By David Ellis
February 13, 1995 12:00 PM

DURING THE LONG AFTERNOON OF Jan. 25 at O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney William Hodgman rose to his feet a dozen times to interrupt defense counsel Johnnie Cochran’s opening statement with polite, almost apologetic objections. But he grew agitated as O.J.’s lawyers revealed plans to call 14 new witnesses—a decision they had failed to share with prosecutors. As Hodgman struggled to maintain his composure, Judge Lance Ito issued a friendly admonition. “I’ve known William Hodgman as a colleague and a trial lawyer, and I’ve never seen the expressions on his face that I’ve seen today,” he said. “Mr. Hodgman, why don’t you take a deep breath?”

In fact, more than a deep breath was required. Less than three hours later, during a prosecution strategy session, Hodgman, 42, a low-key but tenacious attorney known for his ability to keep juries focused on the facts, suffered chest pains and began gasping for air. Doctors said later he did not have a heart attack but attributed Hodgman’s problem to stress. Released from Torrance Memorial Medical Center two days later, he is expected to return to court this week after a few days off at his suburban Los Angeles home. “He’s realizing that he needs not to hear about the case for a while,” said his wife, Janet, 41. “He’s sort of in detox.”

Colleagues had no doubt that Hodgman’s schedule was to blame for his collapse. “The D.A.’s office treats him like a mule,” says a friend. “They kept throwing more sacks of flour on his back until his legs went out.” Since he began preparing for the Simpson trial last summer, Hodgman had been working 18-hour days with fellow prosecutor Marcia Clark, often eating lunch and dinner at his desk, and had canceled two family vacations. “He’s a stabilizing force on that team,” says Cochran, “but he masks his feelings so well we couldn’t see the stress he was in.”

Hodgman developed his steely courtroom persona during more than 100 criminal prosecutions. The oldest of four children born to accountant Wade Hodgman and his wife, Adele, Bill Hodgman grew up in the L.A. suburb of La Habra, earned his law degree at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco in 1978 and joined the Los Angeles district attorney’s office as a junior prosecutor. (Johnnie Cochran, the assistant D.A. at the time, signed the document officially hiring Hodgman and 17 other lawyers. But Janet Hodgman says that, contrary to press reports encouraged by Cochran, he had nothing to do with Hodgman landing the job.) In 1982, Hodgman joined a local law firm handling product-liability cases but was back in the D.A.’s office just a year later. “It was a matter of heart,” says Janet, a court reporter who married Hodgman in 1987. “He’s victim oriented.”

As the $120,000-a-year chief of the district attorney’s Bureau of Central Operations, Hodgman handled the 1993 investigation into sexual molestation charges against Michael Jackson. Between trials, he unwinds by playing guitar with the Assassins, a group of amateur rockers from the D.A.’s office. (“I’m sure it’s probably painful for him to hear this, but he’s not very good,” confides L.A. defense attorney Michael Yamamoto. “The only time I saw him get really wild and excitable was at a Bruce Springsteen concert.”)

The Simpson trial is not the first time that Hodgman’s mask of professional composure has slipped. Paul Turley, a deputy D.A. who helped Hodgman send savings-and-loan swindler Charles Keating to prison for fraud in 1992, recalls his boss calmly excusing himself while interviewing a key witness before court. “I found Bill in the men’s room with his head hanging over the toilet, throwing up,” says Turley. “It was a stress related kind of problem.” The prosecutor then washed his face, rinsed his mouth and headed to court.

Inevitably the Simpson trial has also affected his home life. “His young son doesn’t know who Simpson is,” Turley says. “He just knows his dad thinks of [the son] as the most important thing in the world. And all of a sudden his dad is not around anymore, and he had trouble understanding that.”

Despite all the pressures the Simpson case has brought to bear, Hodgman intends to stay on the prosecution team until the trial ends—probably sometime this summer. “We’re not afraid of commitment or hard work,” says his wife. “I’ll cope,” she adds gamely, “by planning our next vacation.”