Labeled the “trial of the century” by many, the O.J. Simpson case brought forth issues of race, celebrity, and police dishonesty. In this episode of the ABA Law Student Podcast, host Chris Morgan talks to Carl Douglas, one of the defense attorneys in the O.J. Simpson murder case, about the case itself and the circumstances that ultimately lead to the controversial verdict. Their discussion includes the importance of context to the case, the complicated process of choosing jurors, and the origin of the phrase “If the glove doesn’t fit, we must acquit.” They also talk about what Carl has been up to since the case and his advice for young law students and lawyers.
Carl Douglas is a lawyer specializing in police misconduct cases. He is best known for being one of the defense attorneys in the O.J. Simpson murder case.
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ABA Law Student Podcast
Discussing the O.J. Simpson Case with Defense Attorney Carl Douglas
Intro: Welcome to the official ‘ABA Law Student Podcast’ where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You are listening to the Legal Talk Network.
Chris Morgan: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ‘ABA Law Student Podcast’ here on LegalTalk Network.
I am Chris Morgan, Governor of the ABA Law Student Division’s 12th Circuit and a LLL at a Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane.
Joining us today is Mr. Carl Douglas. Carl is an attorney specializing in personal injury, civil rights and criminal law. He’s the former managing partner of the Johnnie Cochran Law Firm and he has represented a number of high-profile clients including Michael Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah and perhaps most notably O.J. Simpson, he is a member of that defense team.
You may have seen him on ESPN’s recent documentary series ‘O.J.: Made in America’ which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature last night. So hey, thanks for coming on, Carl, and congrats on that win last night. That’s pretty impressive.
Carl Douglas: Chris, thanks for having me. We’re all really excited around here about having gotten that great win.
Chris Morgan: Yeah, what was it like working with ESPN and their folks on the documentary? I know it got a great reception.
Carl Douglas: It was a great time. They interviewed me, Chris, back in January of last year for about five hours, and so, I was real excited when I had a chance to see it in early May – June-ish and then later in the summer I was able to go around on a publicity tour doing the Charlie Rose Show, Nightline, Hannah Storm Show, and that was a real exciting time for me then.
Chris Morgan: So did they just kind of approach you and some others about getting involved with a project or did they kind of pitch to you the angle they were going to take on it?
Carl Douglas: They did. I got a call sometime several months before from Ezra Edelman, he was the Director and Creator of the documentary and he approached me about doing what he said was going to be at least a five hour in-depth documentary and he was telling me about all of the exciting angles that he wanted to explore, that it was not going to just focus on the trial but focus on the background story of O.J. Simpson, and as importantly, the history of the relationship between African-Americans and the police department here in Los Angeles.
This is my hometown and I was really fascinated about the chance to explore those other topics as well, because Johnnie Cochran is no longer alive, I’ve taken it upon myself to do all that I can to promote his legacy and to give his vision of the case from the defense lawyer’s perspective.
Chris Morgan: Alright, so backing up a little bit to when you first started as a law student, did you know growing up that you wanted to be a lawyer?
Carl Douglas: It’s funny, man, because I had wanted to be a lawyer probably since I was about 14-years-old. I have a Ninth Grade yearbook where several people marked on there, “Good luck, Carl, you’re going to make a great lawyer.” Back then I always was a student of news. I’ve read a newspaper almost every day since I was about 9-years-old and I was involved very early on in student council.
I remember when I was student in the ’70s the big deal was to allow girls to wear pants to school and to allow boys to wear their shirts outside of their pants and not tucked in. And so, that began my interest in trying to serve others and my fascination with law and politics.
Chris Morgan: So then you go out undergrad at Northwestern, is that right?
Carl Douglas: Yes, man, I went to Northwestern and it’s funny because I’m from Los Angeles and I had never seen snow before going to Northwestern at 18-years-old and after law school I said, “I want to make sure I go somewhere where it doesn’t snow.” I tell my friend there was a lot to be said for 70 degrees in December, and to me four seasons are overrated.
Chris Morgan: Yeah, that’s funny, it’s snowing right here as we speak, so I am certainly with you on that, I could use a little bit of sunshine especially this time of year up in the Northwest.
Carl Douglas: Yeah, we were down into the low 50s here in Los Angeles and we’ve all been freezing ourselves off nearly being in the 50s.
Chris Morgan: So you leave Chicago you head back to California and enroll up there at Berkeley. Did you know that Berkeley was where you wanted to go or did you look into some other options or was that always what you wanted to do?
Carl Douglas: Well, I applied to nine schools in California and to Northwestern Law School just to make sure and I was fortunate enough to be accepted to all of them and Berkeley provided me with what I thought would be a progressive education at a reasonable price because I was still a California resident. I was able to take advantage of getting a great experience and education at a very bargained rate price as opposed to, for example, Stanford Law School and some of the other private schools in California.
So it was a great time for me and it was a great place to go to school then. I’d always been a protester and a student of community engagement and I was able to learn a lot about myself in my community while there at 06:14.
Chris Morgan: So we had mentioned a little bit about some of the clients that you’ve worked with over the years. What’s it like representing celebrities generally, are they easy to work with, hard to work with, some easier than others?
Carl Douglas: Like everyone else they had people with their own frailties and interests, and one thing about representing someone who has some kind of a profile is most of the time they don’t want to be in the news when you are representing them as either a criminal lawyer or as a civil lawyer. So it’s somewhat counterintuitive, although there is much excitement, there’s often a way that you cannot publicize what’s going on because they don’t want to be in the news.
I was fortunate enough to be Michael Jackson’s lawyer off and on for like ten years and it was a fabulous opportunity and giving me a great window into the life of celebrity or really super-celebrity and trust me when I say, “it’s not all that it’s cooked up to be from the outside.” Oftentimes celebrities are prisoners of their own celebrity and that stance is no more true than it was with the life of Michael Jackson.
Chris Morgan: So this year, I mean, it was the year of O.J. it seems like in the media we have ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ on FX we have the ‘Made in America’ series on ESPN, does this surprise you how captivated America and the world still is today about O.J. Simpson over 20 years since that trial has ended?
Carl Douglas: It really has been amazing to me how this trial and the circumstances around this trial are still part of the public’s fascination. I remember though that there’s an entire generation of Millennials who did not know the story and that story was really a perfect storm of celebrity and a murder mystery and race and all kinds of intrigues that really came together. It fascinated the public then and it continues to fascinate the public now.
One of the great things about the documentary in particular is the first four hours were spent really exploring the history of the relationship between African-Americans and the police department here in Los Angeles.
Chris, no one could really understand or appreciate the verdict that was rendered in 1995 without understanding the context in which that verdict was received here in Los Angeles at that time, and particularly with the rash of police incidents that have been really brought to the public conversation, it really reminds me that the more things change the more they remain the same. Many of the issues that we are grappling with now in 2016 and 2017 were very present back in the early ’90s and before.
Chris Morgan: So it’s June 17th, 1994, I’m two-years-old at this time. So O.J. is in that white Bronco cruising down the freeway, what’s going through your mind? Are you watching it on TV like everyone else?
Carl Douglas: It’s amazing, man, because there was a finals basketball game on and it was a Friday night, and I remember, our office, I worked in Johnnie Cochran’s office then, we would always have our weekly calendar meetings on that Friday night, around 5 p.m., and while we were there getting ready to have our meeting, they broke into the basketball series and showed this white Bronco traveling on the 405 Freeway.
When I was growing up, man, O.J. was really somewhat of a hero and an icon. I’m from Los Angeles and most sports fans in Los Angeles were big fans of USC Football and UCLA Basketball. So O.J. was really a great figure to us all then. Indeed O.J. was really the first athlete that was able to breakthrough into the commercial market. He became a spokesperson for automobiles, for Pepsi Cola and then ultimately for Hertz Rent-A-Car, and he was able to create a career out of whole cloth as an athlete, and making the transition that made it right for others like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods to follow in his wake.
So when O.J. was arrested initially, that was a stunning sight and then to see him traveling in this car on the Bronco chase was something that was for everyone to behold.
Chris Morgan: Did you guys think at that point and in the days kind of following that incident, did you think you might get the call, how did that all go down?
Carl Douglas: Well, it’s funny, man, because prior to O.J. Simpson, Johnnie Cochran, Jr. was every bit as famous in Los Angeles as he became nationwide after the O.J. Simpson trial.
So we always thought that we were the particular firm that was uniquely qualified to handle a case of that profile. So initially when O.J. hired a lawyer Howard Weitzman and then hired Robert Shapiro, there was some disappointment that we were not on the case. Our firm had been co-counseled with Howard Weitzman representing Michael Jackson, and so, we naturally thought that we would be the one that would be on the call.
Initially, Johnnie Cochran worked as an analyst for NBC News, and during the early stages of the case he would go on and talk about how overwhelming the evidence was against O.J. So it was really ironic when he got that call and he was asked to come down to the jail and to have a conversation with Mr. Simpson. We were all very giddy and excited in the office then.
Chris Morgan: Moving forward to kind of the pre-trial stages, I know there was a lot of discussion about whether you wanted to convene a jury in downtown LA or somewhere else. Why do you think it was so important to keep that trial downtown?
Carl Douglas: Well, you got to understand that in 1994 that was in the wake of the Rodney King beating case and the Rodney King trial. That was a trial where many officers were seen beating Mr. King mercilessly and it was on videotape, and that trial was held in Simi Valley, which is a northern suburb of Los Angeles, probably an hour and-a-half away outside of Los Angeles. And when that verdict was returned in favor of the officers the city in Los Angeles erupted out of that unfairness.
The district attorney Gilbert Garcetti was running for re-election, and he thought it was particularly important that this trial involving O.J. Simpson have a ring of truth and would be able to resonate among all communities here in Los Angeles. So I think it was important for him to have the case downtown. But as importantly, initially at least there was going to be a grand jury hearing rather than a preliminary hearing, but some of the initial pretrial work, which was held by Robert Shapiro and Gerald Uelmen who was then the Dean of the Santa Clara’s Law School filed motions basically which resulted in the grand jury being disbanded. And since the grand jury was being held in downtown Los Angeles, it was natural that the case was now venued there and the trial was going to be held there.
And quite frankly, that was really as a practical matter the only real place that would have just the security and the logistics to handle a trial of that profile. O.J. Simpson, even today, is probably the most famous celebrity ever charged with murder, and this was the days before Facebook, before tweeting, indeed before the Internet was really up and raging.
So there was a great demand from all over the world of journalists wanting to get a part of this case, and Los Angeles just physically had the logistics to be able to handle that onslaught of media attention.
Chris Morgan: One of the parts of the documentary I found most interesting, and I know a lot of other people did too if they weren’t as familiar with the case, was the defense team’s decision to alter some of the things in O.J.’s house when Judge Ito let the jury go over there. Can you tell us a little bit about that and kind of how that — that decision was made?
Carl Douglas: Yeah, that’s one of the things that for some reason folks have focused on more than probably anything else I can recall in the case, because the case was anticipated to last for at least six months. There was a screening of potential jurors and it was difficult to find jury members who would be able and willing to sit for a trial of six months.
Chris Morgan: Right.
Carl Douglas: Generally, that would be city workers, county workers, federal workers, school teachers, and members of the phone company that would have unlimited jury service. Most people who would work in corporate America could not afford to take that time off for trials and would not be allowed to be paid for that length of a time.
So because of those dynamics the jury pool skewed heavily in favor of people of color who worked more often in city, state, and local government. So ultimately the jury panel of — I think we had maybe 24 jurors at first initially was skewed to be heavily Black. What we wanted to do was to create an environment, once the Judge decided that there was going to be a view of the jury, and they were going to go to Bundy where the death took place, they were going to stop by the Mezzaluna Restaurant where the family, the Brown family had had a celebration the night of the death, and they decided to go to O.J.’s house as well.
Once the Judge decided that we wanted to have the house look comfortable and accommodating. So for example, if there were weeds in the front we would make sure that we clean the weeds off. If there was a mark on the door we would make sure that we washed off the doors as well. It wasn’t a crime scene, the crime scene was really over on Bundy, but it was a place that the jury is going to see and we wanted to convey an image of O.J. Simpson that would best relate to the jury that was primarily African-American.
The problem was, O.J. had a grand stairwell that came from his first floor up to the second floor of his house where his bedroom was and there was a white rug on that stairwell, and even though the murder scene was covered with blood there was no blood anywhere found on that white rug going up the stairs. And if O.J. had been involved in so gruesome and so bloody a scene, it would have been a natural expectation that there would be some traces of blood somewhere there.
Bordering that staircase though was a large wall that had many pictures of his friends and colleagues and many scenes from both his professional athletic career and his entertainment career. And what we wanted to do, because most of those pictures involved O.J. with White Americans, we wanted to bring his family and friends in a manner that would best relate and connect with our jury.
You know, Chris, as a trial lawyer and as a defense lawyer, you’re going to try to do everything you can to win. There is a judge that sits between both sides who calls balls and strikes, for example, and it is our job as defense lawyers to push the envelope as far as the judge will allow us.
We had pictures that were up, we brought in cut flowers, we even had the fireplaces lit, and the judge did not allow some of the other dynamics, he didn’t allow the fireplace.
I remember, for example, there was a picture that was near O.J.’s bed, which was a very tasteful picture, artistic of his girlfriend, but it was a nude picture, and we did not think that was an appropriate picture for a jury to see next to O.J.’s bed. So we replaced that picture with one of his mother.
I remember another picture that had a gag picture of O.J. blowing out candles on a birthday cake, and the cake was formed in relation to the upper torso of a woman’s body, and there were two strategically placed candles on that cake, and again, we did not think that would be an appropriate picture to bring for any kind of a business setting like this. So we changed that picture as well.
And many times the prosecution would try to object, but the judge ruled that the pictures would be allowed and that the jury was able to see the view, and that’s basically how that scene unfolded. It wasn’t a murder scene, the death had happened eight months before, and I dare say after a nine month trial there would not have been a single juror who would say that their vote was based on some photographs on the wall, not after nine months of testimony.
Chris Morgan: So when Mark Fuhrman takes the stand for the second time in the trial and he is up there and he is repeatedly pleading the Fifth, it looked like your defense team was done asking questions, and this is another thing that kind of struck me when I was watching the documentary.
Then you asked Judge Ito for one more question, whose idea was it to ask that last question and why was it so important to make sure that Mark Fuhrman was asked that question about planting evidence?
Carl Douglas: Well, it’s funny Chris because that was a hearing that took place out of the jury’s presence. The law is in California that you cannot have the jury listen when you know that a witness is going to take the Fifth Amendment. And so Gerry Uelmen, who again was our motions guy, was selected as the person who would be asking Mark Fuhrman the questions.
We knew that he was going to take the Fifth Amendment and the first three questions he asked, he took the Fifth, and I remember that Johnnie was a bit annoyed because we wanted to get the question out asking whether or not he had planted the glove. That was the whole reason why he was taking the Fifth, because he had lied about whether he had ever used the N word before and since he was going to take the Fifth anyway, Johnnie thought it was real important that that question go in front of the jury so that the cameras could see, even if the jurors did not find out what happened.
And it’s funny, I remember he had all of the lawyers huddling together and he was pretty animated in his conversation and annoyed that Gerry had not asked the ultimate question about whether or not he had planted the glove. And Gerry was kind of stunned by the attention and he kind of flubbed his line, rather than asking about planting a glove, I think he asked a more generic question about whether he planted any evidence.
And so the point was made but Johnnie was always one for high dramatics and he wanted to make sure that there was a dramatic crescendo that would resonate to everyone, because it was so unusual that a police detective would take the Fifth Amendment in a murder trial, particularly one involving the most famous celebrity ever charged with murder.
Chris Morgan: So speaking of the infamous glove, so you could see Marcia Clark sinking in her chair as this whole thing is going down and O.J. standing up to try on the glove. Why do you think Chris Darden wanted so badly for O.J. to try on that glove?
Carl Douglas: Well, you know, I have never had a conversation with him about that, but I am sure your students will learn and know once they take a trial practice class that you never ask a question that you don’t know the answer to. That idea is multiplied tenfold when it comes to a demonstration.
And it’s funny because there had been a glove expert on the witness stand then, and during one of the breaks Robert Shapiro had walked up to the witness stand and the Rockingham glove was there and he had picked up the glove and compared the size of that glove to his own hand. And he told Johnnie, he thought the glove was kind of small and wouldn’t fit O.J.’s hands, and O.J. had really, really large hands.
And so Johnnie went up to the stand as well; this is all during the break and compared the glove to his hand as well and he too thought it was unusual that the glove seemed kind of small.
So we had asked Judge Ito at the next lunch break for there to be an opportunity for O.J. to sit in the courtroom with a guard watching over us and the lawyers, so that we could do our own demonstration.
I think Chris Darden knew that that was going to happen and he wanted and tried to steal Johnnie’s thunder. He wanted to one-up Johnnie Cochran and to steal the dramatic presentation that we wanted to do ourselves, but we wanted to test it out first.
And so against everyone’s advice I now learned Chris decided to have O.J. try on the glove, and I remember there was another huddle before that happened and Johnnie said, okay guys, they are going to have O.J. try on the glove and don’t anyone react.
Remember now, Chris, there’s a camera that’s on the wall to the right and it’s peering down on us and watching everything that was going on. And I remember I was sitting two seats away from O.J. then; F. Lee Bailey was sitting between us and none of us really knew for sure what was going to happen. Because the glove had blood, an old blood in it, there was the necessity that O.J. put on a latex glove to protect himself and to protect the integrity of that biodegradable hazard evidence. And so he put on the latex glove first and then put the left glove on his hand and it became clear then that the glove was not going to fit.
I have been a lawyer Chris for 35 years and that was the most dramatic moment of my life as a trial lawyer. Man, you could have heard a pin drop. But once it was apparent that the glove was not going to fit, I say O.J. then went into naked gun mode and he stood up and emphasized the fact that it wouldn’t fit and walked over to the jury so that everyone could understand how important it was in that scene.
And it’s funny man because the prosecution had spent weeks going about testimony concerning the domestic violent history of O.J. and his ex-wife. They had spent more than 30 days going over DNA testimony, mind-numbing, boring scientific evidence that droned on for days, after days, after days for four-and-a-half weeks of testimony, but the murder glove was something that really could resonate with the jury.
The murder glove did not fit the murderer, the accused murderer, and so that scene we were always confident was always going to be a lasting image to the jury, because none of us really understood DNA back in those days. It did not hold the widespread acceptance that it does now in 2016 or 2017. But the murder glove and that image was something that we were confident man was going to be seared into the memories of these jurors for as long as the trial was to last.
Chris Morgan: So if the glove doesn’t fit you must acquit. Was there a discussion about that phrase, did it just come to one of you at some point?
Carl Douglas: It’s funny man, every Saturday we would have a meeting in our offices and we would review the week that had just come up and plan for the week ahead. And I remember on that Saturday after the glove demonstration there were probably 10-15 different people huddled around a table. There were lawyers, there were investigators, and there were a couple of expert witnesses who had flown in from the East Coast to talk about the case.
And Gerry Uelmen, again, the Dean of Santa Clara’s Law School, was on a speakerphone then, and he was listening to the discussion and all of a sudden he said, hey guys, hey, hey, and we were quiet. I have something and he was the one that pinned the expression, if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. And there was a moment of silence while that thought really bathed over us and then the room kind of erupted, because that was just the sort of rhyme that Johnnie Cochran loved, and it really would evoke the images of that glove demonstration that we were confident was going to be seared into the memory. And that was in June, but we were able to hold on to that until October and late September when the closing arguments were eventually given.
Chris Morgan: A professor of mine always says there’s no such thing as an innocent verdict, there’s guilty, and there’s not guilty, there’s nothing in between. So do you think that the jury got it right?
Carl Douglas: It’s funny man because people ask me that question all the time and I remind them, much like your professor taught you, the issue wasn’t guilt or innocence; the issue was whether the prosecution had sustained their burden of proving Mr. Simpson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
And I remind my colleagues and all of the doubters that there were only 12 people in America that listened to every question that was posed over the course of nine months of trial. There were only 12 people that heard every answer that was given to each of those questions, and only 12 people that were able to go through hundreds of pieces of evidence.
This was a racially diverse jury, there were Black, there were Whites, there were Latins on this jury, and when they considered all of the evidence, they were able to come to an unanimous conclusion, not that O.J. was innocent, but that the prosecution had failed to sustain its burden of proving him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Chris, I will go to my grave believing a couple of things about this case. One, I believe that the police witnesses lied under oath to convict someone whom they thought was guilty. I also believe that someone tampered with evidence to make it more greatly appear that O.J. Simpson was responsible for these gruesome, ghastly murders. And I am a civil libertarian man and I have always said, in America if the police could lie and cheat and then prevail in a case as high profiled as O.J. Simpson, if they could get away with it in that case, then none of us would be safe.
African-American juries convict African-American defendants everyday of murder and other crimes in Los Angeles, but when you consider the totality of the circumstances, I thought the jury did its job when they found that there was not enough evidence to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Chris Morgan: Thanks for that. So after this whole thing, after the trial ends and everything kind of quiets down a little bit, life obviously goes on for you. What have you been up to since then?
Carl Douglas: It’s funny, I was 40 years old the year of the O.J. Simpson trial and though several other lawyers wrote books about the case, at 40 I did not want to define my life by that one case. Soon after that trial though, I opened my own firm, in part, because I was able to use the profile that had been generated from that trial to open my own law firm and I’ve been open now for the last — this is the 19th year of my own private practice, basically doing much of the same work that we did when I was employed in Johnnie Cochran’s office and since that time I’ve been fortunate to be on cases that have generated their own success stories separating the part of O.J. Simpson.
Several years ago I was part of a trial team and I represented a woman whose family sued General Motors in a product liability trial. In that case the jury returned a verdict of $4.9 billion with a B, which was then the largest personal injury verdict in history.
So at one time, in my young life, I was involved with the biggest civil case in history and what was probably the biggest criminal case as well. So I’m fortunate enough that I’ve been able to continue my life even though I suspect with all said and done in the second paragraph, if not in the first, will be the work that I was involved with involving O.J. Simpson and that’ll probably be part of my obituary.
Chris Morgan: So looking back now you’ve been a part of so many different things and have gotten so much experience practicing in law, what advice do you have for law students or young lawyers who are looking to make a career for themselves in the Trial Law Department?
Carl Douglas: Well, so one advice that I always tell friends and colleagues is you have to find something that speaks to you and about which you can be passionate man. There’s an old saying and it’s true, “The law is a jealous mistress.” She would take all of your time, and everyone knows of someone who began practicing law for a couple of years and then they left and they were dissatisfied.
I suggest that was because they did not find that area of law that spoke to them. It may be kind of whimsical to say but you really have to do it for more than just the money.
Once you pass the Bar you are virtually guaranteed a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. So the pursuit of money should only be the means and not the end for your happiness, because trust me, life is more important than simply pursuing money, but when you find something that can speak to you, I call it the “sound of the genuine” that will hit you right in your gut, that will then be much more satisfying and will allow you to continue on for years to come.
For me it was trial work. I was always, man, a frustrated actor and I would go crazy if I were in an office somewhere pouring over contracts or if I were in a library somewhere writing motions day in and day out. For me, it was always more interesting, more exciting and more passionate for me to represent the problems of people as opposed to corporations, and to get into a trial setting where I could show out.
I’ve always been a sports fanatic and trial work is like the modern day competition only with a suit and tie on. And I tell all of my friends that being a trial lawyer is the most fun you could have with a suit and tie on. You might have fun with a suit but the tie really kind of mangles things up. But when you are in a trial and you’re in that adversarial action and you are strategizing and you’re trying to play chess if you will, it is an exciting way to make a living, and if you find something that makes a living fun and interesting, you’ll never have to worry about having to work in your life, there will always be that excitement that would generate you and that will allow you to keep going and moving on.
Chris Morgan: It’s fantastic. Well, hey, thanks again for taking the time to come on the program today and sharing some great insight and information with us, we really appreciate it.
Carl Douglas: Chris, it’s my pleasure and I wish you and all of your listeners the very best. We need great lawyers and soldiers for justice to push on. Thanks for having me on.
Chris Morgan: Yeah, thanks so much, and thanks also to our listeners for tuning in to another edition of the ‘Law Student Podcast’ here on Legal Talk Network. Make sure you check us out on iTunes to rate and review the program.
You can also reach us on Twitter at @abalsd. Until next time, I am Chris Morgan.
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