Frustrated by what he labeled an “incoherent” legal pleading from O.J. Simpson’s trumpeted defense team, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito deferred ruling Monday on the admissibility of explosive tapes and transcripts of interviews with a former Los Angeles police detective.
After citing 10 examples of what he said was sloppy work in a brief submitted last week by the defense team, Ito remarked that the team’s more than a dozen lawyers should have been able to produce a better legal brief. He concluded: “It will not be further considered by this court in its current form.”
Members of Simpson’s legal team were surprised and embarrassed by Ito’s decision and by his prickly language dismissing their work. But while the ruling Monday delays the judge’s decision about whether to let the jury hear 48 excerpts from tapes and transcripts--30 in which former Detective Mark Fuhrman is quoted using the word nigger and 18 others in which he allegedly claims to have committed misconduct--it does not end the defense’s quest to bring that material to court.
Nor does it affect the Los Angeles Police Department’s expanding investigation into the allegations that Fuhrman made in some of those interviews. Sources said Monday that the LAPD is pulling together a complete file of Fuhrman’s work history for comparison with statements attributed to him in the transcripts--including previously undisclosed sections in which sources said Fuhrman, first as a character and then as himself, discusses an incident involving a suspect who allegedly was struck with a baton during an altercation with police and later died of a ruptured spleen.
Simpson’s lawyers said they will file a revised set of page references to cure the problems that Ito complained about in their motion, which seeks to persuade the judge that the tapes and transcripts are relevant and should be heard by the jury trying to determine whether Simpson murdered Ronald Lyle Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson on June 12, 1994. Simpson has pleaded not guilty.
Apologizing for the mix-up, lead Simpson trial lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. promised Ito that the new defense paperwork would be submitted by the end of the day. He asked the judge to move as swiftly as possible to consider the tapes’ admissibility so that the jury, whose restlessness has become a persistent concern for both sides, will not be kept waiting longer than necessary.
In his order, Ito revealed a number of previously undisclosed instances in which Fuhrman allegedly told screenwriting professor Laura Hart McKinny about committing misconduct. The judge also cited five instances in which the defense claims that transcripts include passages in which the detective used a racial epithet that he had denied using when questioned on the stand.
In those excerpts, which are included in McKinny’s transcripts but come from tapes that subsequently were erased, Fuhrman is quoted as saying:
* “We’ve got females . . . and dumb niggers, and all your Mexicans that can’t even write the name of the car they drive.”
* “If I’m wrestling with some . . . nigger, and he gets me on my back, and he gets his hands on my gun, it’s over.”
* “She was afraid. He was a big nigger, and she was afraid.”
* “He was a nigger. He didn’t belong.”
* “Cmdr. [Ken] Hickman. . . . He should be shot. The City Council and the police commissioner, and all these niggers in L.A. city government and all of ‘em should be lined up against a wall and . . . shot.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark, signaling one avenue of prosecution response to the revelations about the Fuhrman interviews, pointed out to Ito that those comments and some others are not included on the audiotapes but only in transcripts prepared by the aspiring screenwriter.
“All of those portions are not on tape,” she said. “That tape has been destroyed.”
In those cases where the tapes are not available, all that remains are McKinny’s transcripts, which she made before recording over the interviews. Other statements by Fuhrman are on a dozen audiotapes, three of which Cochran said are being enhanced to eliminate background noise.
With the tapes continuing to dominate proceedings in the Simpson case, LAPD investigators were working to assemble a complete work history of Fuhrman’s career to assess whether he told the truth about certain incidents, and a lawyer for McKinny asked Ito to conduct an investigation into how excerpts from the transcripts were reported by The Times on Friday morning and how more were obtained by the news agency Reuters later that day.
Ito did not immediately rule on that request, but gave the lawyer time to review documents and asked him to file a letter or motion proposing how to proceed.
“We are asking this court to request the attorneys on both sides to conduct their own investigations and try to find the source of these leaks,” said Matthew Schwartz, one of McKinny’s lawyers. If those investigations do not turn up the sources, Schwartz said, he wanted the opportunity to question the journalists who wrote the stories--the latest attempt to draw reporters into the trial.
The tapes and transcripts have yet to be unveiled in open court, but many details from them have leaked out in recent days, some through the comments of attorneys, others through news reports.
That process continued Monday, with sources saying one of the transcripts features Fuhrman discussing an incident in which a suspect was struck with a baton.
After first raising the issue in the context of developing a screenplay character, the sources said, Fuhrman went on to say that he himself had been involved in such an incident. According to the sources, Fuhrman told McKinny that the man was taken for treatment to County-USC Medical Center, where he died.
As with Fuhrman’s explosively controversial recitation of the events surrounding a 1978 shooting in Boyle Heights, police have moved quickly to try to determine whether Fuhrman is telling the truth about that incident. Sources said police believe there was a case of a suspect who died from a ruptured spleen after an altercation with police in the LAPD’s Central Bureau, where Fuhrman worked as a gang officer in the early 1980s.
“From a P.R. point of view, this is a nightmare. There are always those who want to and do believe the worst . . . and that is damaging to this very fine department.” A psychiatrist who evaluated Fuhrman in 1981 quoted the officer as telling him that during the period he worked in Central Division--contained within Central Bureau--he was “reckless.”
“He said that if anyone resisted his arrest, ‘they went back unconscious,’ ” the doctor wrote as part of the detective’s effort to secure a stress-related pension from the city. “He recalls choking, kicking and punching a man after he was unconscious.”
Simpson’s attorneys said in court last week that they would seek to admit some of Fuhrman’s medical records, presumably referring to that and other evaluations performed in connection with the 1983 pension case. Ito previously ruled that those records are inadmissible, in part because they are so old.
In the same 1981 report, Fuhrman boasted of outsmarting investigators who were looking into “what happened to four guys” that he said he and his partner arrested.
The psychiatrist’s description of Fuhrman’s comments about that incident is sketchy, but it generally conforms with a grislier and more explicit account that Fuhrman gave McKinny regarding a bloody beating that he said unfolded in the wake of the Boyle Heights shooting, according to transcripts provided to The Times. Other police officers have expressed skepticism about Fuhrman’s account, details of which have shifted in various tellings, according to the transcripts and medical records.
Fuhrman’s attorney, Robert H. Tourtelot, said it was an exaggeration intended to impress McKinny, not a factually accurate recollection.
In addition to the LAPD inquiry, a source said prosecutors are searching their archives for files related to the Boyle Heights incident, one that occurred at a time when Cochran was a ranking member of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. At the time, Gil Garcetti, the current district attorney, reported to Cochran.
As they have for more than a week, the swirling developments and allegations involving the Fuhrman tapes unfolded outside the jury’s presence, shortening the portion of the day devoted to testimony. As the jury made its first appearance since Thursday, Ito apologized for the holdups and warned that more were coming.
“There is one major issue that I need to resolve with the lawyers that is coming up,” Ito told the jurors. “My guess is that it will take me about 20 hours to examine the issues and the evidence that is being presented to me, and I anticipate using my evening hours to try to do most of that. But it may also include some court time, and I just wanted to give you a warning that there may be substantial dark time coming up this week.”
Ito’s gracious treatment of the jury was in contrast to his testy handling of the attorneys: When Deputy Dist. Atty. Hank Goldberg and defense lawyer Barry Scheck locked in an argument, Ito eventually cut them off and accused them of “wasting my time.”
Later, when defense attorneys struggled to display a pair of photographs to the jury, Ito leaned over to the witness and muttered, “We’re never going to get out of here.”
That witness, John Larry Ragle, a former head of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department crime laboratory, spent most of the day testifying about what he said were numerous errors made during the collection and preservation of evidence in the Simpson case.
Ragle found fault with virtually every aspect of the LAPD’s work, from its slow notification of the coroner’s department to the entry of police officers into the crime scene to the collection, photography and storage of blood samples and other evidence.
The criminalist, a white-haired evidence expert who said he had testified about 1,000 times and had been paid $35,000 for his work in the Simpson case, criticized detectives for taking a blanket from Nicole Simpson’s condominium and placing it over her bloody body. Detectives should not have taken an item from her house and, more importantly, should not have discarded the blanket, he said.
“They selected something from the crime scene and used that, and it leaves a lot of unanswered questions” about evidence that might have been transferred from the blanket to the body or from the body to the blanket, he said. “That could have been helpful, and it’s just something that should have been done.”
Under questioning by Simpson attorney Robert Blasier--who struggled with repeated prosecution objections, many of them sustained by Ito--the witness hammered away at the LAPD for most of the morning and afternoon. Most of the jurors seemed attentive, taking notes even though much of the testimony largely rehashed points made by the defense during the exhaustive cross-examination of Police Department evidence collectors.
Then Goldberg launched his questioning, an undertaking that mixed painstaking analysis of specific evidence items with a general denunciation of Ragle’s credentials and attempts to portray him as being out-of-date with current crime scene evidence-collection techniques. As part of that inquiry, Goldberg presented Ragle with a series of textbooks; Ragle acknowledged that he had not read many of them even though they are important evidence-collection texts.
Near the end of his examination, which seemed to lose the interest of jurors and even Ito, Goldberg was more pointed, reminding Ragle of his earlier testimony regarding a book chapter he had written in 1979.
“Sir, have you ever written a book that is a leading textbook in the area of forensic science?”
“No,” Ragle responded. “I haven’t.”
“And the chapter that you wrote is not contained in a book that is considered to be a leading textbook, is that correct?” the prosecutor asked.
“I don’t consider it a leading textbook,” Ragle said.
“In fact,” the prosecutor added, “to your knowledge, is that book not even contained in the library at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department criminalistics laboratory library?”
“I can’t find it,” he said. “It was. . . . It is out of print.”