Lawyers Bitterly Debate Race in Simpson Case
Tapping deep veins of emotion and bitterness, two leading lawyers in the O.J. Simpson murder trial squared off Friday morning in a highly personal exchange that dramatically underscored the racial dimensions of the celebrated case.
Ostensibly about whether defense attorneys should be allowed to question a police officer regarding his alleged use of the so-called “N-word,” the exchange quickly escalated into the most highly charged courtroom episode of the trial. It pitted two experienced lawyers and longtime colleagues--both of them black--in a dispute over the impact that uttering the epithet would have on the predominantly African American jury that will decide Simpson’s fate.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Darden initiated the exchange with a lengthy, personal account of the searing impact of the epithet on African Americans.
“It is the dirtiest, filthiest, nastiest word in the English language,” Darden said in a speech that started quietly and built to such a crescendo that he apologized for his own emotion. “It’ll upset the black jurors. It’ll issue a test, and the test will be: ‘Whose side are you on, the side of the white prosecutors and the white policemen, or are you on the side of the black defendant and his very prominent and capable black lawyer?’ That’s what it’s going to do. Either you’re with the man, or you’re with the brothers.”
As Darden spoke, O.J. Simpson turned to face him squarely, shaking his head in apparent amazement and searching out black members of the audience to make eye contact with. And when Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. took the lectern, he excoriated his counterpart for “perhaps the most incredible remarks I’ve heard in a court of law in the 32 years I’ve been practicing.”
“I want . . . to apologize to African Americans across this country,” Cochran said to a silent, spellbound courtroom. “It’s demeaning to our jurors to say that African Americans, who have lived under oppression for 200-plus years in this country, cannot work within the mainstream, cannot hear these offensive words. African Americans live with offensive words, offensive looks, offensive treatment every day of their lives. But yet they still believe in this country. . . . To say they can’t be fair is absolutely outrageous.”
Darden furiously gripped the arms of his chair while Cochran spoke. More than once, Darden rose from his seat but then quickly sat down. Afterward, he retreated to his office, where he declined to comment. “I don’t have anything to say about this, not now,” he said.
At issue in the charged session was the prosecution’s effort to block Simpson’s lawyers from questioning Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman about his racial views, particularly about whether he ever uttered the epithet used to denigrate blacks. Fuhrman is a potentially significant figure in the investigation because he testified during the preliminary hearing that he found a bloody glove outside Simpson’s home a few hours after the slashed and stabbed bodies of Ronald Lyle Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson were discovered in Brentwood.
Simpson has pleaded not guilty to the double murder, and the defense has aggressively challenged Fuhrman’s credibility. In court papers, defense lawyers have accused Fuhrman of racism, and they want to question him on his racial views, which they suggest might have led him to tamper with or even plant evidence, such as the glove.
In part, the defense team has based that suggestion on a 1981 case in which Fuhrman sued the city in an effort to get a stress disability pension. Two city-hired doctors interviewed Fuhrman in connection with that case and quoted him using a number of racial epithets and expressing hostility toward minorities. Defense attorneys also have a declaration from a woman who says Fuhrman made racist comments to her in 1985 or 1986, and they say that Fuhrman or another officer moved an important piece of evidence during a 1988 incident in which police shot a robber.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Cheri Lewis, who has made a few appearances in the case, joined Marcia Clark, one of the lead prosecutors, in emphasizing that no evidence exists supporting the notion that Fuhrman could have planted the glove found outside Simpson’s home. By the time Fuhrman arrived at the murder scene, a number of patrol officers had already secured the location; none reported seeing a second glove, the prosecutors said.
Moreover, Fuhrman was not wearing clothing that would have allowed him to pocket a glove from the scene and take it with him to Simpson’s house, Lewis said.
While Lewis and Clark focused on the specifics of the allegations, Darden took on the more emotional task of addressing the impact that questioning the officer about his alleged racist remarks might have on the jury and the case. Darden, a brusque and unyielding prosecutor, tackled that task with vigor, asserting that allowing defense attorneys to question Fuhrman about the remark would change “the entire complexion of the case.”
“It’s a race case then,” Darden said. “It’s white versus black, African American versus Caucasian, us versus them, us versus the system. It’s not a simple issue of guilt or innocence, or proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It becomes an issue of color. Who’s the blackest man up here? Who are the real brothers?”
Darden said the defense team--which has accused prosecutors of attacking Simpson’s character with allegations of domestic abuse--is trying to smear Fuhrman.
Seeking to show that prosecutors are not gratuitously attacking Simpson’s character, Darden chose an especially explosive example.
“We’re not running around, talking about or seeking to introduce to the jury the notion that this defendant has a fetish for blond-haired white women,” Darden said. “That would be inappropriate.”
That comment prompted the sharpest of many crisp responses from the normally taciturn Cochran.
“When you talk about the race card, how outrageous is it to say that ‘I’m not going to talk about Mr. Simpson’s fetish for blond women?’ ” Cochran said. “Is that what was said in this court of law? Did I hear that? That is outrageous. If this man loves somebody who is purple in this country, he has the right to get married to that person. His first wife was an African American. That’s the beauty of America.”
As Cochran spoke those lines, Simpson wiped his eyes and bent his head forward. Robert L. Shapiro, his other lead attorney, draped an arm across Simpson’s back, and as Cochran took his seat, he did the same. The proceedings stopped for a few moments while Cochran then got his client a cup of water.
Cochran also took close aim at a statement by Darden in which the prosecutor appeared to excuse Fuhrman’s use of a racial epithet without directly conceding that the officer ever had done so.
“I think the records are clear that during those days, Mark Fuhrman had been shot at, for no reason other than he was an LAPD officer,” said Darden, who spent much of his career in the district attorney’s office investigating and prosecuting police officers. “His friends had been shot at. His colleagues had been killed. People would spit on him, just because he wore a blue uniform. People had directed racial epithets toward him. He’d just come back from Vietnam when he joined the LAPD. He was suffering from stress, and it has to be stressful to be a police officer in the city of L.A.”
Cochran, a former assistant district attorney who represents many clients suing the Police Department and its officers, recoiled at those comments.
“I am ashamed (that) Mr. Darden would allow himself to become an apologist for this man,” Cochran said. “To justify the fact that he’s a police officer, being a police officer is tough. Being a lawyer is tough. Being a judge is tough. It doesn’t make you use racist terms. You can’t justify that in a civilized society.”
Ito did not rule on the prosecution request to limit the questioning of Fuhrman, but said he was inclined not to allow questioning about the 1981 pension case or the 1988 incident in which Fuhrman has been accused of using a racial slur.
The judge said he was more apt to allow questioning about a statement from a real estate agent named Kathleen Bell, who said she met Fuhrman at a Marine Corps recruiting station in 1985 or 1986 and that he made racist remarks. According to Bell, Fuhrman also said he would pull over an interracial couple if he saw them together and would manufacture evidence against them.
Fuhrman’s lawyer, Robert Tourtelot, has denied that the officer ever made those statements to Bell. Prosecutors said Friday that if Bell is allowed to testify--or if Fuhrman is questioned about his alleged statements--they will challenge her credibility. Among other things, Lewis said at least two other Marines were in the recruiting office and are prepared to say that Fuhrman never made the statements attributed to him.
As the court day concluded Friday, Ito met privately with attorneys on both sides in another secret conference about a juror who has been accused of failing to disclose a previous meeting with Simpson. According to sources close to the case, prosecutors are concerned that one juror met Simpson at a Hertz function years ago and did not reveal that contact on the questionnaire or during the exhaustive jury selection interviews.
Defense attorneys, who are pleased with the composition of the jury, have argued that there was no misconduct on the juror’s part, and the juror has denied any contact with Simpson, according to sources. Defense attorneys said Ito has privately resolved the matter, but will not make his ruling public until next week.
Meanwhile, Simpson’s lawyers followed through on a pledge to seek the removal of all potential witnesses from the courtroom, including members of the Brown and Goldman families who might be called to testify. In a motion filed Friday afternoon, defense attorneys asked that the family members be excluded because they may be called as witnesses and because they have been disruptive in the past.
On occasion, members of the Brown family have sighed or rolled their eyes during defense presentations and arguments--as has Simpson when prosecutors have held the spotlight. The jury has not been present, however, and Ito said he will issue an order making clear what conduct will and will not be tolerated while the jury is in the courtroom.
Shapiro insisted that the defense effort to limit the families’ presence was not intended to offend them--only to protect the integrity of their testimony and to prevent jurors from being distracted.
“That’s what the code calls for,” Shapiro said. “It’s nothing personal toward either of the families.”
In another matter related to the case, prosecutors have seized the medical records of Simpson’s oldest son and daughter, and a source said they will try to persuade a judge to unseal the documents so that they can be examined. Carl Jones, Jason Simpson’s lawyer, confirmed that the records of his client were seized, and a prosecution source confirmed that Arnelle Simpson’s also were taken.
Prosecutors, the source said, are looking for certain medical records of Nicole Brown Simpson that could show evidence of spousal abuse. Prosecutors believe the records may have been put in the files of her stepson, 23, and stepdaughter, 26, the source said.
Jones said he is outraged by the attempt to get around his client’s right to privacy concerning his medical records and will fight any attempt to review the information.
A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday on Arnelle Simpson’s records, and another is set for Jan. 27 on Jason Simpson’s.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Friday’s hearing in the trial of O.J. Simpson featured the most charged exchange of the case so far. Below are excerpts from the comments by Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Darden and Simpson lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. as the two battled over whether defense attorneys should be allowed to question a police officer about his alleged use of the so-called “N-word”:
“It is the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language. It has no place in this case or in this courtroom. It will do nothing to further the court’s attempt at seeking the truth in this case. It will do one thing. It will upset the black jurors. It will issue a test, it will give them a test and the test will be, ‘Whose side are you on, the side of the white prosecutors and the white policemen? Or are you on the side of the black defendant and his very prominent and capable black lawyer?’ That’s what it’s going to do. Either you’re with the man or with the brothers. . . .
“There is a mountain of evidence pointing to this defendant’s guilt. But when you mention that word to this jury or to any African American, it blinds people. It will blind the jury. It will blind them to the truth. They won’t be able to discern what’s true and what’s not. It will affect their judgment, it will impair their ability to be fair and impartial. . . .
“We’re not running around, talking about or seeking to introduce to the jury the notion that this defendant has a fetish for blond-haired white women. That would be inappropriate. That would inflame the passions of the jury. That would be outrageous. . . .
“Mr. Cochran wants to play the ace of spades and play the race card, but this isn’t a race case. You shouldn’t allow him to play that card. . . .
“I think the records are clear that during those days (in 1981 and 1982), Mark Fuhrman had been shot at, for no reason other than he was an LAPD officer. His friends had been shot at. His colleagues had been killed. People would spit on him, just because he wore a blue uniform. People had directed racial epithets toward him. He’d just come back from Vietnam when he joined the LAPD. He was suffering from stress, and it has to be stressful to be a police officer in the city of L.A. . . .
“It’s the prosecution’s position that if you allow Mr. Cochran to use this word and play this race card, not only does the direction and focus of the case change, but the entire complexion of the case changes. It’s a race case then. It’s white versus black, African American versus Caucasian, us versus them, us versus the system. It’s not an issue of simple guilt or innocence, or proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It becomes an issue of color. Who’s the blackest man up here? Who are the real brothers?”
“It’s demeaning to our jurors to say that African Americans, who’ve lived under oppression for 200-plus years in this country, cannot work within the mainstream, cannot hear these offensive words. African Americans live with offensive words, offensive looks, offensive treatment every day of their lives. But yet they still believe in this country . . . To say they can’t be fair is absolutely outrageous.
“What we’re going to be talking about this afternoon, Your Honor, is words out of the mouth of Mark Fuhrman. What we want to share with you are the things that this man said.
“And I am ashamed (that) Mr. Darden would allow himself to become an apologist for this man. . . . Being a police officer is tough. Being a lawyer is tough. Being a judge is tough. It doesn’t make you use racist terms. You can’t justify that in a civilized society. To try and pretend that racism doesn’t exist in this country is to bury one’s head in the sand. It’s the height of naivete. Nobody wants to introduce race into this case, Your Honor. But as Mr. Darden has pointed out, race plays a part of everything in America.
“I’m proud to be an African American, but I don’t wear that. I’m also a lawyer, a lawyer who happens to be an African American. I would not allow myself to be used under these circumstances to become an apologist for people who used racist statements in the past, to malign other African
Americans, to say that I’m some expert, to come in here and testify as an expert to you about what black people think in America. All across America today, believe me, black people are offended at this moment. . . .
“The final thing I’d like to say before we take our break, Your Honor, it seems to me somebody needs to say to these prosecutors . . . the fact that you’re prosecutors doesn’t mean you’re always right.
“They don’t have any priority on the truth. And the arrogance they’ve shown in standing up here and talking about this mountain of evidence and then to come whining back to you saying, ‘Well, gee, we can’t get a fair trial because these jurors are going to be thrown off by one word.’ How preposterous is that?”