For the first time since Mark Fuhrman left the witness stand in March, his voice filled the courtroom Tuesday in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, this time boasting about police brutality and uttering the word “nigger” time after time, statements that contradicted his earlier testimony and forced the judge to confront what may be his biggest decision of the case.
In a silent courtroom punctuated only by occasional prosecution objections and the soft crying of Kim Goldman, sister of murder victim Ronald Lyle Goldman, defense attorneys displayed transcripts and played audiotapes--61 excerpts in all--in which Fuhrman could be heard uttering one shocking comment after another. The defense wants the jury to hear those tapes, but Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito deferred a ruling Tuesday, saying he needed more time to think.
“You’ve got 200 niggers who are trying to take you prisoner,” Fuhrman said in one interview with screenwriter and professor Laura Hart McKinny. “You just chase this guy, and you beat the s--- out of him.”
In another excerpt, McKinny asked whether he had probable cause to arrest black suspects.
“Probable cause?” Fuhrman responded. “You’re God.”
In still others, Fuhrman boasted of fabricating evidence against suspects and expressed amazement about the racial makeup of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Wilshire Division. “Go to Wilshire Division,” he said. “Wilshire Division is all niggers. All niggers, nigger training officers, niggers.”
Few people or groups escaped Fuhrman’s wrath. He said he had no regard for judges, female police officers, liberals or the ACLU, among others. The ACLU, he said, should be bombed--a comment that Ramona Ripston, executive director of the Los Angeles ACLU, called shocking.
The airing of the tapes and transcripts came after weeks of press disclosures that have revealed many of their details. Nevertheless, the sound of Fuhrman’s words reverberated far beyond the courtroom: Mayor Richard Riordan, who was vacationing in France, was told of the comments by aides and said what he had heard “made me sick.” Police Chief Willie L. Williams met privately with Police Commission President Deirdre Hill and then publicly denounced Fuhrman’s comments as a disgrace.
“The fact that we may have a few people in our department today, or in the past, who reflected those views, is going to change,” Williams told reporters at police headquarters. “We’re going to make a change where change is needed in the LAPD.”
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said he was “embarrassed for the city and for the Los Angeles Police Department.” The chairwoman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, Laura Chick, scheduled a special hearing to review LAPD training policies. And rank-and-file police officers expressed dismay over tapes that some felt had betrayed their work, heightened racial tension in the city to an alarming degree and cast another shadow over the long-suffering Police Department.
“He let us down, and he let this department down,” one veteran officer said of Fuhrman. “Now the question is: What can possibly happen next?”
With so many people offended by Fuhrman’s comments on the tapes and transcripts, few were left to stand up for him. Even his private investigator, Anthony Pellicano, called his client’s comments reprehensible. But Pellicano stressed that they were made at a difficult time in Fuhrman’s life and that despite them, nothing has surfaced to show that the detective planted evidence.
In fact, Fuhrman specifically denied planting evidence during his final interview with McKinny, one that took place after he testified at last summer’s preliminary hearing.
Simpson, who has pleaded not guilty to the murders of Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, was for the most part impassive as the tapes and transcripts were aired in open court. But during one grisly section of the recently retired detective’s account--his description of the Police Department’s 77th Street Division as a place awash with the “smell of niggers that have been beaten and killed"--the former football star grimaced and tightened his lips, swallowing hard and staring at McKinny.
Simpson’s sister, Shirley Baker, said she and her relatives were stunned by the tapes, and expressed amazement that Fuhrman was drawing a city pension, in light of his comments. “It’s unbelievable,” she said.
For her part, the screenwriter and professor, thrust suddenly into the most closely watched criminal trial of modern times, wore a pained expression and recited her testimony in a breathy, sometimes apologetic voice. Asked by Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden how she was feeling, she responded: “I’m all right.”
“Me too,” Darden said quietly.
At the outset of Tuesday’s hearing, which took place without the jury present, Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark strenuously objected to the playing of the audiotapes and to the display of transcripts. She said prosecutors were prepared to stipulate that it was Fuhrman on the tapes and that they spoke for themselves, but she argued that playing them in open court would not help the process.
Prosecutors, stunned by the contents of the Fuhrman tapes and transcripts, have long argued that they are a distraction from the core issue of the Simpson trial: the question of whether Simpson murdered his ex-wife and her friend in a brutal attack on June 12, 1994.
They acknowledged Tuesday that Fuhrman lied when he denied under oath that he had used the racial epithet during the past 10 years, but they fiercely contended that there was no evidence that the detective could have planted evidence and thus they said none of the tapes were relevant.
Simpson’s attorneys have argued that a police conspiracy is responsible for at least some of the evidence pointing to their client’s guilt. The chief target of their conspiracy theory has been Fuhrman, who played a relatively brief role in the investigation but who testified that he found key pieces of evidence, including a bloody glove behind Simpson’s house.
Goldmans Protest Playing Tapes
With that theme central to the defense case, the emergence of the Fuhrman interviews has given his attorneys cause for celebration, but it has infuriated some of the victims’ family members.
“This is now the Fuhrman trial,” an angry Fred Goldman said Tuesday. Goldman has become increasingly vocal as the trial has centered on the tapes and transcripts--a distraction, he and others contend, from the issue of Simpson’s conduct on the night of the murders.
From the time that they first surfaced, the tapes and transcripts have leapt beyond the Simpson trial itself and have raised profound questions for the LAPD and the city. On Tuesday, Ito explicitly acknowledged the extent and gravity of that controversy in ruling that the tapes and transcripts should be aired in open court.
“I think that there is an overriding public interest in the nature of the offer that you are making, and I don’t want this court to ever be in a position where there is any indication that this court would participate in suppressing information that is of vital public interest,” Ito said to defense attorney Gerald Uelmen. Ito then instructed Uelmen to play the tapes and present the transcripts.
That decision infuriated members of the Goldman family, who held a lunchtime news conference to denounce Ito’s decision to play the tapes for the world.
“I don’t understand why the hell we had to listen to two hours of this hate,” Fred Goldman said angrily. “It’s disgusting. My son, Nicole, our families, have a right to a fair trial. And this is not fair.”
Legal experts generally sympathized with the Goldmans’ anger but argued that it was misplaced.
“Surviving family members might find it difficult to understand, but a criminal trial serves several functions,” said UCLA law professor Peter Arenella. “One of those functions is to help legitimate the system itself, in part by showing the community at large that the criminal justice system is not trying to suppress the truth.”
Harland W. Braun, a former prosecutor and now a prominent Los Angeles defense attorney, said he did not believe that the tapes should have been played in court, but he said the Goldmans should blame Garcetti, not Ito, for the turmoil that has engulfed the trial.
“Goldman’s father should be saying, ‘Garcetti, why did you put on Fuhrman when you knew he was a rotten apple? Why did you do this to my son’s case?’ ” Braun asked. “People are losing sight of the fact that the admission of these tapes is a direct result of the prosecution’s decision to use Mark Fuhrman after they knew . . . that he was a racist or a liar.”
Despite the prosecution’s objections, Ito allowed Simpson’s lawyers to play the tapes and to elicit McKinny’s description of the context of each of the remarks, which were made in a series of interviews stretching from 1985 to 1994. McKinny told Ito that she had inadvertently erased the tape of her first Fuhrman interview and at least one other interview, but not before transcribing them.
As a result, McKinny, who said she had worked for a time as a professional transcriber, was able to confirm the accuracy of that transcript and another from an erased tape--as well as to identify Fuhrman’s voice on the tapes that followed.
Tapes Play to Silent Court
Given the judge’s permission, Uelmen proceeded to play one tape after the next, interrupted only by questions from Ito and by the soft-spoken objections from Darden, the only black member of the prosecution team and a lawyer who once prosecuted police officers.
Some of the excerpts already had leaked out over the past few weeks, but the effect of hearing Fuhrman’s voice still was riveting. Through the morning session, the courtroom grew increasingly pensive and quiet. After two hours of building tension, the morning session culminated with the most shocking of all the taped interviews, the one that has caused the greatest concern at the LAPD and the greatest outrage among many community leaders.
That tape, whose contents were first disclosed by The Times, features Fuhrman describing what he alleges was a brutal police beating and a successful attempt to dupe Internal Affairs investigators who looked into more than a dozen civilian complaints.
“We basically tortured them,” Fuhrman said of the suspects in that case, a beating that he said followed an incident in which two officers were shot in the Hollenbeck Division. “There was four policemen, four guys. We broke ‘em. Their faces were just mush. They had pictures of the walls with blood all the way to the ceiling, and finger marks from trying to crawl out of the room.”
The courtroom fell stonily silent as that tape was played. When it finished, no one spoke for several seconds.
“Do you have a particularly vivid memory of that account?” Uelmen asked.
“Of course,” McKinny answered, her wispy voice suddenly subdued.
That incident has formed a central focus of the LAPD’s internal investigation. Authorities have concluded that Fuhrman’s account appears to grow out of a 1978 incident in Boyle Heights--a shooting that saw two officers shot and generated 16 citizen complaints against a dozen officers, including Fuhrman. But other officers who responded to that incident do not corroborate Fuhrman’s account, which they say was embellished, perhaps to impress the screenwriter.
The LAPD is investigating several other aspects of Fuhrman’s interviews, including his descriptions of officers rupturing a suspect’s spleen, his descriptions of how a notorious group of officers who called themselves Men Against Women operated, and his bevy of racist remarks.
Not all the comments that have attracted the LAPD’s attention were presented in court Tuesday. Some of Fuhrman’s descriptions of rupturing a suspect’s spleen, for instance, were mentioned in the prosecution’s brief contesting the admissibility of the tapes and transcripts, but the defense did not seek to introduce them to the jury.
According to one member of the defense team, Simpson’s lawyers decided not to pursue that line of questioning because Ito had “made it clear he’s not going to give us all the abuse stuff. We had Hollenbeck. It’s better. There’s more detail, and we confirmed it.”
Once the tapes and transcripts had been aired, they set the stage for one of the trial’s most impassioned and personal arguments, with distinguished lawyers for both the prosecution and defense eloquently debating whether the jury should hear the same words that were even then generating shock waves of anger and dismay outside the courtroom.
In tones that moved from quiet to so forceful that Ito needed to interrupt to ask him to lower his voice, Uelmen argued that the jury should hear all the tapes to assess not only Fuhrman’s credibility but that of every officer who testified in the trial. Fuhrman’s comments about officers lying for each other, Uelmen said, was striking evidence of a police code of silence that he argued cast doubt on the prosecution’s contention that Fuhrman could not have planted evidence since other officers would have seen him.
Moreover, Uelmen said, the tapes offered grim and graphic evidence about the credibility of Fuhrman and all his testimony.
“After we’ve read all of these transcripts and listened to all of these tapes and come to the sickening realization of who Mark Fuhrman really is: Los Angeles’ worst nightmare, probably the greatest liar since Ananias,” Uelmen said, referring to a Biblical character who died after being rebuked for a lie.
“But the jury,” Uelmen said, “has only seen a very polished and professional performance that was carefully orchestrated, in which Detective Fuhrman sounded more like a choirboy.”
Rising late in the day, Clark sadly announced that her task was not to defend Fuhrman, whose statements she called repugnant and offensive.
Because of that, she said, “this may well be the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do as a prosecutor. I don’t think that there is anyone in this courtroom, in this county, that could possibly envy me.”
Clark, one hand placed softly across her chest, nevertheless said she did not have the luxury of responding as an offended citizen.
“I am Marcia Clark the prosecutor,” she said softly. “And I stand before you today, your Honor, not in defense of Mark Fuhrman but in defense of a case of such overwhelming magnitude in terms of the strength of the proof of the defendant’s guilt that it would be a travesty to allow such a case to be derailed with a very serious and important but very inflammatory social issue.”
She offered to have the prosecution stipulate with the defense that Fuhrman lied under oath--a move that would allow Simpson’s lawyers to suggest that the jury disregard all of the detective’s testimony. But she insisted that the wealth of evidence in the case proved that Fuhrman could not have planted the glove, as the defense alleges.
Clark listed the facts that she said argued against Fuhrman’s planting evidence: Other police officers arrived at the crime scene long before Fuhrman and saw no glove for him to abscond with; Fuhrman was never out of sight of other officers; Simpson house guest Kato Kaelin reported hearing three loud thumps on his wall near where the glove was found, thumps that he heard before police knew of the murders; Fuhrman had no way of knowing whether Simpson would have an alibi for the time when the murders occurred; Fuhrman did not even know whether eyewitnesses might emerge to say they saw the crimes committed.
Ito interrupted to add a point bolstering that line of argument: Fibers in the glove were later found to be consistent with those from the inside of Simpson’s car, he noted, a fact that Fuhrman presumably could not have predicted when he reported finding the glove.
Given all that, Clark said it was unfair for the defense to try to distract the jury by leveling explosive allegations of racism, brutality and lying against Fuhrman.
The defense strategy, she said, was manipulative, crafty, cunning--and wrong.
After a full day of hearing the explosive material and weighing the arguments, Ito conceded that he needed more time to think.
“This is not something that I can rule on from the seat of my pants,” Ito said. “I need to sit down and look at each one of these individual situations and make the appropriate ruling.”
He did not say when he would rule, but warned Simpson attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. that he did not want to be rushed. Until then, the Simpson trial probably limp along: No court is scheduled for today, and the defense has little evidence left to present. Simpson’s lawyers want to finish with the issues surrounding Fuhrman and his testimony.
Times staff writers Jodi Wilgoren and Jean Merl contributed to this story.