A revealing and potentially troubling portrait of life on the O.J. Simpson jury emerged from transcripts released Thursday in which an ousted juror described physical confrontations between black and white panelists and offered new details supporting her contention that sheriff’s deputies promoted the racial divisions.
Responding to questions posed behind closed doors by Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito, dismissed juror Jeanette Harris described a sniping, divided panel, with some members balking at searches of their rooms and other real or perceived slights. She also described antagonistic camps of panelists and seemed particularly critical of a group of several women who she said faced off with black counterparts on various issues.
At one point, according to Harris, two of those women, one Latina and the other white, hit a black male panelist. Both women remain on the panel, one as an alternate, the other as a juror.
“When he was watching a movie one day, (they) hit him in the head, you know, physically hit him in his head,” Harris testified. “He was sitting in the front row, and they were walking behind him, and they hit him.”
One of those women also kicked her and stepped on the foot of another panelist in the jury box one day, Harris said. Another juror, according to Harris, appeared to complain that she did not even want to breathe the same air as an African American colleague on the panel.
Harris has accused the deputies who monitor the panel of fostering racial tensions within it, and she has publicly discussed some of the allegations over the last week. But in the judge’s closed courtroom Wednesday, she offered the most complete description--and the only one under oath--and her account details a litany of alleged disparate treatment. White jurors, Harris said, received first chance at movies, as well as a gym of their own, better telephone privileges and a longer shopping trip, among other things.
Harris also said she was convinced that her hotel room was being searched by the deputies. To test that theory, she said she would put her items in particular places and then note that they had been rearranged.
Harris viewed some of the deputies as being gruff and unpleasant, contributing to the sense of unfairness that she said she felt as an African American member of the jury. That feeling of embattlement and the panel’s isolation from the outside world contributed to her unease, Harris said, as well as to her belief that more needs to be done to relieve stress among the panelists.
“You know,” she told Ito, “you go to work and you come home in the evening. You can unwind. You’re not able to unwind while you’re sequestered. You’re sequestered 24 hours a day, and I think it will have an impact. I’m sure it will have an impact.”
None of Harris’ allegations suggest direct juror misconduct such as talking about the case or jumping to conclusions about Simpson’s guilt or innocence in the June 12 murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, killings to which Simpson has pleaded not guilty.
Ito Voices Caution
But even though Harris denied hearing or seeing anything that would suggest grounds for a mistrial, her comments prompted prosecutors to ask the judge to replace two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies whom Harris accused of promoting the racial divisions. According to Harris, the deputies gave special privileges to white jurors and treated others like prisoners.
“These allegations by Miss Harris are very, very serious, and we would like a verdict in this case,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden told Ito during the closed session Wednesday, according to the transcript. “And my thinking is perhaps that the Sheriff’s Department ought to perhaps remove (the deputies) for a couple of days while the court ponders what to do next.”
Darden added that he was “really concerned that some of the black jurors feel that they are being forced to live in an oppressive environment,” a concern also voiced by defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Still, Ito declined to take immediate action.
“I don’t feel I’m in a position to direct the Sheriff’s Department to do anything at this point,” Ito said, according to the transcript. “I want to complete my investigation. I want to be as thorough and cautious as possible.”
Ito said he wants to interview each of the remaining 18 jurors and alternates to see whether Harris’ impressions are shared by others. Ito said he hoped to begin that process Monday, but he did not indicate how long he intends to spend at that task.
After at first denying some of Harris’ allegations and emphatically insisting that deputies did nothing to foster racial tensions within the panel, the department has since refused to comment publicly on her charges or on the inquiry they sparked.
“Judge Ito’s investigation of the Simpson jury and the manner in which sheriff’s deputies are carrying out their sequestration function remains ongoing,” according to an official department statement Thursday. “As he has done with the Jeanette Harris transcripts, it is our expectation that future transcripts regarding other concerned parties in this matter will be released in the same fashion. Judge Ito has stated this inquiry is the court’s inquiry at this time. We will withhold further comments until the conclusion of the court’s inquiry.”
Nevertheless, others raised questions about whether the Sheriff’s Department was handling the delicate task adequately.
“This incident . . . causes us to re-evaluate who we select for this type of supervisorial duty,” said Karen Smith, a Southwestern University law school professor. “Rather than deputies who are trained to be vigilant over a certain type of captive, maybe we need more of the concierge type, someone who is upbeat and tries to make your stay as comfortable as possible, as opposed to someone who says, ‘Sit down and shut up.’ ”
Experienced lawyers said tension within juries is nothing new, and Ito dismissed some of the allegations as a natural consequence of cooping up the panelists. The judge declined, for instance, to pursue a statement by Harris implying that there was a troubling incident on the first day the panel was sequestered. Ito dismissed that complaint as a reflection of “the sequestration first-day blues.”
“There’s always a lot of tension in sequestered juries,” said Paul Fitzgerald, one of the defense lawyers in the murder trial of Charles Manson, where the jury also was sequestered. “But the usual animosities and bickering that arise among sequestered jurors are bound to be exacerbated by the extraordinary down time this jury is experiencing. Clearly, that’s been on Judge Ito’s mind recently.”
Indeed, Ito’s patience for prolonged argument by the attorneys has worn noticeably thin in recent days. After one outburst Thursday, he warned the lawyers that he was growing tired of their squabbling.
During an argument between Cochran and Darden, Cochran addressed his counterpart directly, a technical violation of Ito’s rules but one that the judge has rarely enforced. Darden then repeated the mistake by snapping back at Cochran: “I’m addressing the court, Mr. Cochran. I have a bar card, too.”
Ito then intervened: “It may not be apparent, counsel, but my patience is at an end today.”
“Mine, too,” Darden responded.
Although arguing outside the jury’s presence took up the morning session Thursday, the panel returned to court for a long afternoon as Ito extended the day in an effort to speed up the languid pace of the trial.
Back at work, the jury in the case resumed the mission that has occupied it since early April, listening to and evaluating the testimony of Dennis Fung, an experienced Los Angeles police criminalist who supervised the collection of most of the physical evidence in the case. Fung is an important prosecution witness because so much of the physical evidence passed through his hands and because prosecutors believe that evidence will link Simpson to the scene of the crimes.
Fung, however, has weathered an extensive cross-examination in which defense attorney Barry Scheck has patiently and methodically extracted admissions of faulty memory or sloppy work by investigators. Although in some instances the defense has not shown how that sloppiness compromised evidence, the cross-examination has been directed at trying to undermine the jury’s faith in Fung and in the samples he collected--a key plank in the defense case.
Fung has struggled noticeably under Scheck’s questioning, his composure gradually slipping away as the days have dragged on. Fung seemed nervous when he first took the stand last week, but then he relaxed and gave confident answers when questioned by Deputy Dist. Atty. Hank Goldberg.
That mood carried over into the early stages of his cross-examination, but as Scheck has stepped up the pressure, Fung has gone from cheerful to resigned and, most recently, to glum and obviously dispirited.
By day’s end Thursday, he was again changing aspects of his testimony, giving Scheck another opportunity to accuse him of trying to cover up for mistakes or to participate in a police conspiracy to frame Simpson. Scheck has offered no solid evidence of any such conspiracy, but Fung’s evasive answers and memory lapses have offered the defense lawyer ample opportunity to keep up the pressure on the criminalist.
Potentially the most damaging admission Thursday came after defense attorneys won a protracted battle to confront Fung with a set of videotapes capturing some of his actions outside Simpson’s Rockingham Avenue estate on the day after the killings.
Proving that no matter is simple in the Simpson trial, however, that debate was interrupted by a snafu by Judge Ito. After viewing the videotapes numerous times in court and hearing argument over their admissibility, Ito retired to his chambers over lunch to review them in privacy.
When he returned, a chagrined Ito admitted that he inadvertently had hit the record button when he had reached for the pause button. The result: The judge erased about five seconds of the tape that the defense was seeking to play for the jury.
“I must say,” Ito said from the bench. “I’m thoroughly embarrassed by this.”
Scheck, whose courtroom style can resemble that of an absent-minded professor, shrugged off the mistake, confessing that he too was “that kind of klutz.”
“You’re no Rosemary Woods,” Scheck added, a reference to then-President Richard M. Nixon’s secretary, who publicly accepted blame for a famous 18 1/2-minute erasure on one of the Watergate tapes.
Ito explained his mistake to the jury, drawing a few laughs from the weary panel as he took responsibility for the tape erasure. “I see you laughing,” he said to the jurors. “I can see that’s happened to you, too. . . . I’ll never do that again, believe me.”
Once the tapes were played, Fung recanted testimony that he had earlier given to the jury. Where once Fung said he had carried a vial of Simpson’s blood to his crime scene van either in a gray envelope, a metal “posse box” or a brown paper bag, he conceded Thursday that the videotapes did not support that recollection.
Instead, Fung testified that he placed the vial in a plastic garbage bag, which a less experienced criminalist named Andrea Mazzola can be seen on one tape carrying to the truck.
Scheck accused Fung of changing his testimony once confronted with evidence that undermined his original account, but Fung denied lying. Instead, he explained his change in testimony by saying that seeing the videotape refreshed his memory.
Once refreshed, Fung said he could recall an officer inside Simpson’s house getting him a trash bag after Detective Philip L. Vannatter handed him the blood vial. But Fung still could not recall what officer gave him that bag, nor could he say whether he had ever informed Mazzola what was inside it.
The testimony about the handling of the blood sample is potentially important for two reasons. For one thing, defense attorneys allege that Vannatter could have used the blood in the vial to smear other items of evidence, part of the alleged police conspiracy against Simpson. If the vial was not turned over until the morning of June 14, as Scheck alleged Thursday, that would have meant Vannatter kept the vial overnight, bolstering the defense’s contention that he had ample time to use that vial for such a purpose.
Moreover, both Fung and Vannatter have testified that the detective turned over the vial on the afternoon of June 13, so any evidence to the contrary could undermine the jury’s confidence in those two important witnesses.
Concluding his cross-examination, Scheck leveled what may be his most explosive accusation against the criminalist, accusing him of doctoring official records to “cover his tracks” about when he collected the blood vial from Vannatter. To support that argument, Scheck produced a stack of documents, and asked Fung whether one of the pages was missing. Scheck suggested that the page was discarded to cover up the fact that it would have cast doubt on the criminalist’s testimony regarding the time he left Simpson’s house on June 13.
“One of those pages doesn’t have staple holes in it, Mr. Fung,” Scheck said.
“That’s correct,” Fung said, his voice betraying a touch of anger.
After another question, Scheck homed in accusingly: “That’s because you got rid of the original Page 4. Isn’t that true, Mr. Fung?”
“That’s not true,” he responded.
“That’s because it had the wrong time on it,” Scheck added quickly. “Isn’t that true?”
“If it had the wrong time, no, that’s not true,” Fung said.
Rising to rehabilitate any damage to Fung’s credibility, prosecutor Goldberg took direct aim at the defense suggestion of a police conspiracy--a notion Goldberg belittled with a series of direct questions to his witness.
“Mr. Fung, let me see if I have this,” Goldberg began. “Were you involved together with Detective Lange, Detective Fuhrman, Detective Vannatter, Michelle Kestler and her husband, whoever that might be, in a conspiracy against this defendant?”
Defense lawyers unsuccessfully objected, and then Fung answered simply: “No.”
Goldberg posed several more questions about various defense conspiracy theories. Each time, Fung said he was involved in no such thing.
As the day concluded, Goldberg asked about the missing page that Scheck had made so much of. Holding up a sheet of paper, Goldberg asked what it appeared to be. Fung, who is trained in examining tool marks, compared the staple holes.
“This,” Fung responded, “appears to be the document that was missing from this set of originals.”
Fung is scheduled to return to the stand today for more questioning by Goldberg. That is likely to continue into next week.
Times staff writers Tim Rutten and Henry Weinstein contributed to this article.