media madness, CNN’s Greta Van Susteren, a 40-year-old Washington attorney and an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University, stays true to her own winning gimmick: she talks straight and lets the facts fall where they may.

Van Susteren will not, for example, use a word like “sequestration.” Instead, she says, “I talk about cooping people up in hotels.” And we are not, as she says, watching the Trial of the Century but “a run-of-the-mill murder case—with a defendant whose name we recognize.” Her husband (and law partner), John Coale, 48, says that, “with Greta, what you see is what you get. People genuinely like her.”

With CNN’s ratings skyrocketing (an estimated 15 million viewers tune in daily to its trial coverage), Van Susteren’s bosses certainly are pleased. “Greta is a wonderful teacher,” says CNN senior vice president Gail Evans, who chose Van Susteren to do analysis for the 1991 William Kennedy Smith rape trial. Evans compiled a list of top women lawyers, called Van Susteren and never called the rest. “I said, ‘This is what we’re looking for.’ People may have a love-hate relationship with lawyers, but they want to understand the law themselves. Greta is candid. She isn’t afraid to say what she thinks.”

The Washington Post’s TV critic Tom Shales agrees: “She seems like an actual human being. And she’s a real help as opposed to a lot of these people who blab to fill space.”

Van Susteren says her “mission” is to demystify the law. And so she doesn’t mind spending up to 10 hours a day in a chilly D.C. TV studio, ingesting caffeine and staring at a monitor. In a way it’s a break. “It’s a hell of a lot easier than being in the pit, slugging it out.”

Van Susteren has been in or near courtroom “pits” all her life. Her father, the late Urban Van Susteren, was a Wisconsin state court judge who often brought his youngest daughter to work with him. (Her mother, Margery, stayed at home with less legally inclined siblings Dirk, now 48 and a managing editor at a Vermont newspaper, and Lise, 44, a psychiatrist.)

Politics was also on the family agenda. Urban Van Susteren successfully managed the notorious Joe McCarthy’s 1946 U.S. Senate campaign—and Greta lived with McCarthy’s widow, Jean Minetti, when she first moved to Washington in the 1970s. Van Susteren says she knew little about McCarthy growing up and describes her own politics now as “fluid—some things I agree with the Democrats, some with the Republicans.”

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1976, Van Susteren earned a law degree from Georgetown, and in 1979 she met Coale inside a Washington courthouse. Her first response was an unqualified “jerk!” But she later agreed to do research for him, and a romance slowly unfolded. (One thing they have in common: Scientology—what Van Susteren calls “an applied religious philosophy. I’m a strong advocate of their ethics.”)

Van Susteren won her first murder case when she was 27; by age 30, she had earned a reputation as a dogged, sometimes fierce litigator. “She’s about 5′ nothing (“5’3 actually”), but she comes across as about 6’5″,” says former client Brady Toensing, 27. Toensing was so impressed with the way Van Susteren represented him—pro bono—after he was hit by a car that he decided to go to law school.

Van Susteren and Coale started their own firm in 1990. Although the Simpson trial keeps her out of the office, the couple talk on the phone “20 times a day,” says Coale—about the trial or, as Van Susteren says, “really important things like who’s going to pick the dog up at the vet.” And sometimes, no doubt, they talk about his business.

Earlier this year a complaint was filed with the West Virginia Lawyer Disciplinary Board concerning the firm’s solicitation practices, specifically citing Coale, a former partner and their investigators. “There is no charge whatsoever that Greta had anything to do with this,” says Coale. Van Susteren herself contends that the complaint is “an attempt to capitalize on my visibility as a CNN commentator.”

And she’s equally blunt discussing her own critics, especially those who accuse her of being pro-Simpson. Her only interest, she says, is that the case be heard on the evidence. “I don’t have any secret agenda,” she says. Nor, sorry, will she predict the outcome.

As for her own future, Van Susteren isn’t thinking much beyond the end of her Simpson trials. “I’m a prisoner in a studio,” she says. “I’m lucky I know who the President is. Thank God, there hasn’t been an election.”