With his reputation and the murder case against O.J. Simpson on the line, Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman took the witness stand Thursday to describe his actions during the investigation, to fend off allegations that he is a racist who may have planted evidence, and to deny ever having met a witness who accuses him of making racially inflammatory comments.
Speaking softly but in a clear voice, Fuhrman told the jury that he was “nervous, reluctant” about testifying in a case that has thrust him into the spotlight and made him one of the trial’s most potentially important witnesses.
“Throughout, since June 13, it seems that I’ve seen a lot of the evidence ignored and a lot of personal issues come to the forefront,” Fuhrman said in response to Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark’s first question. “I think that’s too bad.”
Fuhrman captivated the nation last summer when he testified during the preliminary hearing that he found a key piece of evidence in the case, a bloody glove that he said was behind O.J. Simpson’s Brentwood mansion. Since then, however, he has been on the receiving end of intense investigation and searing criticism by Simpson defense team members, who have called him a racist and have suggested that he may have planted the glove.
The glove is potentially crucial prosecution evidence, both because it matches one found at the crime scene and because prosecutors say that DNA tests of blood smeared on it contain genetic markers consistent with a mixture of the blood of both victims and Simpson. Simpson, who is black, has pleaded not guilty to the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman. Both victims were white.
Faced with the defense allegations of racism and the storm of publicity that they have generated, Fuhrman retreated from public view last fall, leaving his detective post for a desk job and preparing to retire from the Police Department once this case is over. His lawyer, Robert Tourtelot, has repeatedly and vehemently denied that Fuhrman is a racist, and again this week accused defense attorneys of waging a campaign of character assassination against his client.
But until Thursday, Fuhrman has never had the chance to defend himself or his actions in court.
Before Fuhrman entered the courtroom, he was forced to wait for several minutes in an adjoining anteroom, where audience members craned their necks to look at him through a tiny window. Entering and leaving the courthouse Thursday, Fuhrman was escorted by a phalanx of officers. He rode a private elevator, and stared straight ahead in the courthouse hallways, ignoring the gawking spectators.
As he strode into the courtroom, all heads turned to face the embattled detective, whose lean good looks made him the recipient of fan mail last summer after the preliminary hearing. Fuhrman wore a dark blue suit and red tie. On his lapel, he sported a Los Angeles Police Protective League pin depicting a police badge and a bald eagle head over a red ribbon.
Sitting at the defense table among his lawyers, Simpson scanned the room for Fuhrman as soon as the 19-year LAPD veteran entered. Simpson gripped the arms of his chair as Fuhrman walked through the room, and he slowly looked the detective up and down. For his part, Fuhrman looked straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with the defense or spectators and making a slow beeline to the prosecution table.
As he passed through the bar separating spectators from the court staff, prosecutors gathered around Fuhrman. Clark and Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden offered encouraging words as he waited to take the oath.
Only jurors seemed initially oblivious. The panel had grown visibly restless during the closing hours of Detective Tom Lange’s testimony, and most of them looked on blankly as Fuhrman prepared to take the oath. Once he began to testify, however, they perked up and began taking notes.
The questioning began slowly, with Clark fending off an expected defense attack on a practice session that prosecutors put Fuhrman through last month as they prepared him to testify. Defense attorneys have sought information about that session.
Fuhrman acknowledged that he had been through it, but said it was not focused on his conduct during the investigation.
“The issues we were concerned with weren’t evidentiary in nature or about the crime,” Fuhrman said. “Mostly of a personal nature.”
In his questioning Thursday, Fuhrman emphatically said he had never met Kathleen Bell, a real estate agent who alleged in a sworn declaration that the detective had made racist comments to her in 1985 or 1986. According to Bell, Fuhrman said he was repulsed by interracial couples and would make up evidence to implicate them if given the chance--a statement that, if true, could raise questions about Fuhrman’s attitude toward Simpson.
Fuhrman had been expected to face those allegations under cross-examination, but prosecutors chose to confront them head-on.
Under questioning by Clark, he was shown a letter by Bell describing their alleged conversation, a letter that included his purported use of the word “nigger.” Prosecutors had fought hard to keep the jury from ever hearing that word, which they said would deeply offend the predominantly black jury.
Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito overruled them, however, and rather than let the defense use it first, Clark displayed the letter on an overhead projector that magnified the text for the court and jury.
In her letter, dated July 19, Bell wrote that Fuhrman, whose name she misspells, “may be more of a racist than you could even imagine.”
According to Bell, Fuhrman expressed deep hatred for interracial couples and said he would like to see all blacks “gathered together and killed. He said something about burning them or bombing them,” she added, describing herself as too shaken to recall his exact words. Bell later signed a sworn declaration echoing the allegations that she made in her letter.
Fuhrman read the letter along with the jury Thursday, snapping his head back at one point, a rare break in his normal composure. After Fuhrman denied ever meeting or knowing Bell, Clark turned to the alleged conversation, never uttering the offensive language out loud but directing the detective’s attention to the paragraphs containing it.
“Did the conversation Kathleen Bell describes in this letter occur?” she asked.
“No,” he responded firmly. “It did not.”
Outside court, Simpson attorney F. Lee Bailey--who is expected to handle the cross-examination of Fuhrman when prosecutors conclude with him today or next week--said the defense has a witness who will confirm that Bell and Fuhrman had met on at least one occasion. Bailey would not name the witness but said: “He’s claiming that they never met. I don’t expect anyone to believe that by the time we’re through.”
Bailey also questioned the wisdom of prosecutors in displaying the letter to the jury. Although the panelists displayed no obvious reaction to the letter, Bailey said he was watching the group and doubted that they could avoid being affected by its contents.
The choice of prosecutors to question Fuhrman took many by surprise, as Darden had been slated to handle the delicate task. Darden, who is black, has complained to associates about the assignment, however, worrying about how some would react to him championing a police officer accused of racism.
Darden has received threats, according to sources, and was concerned about further personal and professional fallout if he were to present Fuhrman’s testimony. Darden was not available for comment, but Bailey told reporters that he was not surprised by the last-minute shift, saying that Darden would have been “put in a terribly difficult position” if he had been responsible for questioning Fuhrman.
Fuhrman’s involvement in the murder case was not his first contact with O.J. and Nicole Simpson, and prosecutors Thursday elicited from him his description of a 1985 encounter with the couple. According to Fuhrman, he and his partner responded to a disturbance at the Simpson home and arrived to find Nicole Simpson crying and leaning on a Mercedes with a broken windshield.
Simpson admitted smashing the car windshield with a nearby baseball bat, Fuhrman said, adding that he did not arrest Simpson or pursue the case further because Nicole Simpson did not appear to be injured.
Clark elicited that testimony to demonstrate that Fuhrman did not go after Simpson in that incident even though it occurred about the same time that the officer allegedly told Bell that he would manufacture evidence against the black member of an interracial couple.
Seeking to drive that point home, Clark asked a series of questions about actions that Fuhrman did not take in connection with the 1985 incident.
“Did you attempt to persuade her to seek prosecution for the incident?” Clark asked.
“No,” he said.
“Could you have done so?” she continued.
“Yes,” he said.
“Did you notify any news media about that incident?” Clark asked.
“No,” Fuhrman answered. “I didn’t.”
Fuhrman added that he could have called a supervisor, could have demanded Simpson’s identification, and could have interviewed O.J. and Nicole Simpson about the argument. In each case, Fuhrman said, he had not done those things.
“Could you have insisted on some further follow-up of that incident?” Clark asked, concluding that line of questioning.
“I could have,” he answered. “Yes.”
“Did you?” she asked.
Fuhrman appeared nervous and unsteady during the opening moments of his testimony, stumbling over words occasionally and answering some questions vaguely. But as the day progressed, he appeared to grow more comfortable on the witness stand. At one point, prosecutors had difficulty diagraming one aspect of his testimony with the computerized device that they use for sketching.
Fuhrman agreed to try himself and inadvertently erased the screen. He laughed at the mishap, joined by others in the courtroom, and quickly redid his work. Jurors also chuckled.
Fuhrman’s testimony came after a brief appearance by Patti Goldman, the stepmother of murder victim Ron Goldman. She only stayed on the stand for a few minutes, clearing up a minor mystery about a shopping list found in a bag with her stepson’s clothes.
Defense attorneys had suggested that the list might have been Ron Goldman’s, perhaps indicating that Goldman had stopped to shop between getting off work on the night of June 12 and going to Nicole Simpson’s condominium to return eyeglasses. If so, that could suggest that the time of death was later than 10:15 or 10:20 p.m., as prosecutors have stated.
But Patti Goldman told the jury that the list was hers, not her stepson’s, explaining that she had left it in a grocery bag and that it became mingled with the clothes when they were placed in the bag as well.
Thursday also marked the conclusion of Detective Tom Lange’s long stint on the witness stand.
Before concluding his cross-examination of Lange, Simpson’s lead trial lawyer, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., challenged the detective’s assertion that there were no bruises on Goldman’s hands that would suggest he had struck his attacker. Cochran displayed a photograph of Goldman’s right hand, including a deep bruise over the main knuckle of the middle finger.
Lange testified earlier this week that he believes that the injuries to Goldman’s hands suggest that he flailed about and hit a nearby fence or tree stumps; defense attorneys maintain that Goldman hit his attacker.
Once Cochran had finished, Clark used her final questioning to once again try to debunk the defense suggestion that the murders could have been drug-related, perhaps committed by drug dealers trying to send a message to Faye Resnick, a friend of Nicole Simpson’s.
“Did you have any evidence to show that drug dealers had anything to do with these murders?”
“None,” he said.
Ito had signaled his impatience with the prolonged questioning of Lange, and when it finally came time to release him Thursday, both sides seemed relieved. Cochran, who has occasionally been tough and sarcastic in his cross-examination of the detective, graciously sent him on his way.
“You would not be disappointed if I don’t ask you any other questions, would you?” Cochran asked.
“No, sir,” Lange responded, cracking a rare smile. “I would not.”
“Have a nice day,” Cochran said.
Fuhrman is scheduled to return to the witness stand today, when Clark will resume her questioning. It is not clear how long the prosecution examination of Fuhrman will take, but Clark’s line of questioning late Thursday suggested that she will go into some detail about Fuhrman’s movements in the early hours of the investigation in an effort to show that he could not have planted the glove.
An internal LAPD inquiry reached that conclusion, sources said last fall, and defense attorneys now have that police investigation. In response to questions from Clark, Fuhrman said he never touched either body in the early morning hours of June 13, and he stressed that officers already had scoured the area for evidence by the time he arrived.
Defense attorneys were allowed access to that file and one other this week. The second police file details an investigation of allegations that Fuhrman commented about Nicole Simpson’s breasts.
Although Ito has ordered the attorneys not to discuss the contents of the files, sources said the investigation of Fuhrman’s alleged remarks about Nicole Simpson center on two alleged incidents--both of which were determined by police to be unfounded. In one, Fuhrman allegedly bragged of having slept with Nicole Simpson. In the other, Fuhrman was said to have made a comment to a colleague over drinks about her breasts.
Times staff writer Tim Rutten contributed to this report.