Race Was Basis for Dismissal, Ex-Juror Says : Simpson case: 'It seems like the jury is on trial, not the Juice,' Willie Cravin says.


What got him kicked off the Simpson jury this week, Willie Cravin said as the limousine headed from one television station to another late Tuesday night, was the fool-headed stereotype that any black man who does not grin and laugh is a menacing figure.

Cravin--the latest of 10 jurors to be dismissed by Judge Lance A. Ito, reportedly for intimidating another juror--is a guarded, soft-spoken man whose Southern phrases belie his Los Angeles upbringing. In a stream of TV appearances, he has given away little about what went on inside the jury determining O.J. Simpson's fate. Despite his own hints that he was leaning toward acquittal, he denies that he has formed an opinion on Simpson's guilt or innocence.

In private, there is little difference. "I'm not going to let anybody make me say something I don't want to say," he says.

But as the conversation deepens, he smolders at what he sees as the racial implications of his dismissal--and at the high price he paid as a sequestered juror, left powerless to leave his mark on the case.

His divorce became final during the trial. And his children, who at first were overjoyed by their father's participation in the historic case, seemed to lose enthusiasm for weekend visits to the hotel where he spent months under court-ordered supervision.

"I'm tired and I really want things to go back to normal," sighed Craven, 54, a Carson resident who was a Postal Service supervisor before the trial but now plans to retire.

He is returning to a world steeped in Simpson trial developments he had never heard about because of sequestration and because so many court proceedings took place without the jury present.

He had no idea that one potential defense witness mentioned in the opening statements, Mary Anne Gerchas, had been arrested on credit card fraud charges. Or that another potential defense witness, Rosa Lopez, spent days on the witness stand without the jury present after she declared her desire to return to her native El Salvador. Or that a slew of figures in the case began coming out with books. Or that a key prosecution witness, Detective Mark Fuhrman, painted by the defense as a rogue cop, smashed a newspaper photographer with a briefcase in January and sued defense attorney Robert Shapiro in May. Or that Kato Kaelin became a national celebrity of such proportion that a Clinton Administration Cabinet member would ask for an autographed picture at a Washington dinner.

Cravin said he was "shocked" when Ito called him into his chambers Monday and abruptly dismissed him. Another juror Ito dismissed that day, Farron Chavarria, 28, of Pico Rivera, had reportedly accused Cravin of trying to intimidate her with harsh glares and by brushing into her on an elevator. Defense lawyers sought Chavarria's ouster, while prosecutors pushed to get Cravin off the jury.

While Cravin has been one of the nation's most visible figures on television for the past two days, Chavarria has been in seclusion. Her family said Wednesday she feared possible threats against her in the wake of Cravin's comments about friction between them.

"There are a lot of crazy people out there and I'm afraid," said Aurora Chavarria, Farron's mother.

As in the case of other dismissed black jurors, Simpson's attorneys responded by accusing the prosecution of targeting African American jurors for dismissal in an attempt to block an acquittal and force a mistrial. Both sides routinely accuse the other of playing the race card, based on the notion that blacks are automatically sympathetic to Simpson.

"It seems like the jury is on trial, not the Juice," Cravin said, insisting he has done nothing wrong.

Ito has removed jurors for a wide variety of reported sins, including failing to disclose experience with domestic violence (Jeanette Harris), keeping notes (Tracy Kennedy), having the same doctor as Simpson (Catherine Murdoch) and criticizing sheriff's deputies (Tracy Hampton).

Cravin said nothing so substantial was cited by Ito in dismissing him. He said the judge called him into his chambers only once to ask about intimidation.

"Staring? Intimidating? What is that?" he asked angrily as the limo took him from Channel 9 to Channel 13 in the company of his newly hired attorney, Milton Grimes. Grimes, who orchestrated Cravin's array of TV appearances in what he described as an effort to let Cravin defend himself, also represents dismissed juror Harris. "What they are saying," Cravin said, "is, 'I didn't get along with the crowd.' I thought it was all right to have discord on a jury."

That discord, he said, was the kind that results from long periods of confinement, such as arguments over the use of gym equipment, movies and accusations that sheriff's deputies made special accommodations for whites.

Race was a perpetual issue, Cravin said. He said he was convinced that Ito removed him as a peace offering to the prosecution after the judge removed Chavarria, a Latina, and Francine Florio-Bunten, a 38-year-old white juror who was dismissed after she was accused of contacting a literary agent.

"It was racial, a personal vendetta against me," he said. "The prosecution made up their mind to go after me as soon as it was clear that those two were gone. I was next."

He said the judge failed to take any action after he accused Florio-Bunten of hitting him in the head. Instead, he said, he was warned by one of the guards that he was being watched.

Cravin, a large man with penetrating eyes, said he is bitter at prosecutors because he believes in seeking his ouster from the jury, they fell victim to a stereotype common among white Americans: that strong black men with firm opinions are threatening.

"If I'm outspoken, I'm outspoken," he said. "Nobody is going to put me in a bag and shut me up and have me go along. They want me to smile, grin and tap-dance. I'm not like that."

Once, he said, he walked into a room where the jury's few whites were huddled.

"It was [so quiet you could hear] ants pissing on cotton," he said.

He described himself as a loner on the jury, a man who preferred reading the Bible, playing dominoes and cards.

Cravin said he had not heard enough evidence to convict Simpson, even after hearing some of the prosecution's most compelling DNA evidence. "Some of the blood was missing in the vial, some of it was degraded--that merits some thought," he said. "Then the answers the detectives gave seem rehearsed."

Why, he asked over dinner late Tuesday night at a trendy restaurant on Melrose Avenue, where Tom Snyder's TV show picked up the tab, would Simpson commit a crime and leave a glove on Bundy Drive and then drop another glove at his house? "It didn't seem like he was covering his tracks," Cravin said.

"When you take everything into consideration, you can't say conclusively that it [the murderer] was him. There is nothing conclusive about the fact that this [piece of evidence] appeared here and this appeared there. There are a lot of unanswered questions."

He said he also did not buy the argument that Simpson's history of spousal abuse provided a motive for killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson.

"Anybody is capable of killing, but that doesn't make them a killer," he said. "You have to press the right button. Everyone who is married at some point has a run-in. Sometimes differences solidify marriages."

Cravin said he was very disappointed that he was not allowed to finish the trial.

"I put five months on this thing, I wanted to see it through," he said.

At home in his middle-class community, he has not been able to make the transition from his front-row courtroom seat to the television screen.

"It's boring," he said, after watching a few minutes of trial testimony.

To think that it had all started a year ago when he arrived home late from a bowling match, turned on his videotape machine and sat back to watch a tape of what he assumed would be a National Basketball Assn. championship series game on NBC. Instead, he found himself watching the internationally televised police pursuit of Simpson and friend Al Cowling that had preempted the game.

On Wednesday night, this year's NBA Finals began. "This time," Cravin said, "I'm going to get to watch the game. I'm not going to be taking any calls."

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