Judge Lance A. Ito should make the Fuhrman tapes available to everyone.
That’s the only way to stop leaks to the media of the most inflammatory portions of the tapes, sound bites that are shaking a community still torn by the Rodney King beating and the 1992 riots.
Provide transcripts, with a nominal fee to cover the cost of reproduction, to anyone interested in former Detective Mark Fuhrman’s stories of racism, sexism and brutality in the LAPD. Do it now, so a study of them can begin immediately by community groups monitoring the LAPD, political leaders, Chief Willie Williams, the Police Commission, the media, scholars and anyone else who is concerned with the department’s performance.
The issue was raised Monday in court by Matthew Schwartz, attorney for Laura Hart McKinny, the screenwriter-professor who tape-recorded Fuhrman’s recollections for a screenplay she intended to write.
Schwartz demanded that Ito stop the leaks. The lawyer said his client has “a proprietary interest” in the tapes, obviously meaning they’re worth money to her and their value is cheapened by leaks. In addition, he told Ito the leaks were undermining Ito’s judicial authority since the judge had banned distribution of the tapes, except to himself and the defense and prosecuting attorneys.
Schwartz proposed that Ito permit him to put the reporters on the stand to demand that they name the leakers. “We’ll just bring in a couple of reporters [and ask point blank] ‘where did you get this information.”’ This, he said, would not violate California’s shield law, protecting reporters from naming their sources, because Ito’s order would take precedence.
“This is a total misreading of the shield law,” said Terry Francke, attorney for the California First Amendment Coalition. The shield law takes precedence, he said, because “it was put on the ballot and passed by the voters.”
What was disturbing about the courtroom discussion of the tapes was that it was limited to what was happening in the trial, as if this particular courtroom was the world and there was nothing outside.
But to people who worry about L.A., the world beyond the courtroom is the issue. “What is at stake is more important than the case,” said Gerald Chaleff, former president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. “If he said this on tape, and it can be checked out, the Police Department can find out if there are officers still working who violated the rules. They might find if there are still pervasive attitudes in the department that we thought we had addressed. It might lead us to ways of finding procedures that would remedy the situation.”
Karen Grigsby Bates, an African American writer and commentator, said the piecemeal leaking of hot Fuhrman tape excerpts are poisoning the shaky relationship between the Police Department and the African American community.
There has been a “fragile rapprochement” between the cops and the community following the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny, said Bates. Blacks rescued Denny from his assailants and he was a conciliatory figure during his recovery.
“People in the community now are saying, ‘This (being a cop) is a rough job, you can’t be Shirley Temple when you do it, but we don’t want you assaulting our kids,’ ” she said. “That feeling is being eroded, like acid corroding something, no matter who is leaking them. The leaks are burning little holes into this fabric of trust.”
Opening up the Fuhrman tapes to the community would also relieve the media of a troubling question.
The leaks, said USC journalism professor Ed Guthman, are “inflammatory . . . no question about that.”
He said leaks amount to sound bites without “intelligent context.” We don’t know what preceded or followed the Fuhrman quotes, or the nature of the dialogue between Fuhrman and screenwriter McKinny.
“They put the journalists in a difficult position. They want to do a responsible job of reporting,” Guthman said. “The reporters I know are responsible people, but overriding this is the tremendous attention being given to the trial. They know that if they don’t run what they are getting someone else will. . . . “
Some object that releasing the tapes will interfere with the trial. “It would divert attention from O.J.'s guilt or innocence,” said retired Superior Court Judge Burton Katz. But Douglas Mirrell, a lawyer specializing in press freedom issues, said the trial wouldn’t be affected since the jury is sequestered.
“O.J. Simpson will either rise or fall,” he said. “There will be a verdict or there won’t be a verdict. But confidence in the Police Department and confidence in the officers is an ongoing issue.”
That’s why Judge Ito should let the light shine on Mark Fuhrman’s dark memories.