SIMPSON TRIAL : The LAPD Was Dragged to Judgment

Joseph Wambaugh, a 14-year veteran of the LAPD, is a novelist whose books include "Finnegan's Week" (William Morrow). He has also written "The Blooding" (Bantam), the story of the discovery of DNA fingerprinting

Well, the O.J. Simpson defense team has reached a crunch. If they're going to stay with the race card (perhaps the only card in their hand), it's necessary to throw the conspiracy net over folksy Detective Philip L. Vannatter, who found the blood evidence at the Simpson estate. Ditto for dry-as-dust Detective Tom Lange, who was present at all times. For good measure, they should net Lt. Frank Spangler, who provided Detective Mark Fuhrman with an alibi that precludes evidence tampering at the Bundy crime scene.

The conspiracy must widen, but it can still work, because all these cops probably qualify as racists. We've learned it encompasses every white male who has told an ethnic joke or uttered the dreaded "N word" in the past 10 years--even in his sleep.

If defense lawyers Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and F. Lee Bailey are successful in hanging the jury or acquitting their client by race-baiting, we're seeing the beginning of the end of the jury system as we know it. But maybe that's a good thing, given the absurdity of preemptory challenges, sequestration and unanimous verdicts. However, the irony is that in celebrity-obsessed America, the Simpson race card is a Joker. Celebrity obliterates ethnicity. Simpson turned white 20 years ago. Most whites who cling to a belief in his innocence are in stubborn denial that a celebrity can be capable of terrifying savagery.

Defense lawyer Robert L. Shapiro has apparently concluded there will be life after Simpson. He's been busying himself with bait-and-switch sound bites that distance him from the Dream Team, by claiming he would not have played the race card. He's even shaken hands with Fuhrman's defamation lawyer and worn an LAPD solidarity pin on his lapel.

Perhaps Shapiro can persuade celebrity law professor and defense consultant Alan M. Dershowitz to replace him at the counsel table. Recently, the Harvard gadfly flitted back into the case by announcing on television that cops go to school to learn perjury. Of course, Dershowitz has never met a camera he didn't hug, and is responsible for more goofy sound bites than anyone except House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

At least his nutty statement aroused Chief of Police Willie L. Williams from his Simpson-case slumber, forcing him to utter a denial and cheerlead at an LAPD support rally. Williams, you may recall, was brought here from Philadelphia to heal racial wounds after the Rodney G. King incident, so the last thing he wants is to be drawn into race-baiting denials. Question: What do Williams, Shapiro and W.C. Fields have in common? Answer: On second thought, they'd all rather be in Philadelphia.

By now, can any American, white or black, doubt that celebrity drove the police from the beginning? Didn't we see Spangler sigh in relief as he related how he dumped the case onto the Downtown detectives? And how did the Downtown dicks respond when they learned their female victim's famous ex-husband had a history of domestic violence and lived only a few minutes away? They started fretting about his "well-being." What was their state of mind when they observed a blood spot on the door of the Bronco? You guessed it: more worries for his welfare. It didn't even occur to them that he might be the Big Foot who left his shoe print, in blood, at the crime scene.

So, either there's an ostrich virus rampant at the Los Angeles Police Department, or celebrity concerns clouded police perceptions and evoked some curious conclusions. And when they discovered the bloody glove at the Simpson estate, as well as a blood trail from the Bronco to Simpson's very door and could no longer deny he was the prime suspect, did they have the confidence to arrest him when he returned from Chicago? Not the media-whipped, post-King LAPD.

They sort of arrested him. Somebody handcuffed him, but somebody said to uncuff him. Somebody said to invite Mr. Simpson down to Parker Center for a chat, a photo, a blood sample. Please. And then somebody determined that the prime and only suspect should be released (!), thus permitting him to orchestrate the most bizarre event in the annals of California law enforcement: a police processional providing a freeway escort to Simpson and Al Cowlings, attended by cheering multitudes and enough cops to assure that Simpson's last performance went without a hitch.

It was sad to watch Vannatter squirming last week, as Shapiro demanded a logical explanation as to why he hadn't examined and photographed the defendant's body to locate injuries a suspect may have sustained in a deadly attack. Informed observers could but hope for the veteran detective to rear up and tell the Whole Truth--something like: "Mr. Shapiro, you can bet your year's supply of Lady Clairol that if Mayor Richard Riordan himself had spotted the defendant sprinting from that crime scene, we still would not have dared to strip down and photograph that celebrity body without a written order from the chief, the district attorney and maybe five or six justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. That's how confident and secure the LAPD is after being sapped silly by the courts and the media for the past few years!"

A rush to judgment? These guys had to be dragged. Williams claims the LAPD would not have behaved differently if the case had involved O.J. Jones, Brentwood cement contractor. He said Simpson had been treated like anyone else. Right, if anyone else happens to be a pope.

So, one of the more interesting facets of the Simpson case is that it's revealed how much LAPD cops fear celebrity and the onslaught of those insatiable hordes with cameras and microphones and notebooks. Media locusts might actually learn a few humiliating secrets, for example, that LAPD cops (like other Americans) also yearn for their 15 minutes of fame.

Of course, Fuhrman had to have been excited when Brian (Kato) Kaelin, the world's most famous houseboy, described the strange sounds he heard outside his bedroom that night. Of course, Fuhrman was leaking adrenalin when he chose to go alone to search for the source of the sound and found the bloody glove. Of course, Fuhrman realized much earlier that Simpson was the suspect--as would any cop with the IQ of a cocker spaniel.

And, of course, he wanted his moment--a Very Big Moment. Who wouldn't? He got it when he found the key evidence in the case. But, like any true-blue, media-bashed LAPD cop, Fuhrman can't let his just-the-facts stoicism slip long enough to admit his motivation and state of mind--perhaps not even to himself.

It's a pity that all these LAPD detectives couldn't have heeded the James Cagney acting philosophy: "Just look the other fellow in the eye and tell the truth." The other fellow being us--the public. If only they could have trusted the audience. Most are on their side, notwithstanding the likes of Cochran, Bailey, Dershowitz, et al.

But, on the other hand, if the cops had admitted from the get-go that they, and especially their superiors, were overwhelmed and intimidated by celebrity, we wouldn't get all the loony conspiracy witnesses yet to come, who, while chasing their 15 minutes of celebrity, are sure to keep us entertained. But never doubt that we shall also become mightily alarmed during the weeks to come as we absorb how stark and wide is the chasm in Simpson-case perceptions between white and black America. In short, if the cops had admitted to their celebrity and media fears and testified accordingly, we might not have ended up with quite the same racially explosive soap opera.

We surely would have been deprived of one of the great moments in courtroom history, when celebrity barrister, Bailey, tried to introduce a black leather glove (size small) to simulate the glove (size extra large) dropped by the killer. Prosecutor Marcia Clark--whom Bailey calls "shrill" (sexist for "uppity bitch")--grinned malevolently. Then she pointed to that pathetically tiny glove and, clearly referring to another object in Bailey's possession, said: "That would probably fit Mr. Bailey."

The courtroom celebrity reddened and trembled down to the lifts in his shoes. Then he puffed up like a toad and cried, somewhat plaintively: "This hand would never fit in that little glove!"

But the damage was irreparable. Lorena Bobbitt couldn't have done it better.*

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