In the media capital of the world, it probably is inevitable that every event--no matter how deeply wrenching--ultimately will acquire its signature sound bite.
As O.J. Simpson’s double murder trial plumbs new depths of chaos and uncertainty, it produces them in abundance. But when the case is over, and its inevitable consequences are calculated, the electronic moment most people will recall probably occurred Wednesday, when Ronald Goldman’s father, engulfed in grief, stood in the lobby of the Criminal Courts Building and angrily spat into a microphone: “This is not now the Fuhrman trial. This is a trial about the man who murdered my son.”
Has the issue of the controversial detective’s credibility and racial attitudes in some way hijacked the Simpson trial?
Most legal analysts say no, but they agree that the question has sent the participants’ emotional temperatures to previously unrecorded heights--and that if passions engendered by the fight over the so-called Fuhrman tapes boil over, the heat may be felt well beyond Judge Lance A. Ito’s courtroom.
Those tensions first erupted into public view Wednesday morning, when defense and prosecuting attorneys engaged in an extraordinarily long and bruising exchange of mutual abuse. Robert L. Shapiro said he and his colleagues intend to report the prosecutors to the State Bar for trying to intimidate Ito. Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden responded in kind, threatening, somewhat mysteriously, to report the defense to the U.S. attorney.
“It was like two fast-food chains in a spitting match,” marveled veteran criminal defense attorney Harland Braun. “One accuses the other of selling hamburgers tainted with e coli , and the other says the first one is selling fries contaminated with typhoid. The result is nobody wants to eat in either place. The disturbing thing is that there was no legal purpose to either of the diatribes we heard Wednesday. It was just Ito letting both sides hold a national press conference.”
But while the lawyers involved may put aside their differences when a case ends, shake hands and return to conflict as usual, the ordinary people whose personal tragedy drags them into the criminal system sometimes do not. And any Californian who heard Fred Goldman Wednesday may wonder where his obvious rage may lead--particularly when they recall the role that other crime victims’ families have played in the state’s recent politics.
Political strategist and pollster Arnold Steinberg, whose firm has done extensive public opinion research on legal issues, said, “There is a potential for a substantial public backlash over the Fuhrman issue. And, if it occurs, it will be as a direct consequence of the Goldman family’s press conference Wednesday. It was as intense a television event as I’ve ever seen.”
Wednesday’s turmoil notwithstanding, the law values detachment; politics feeds on intensity. And few social forces have proved quite as potent as has the victims’ rights movement in recent years.
Fred Goldman’s heartfelt resentment over the way in which the controversy over taped interviews with former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman have come to dominate the trial of his son’s accused murderer is the sort of sentiment on which ballot propositions are built. If, as predicted, the Simpson case spawns a movement to abolish unanimous verdicts or to restrict the scope of impeachment evidence, the Goldmans’ familial grief could become a public issue.
“I think the degree to which they have an impact beyond the courtroom will be determined by the degree to which they press on with this,” Steinberg said. “Will we see them on ‘Nightline’? Will they do ‘Dateline’? Will we see them with Barbara Walters on ’20-20' Friday night?
“If it does take the judge seven days to resolve the issue of Fuhrman’s tapes, the question becomes: Will the Goldmans decide to frame the issues involved with a series of television appearances?” said Steinberg, who has extensive experience with California ballot propositions.
The Goldman family, he said, “has what we in the public opinion field call ‘third party credibility’ because the public sees them as victims, which they are, in fact. Listening to them, I was moved personally by Fred Goldman’s use of plain, everyday language. Clearly, they were people speaking from the heart--rightly or wrongly. I have no doubt that he would be an effective spokesman for an initiative of some sort, if he chooses to become one.”
As a case in point, Steinberg cites the role that Polly Klaas’ grieving father had in the birth of the so-called “three-strikes” movement. “Everyone feels the special tragedy when a parent loses a child. In electoral terms, the impact of that feeling is magnified by the fact that the political process is dominated by people over the age of 45 and for that reason parents have a particularly cogent appeal to the electorate. It springs from this general feeling that every parent has that you don’t want to outlive your children.”
But Steinberg, a frequent adviser to Republican candidates, does not believe that a preoccupation with the Fuhrman tapes has somehow “taken over” the Simpson trial. Rather, he points out, their fate simply is the last major issue left to resolve in a long trial.
But former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Robert Philobosian insisted that the Fuhrman question has “absolutely hijacked this trial, and it was an avoidable diversion.”
Philobosian says the responsibility for the digression rests with Simpson’s lawyers. “From the beginning,” he said, “the defense goal has been to turn this case from People vs. Simpson into Everybody vs. Fuhrman.
“But even if the defense is successful in proving that Mark Fuhrman made racist comments,” Philobosian said, “that does not prove that O.J. Simpson is innocent. The defense seems to equate Fuhrman’s alleged racism with acquittal. They’re wrong. This jury is smart enough to distinguish Fuhrman’s regrettable comments from his role in this case.
“This case,” the former prosecutor said, “should not and does not rise or fall on Mark Fuhrman’s attitudes, thoughts or actions.”
Defense attorney Braun, in contrast, believes the prosecutors bear a special responsibility for the prominence that the Fuhrman controversy has assumed. “This trial has been hijacked by the Fuhrman issue but probably justifiably,” he said. “When the state presents its case to a jury, it relies on most people’s unspoken assumption that the evidence presented to them is honestly obtained and that the witnesses are telling the truth. The defense is entitled to expose that sentiment for what it is--an assumption, not a fact.
“What has happened here was foreseeable and avoidable. The prosecutors believe Simpson is guilty, so they were willing to overlook the problems Fuhrman was bound to present. His own department knew he was a racist 12 years ago. Unless you believe that service in the LAPD is a form of sensitivity training, the chances are he’s still a racist. The prosecutors never should have used him, even if it meant they would have to forgo putting the Rockingham glove in evidence. They don’t need it anyway.”
Fuhrman was not only one of the first detectives at the murder scene, but also the one who found a bloody glove on the grounds of Simpson’s Brentwood estate. But whatever contribution he made to the investigation has now been subsumed by the question of his views on race, gender and what constitutes effective police work.
Gerald L. Chaleff, who has defended notorious figures such as the Alphabet Bomber and the Hillside Strangler, said the controversy over the tapes on which Fuhrman apparently uses numerous offensive epithets “has laid land mines that everyone will have to pick their way past in the days ahead. For example, if Judge Ito rules that certain parts of the tape are admissible and the prosecution seeks to call his wife in rebuttal, then he still must remove himself from the case--unless both sides agree otherwise, which is an open question.
“We still are going to have contentious and probably emotional arguments about exactly what the jury can hear, and that can take a long time. But the ultimate problem is whether Fuhrman and his views become the focal point of the case. Is the jury going to ignore all the evidence because they’re so angry and appalled by this man? Clearly, both sides agree on one thing: That’s a strong possibility. It’s what the defense seems to want and the prosecution appears to fear.”
Still, Chaleff argued, this moment probably was unavoidable. “That’s the way the system works,” he said. “There are 12 citizens of Los Angeles listening to this case. If they believe Mark Fuhrman, his views and his actions represent the Police Department in general and the officers in this case in particular, then they are entitled to disbelieve the police testimony. That’s called reasonable doubt.”
Chaleff took a similarly philosophical view of Wednesday’s emotional drama. “As a case like this nears its end,” he said, “the tension increases, the stress increases, and everybody’s tolerance for each other declines--and sometimes civility and decorum decline too. In a case where the stakes are this high and the publicity this intense, inevitably emotional eruptions occur. It’s not uncommon for these things to happen; but it’s unprecedented for 50 million people to see them.”