Ruling on the most contentious and far-reaching dispute of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito on Thursday barred jurors from hearing all but two short references to the word “nigger” used by a former Los Angeles police detective in interviews with an aspiring screenwriter.
Ito’s ruling means that the predominantly African American jury will not hear Mark Fuhrman boast of brutalizing and framing suspects, manufacturing probable cause and singling out minorities for mistreatment.
Although the panelists will hear the screenwriter’s testimony that Fuhrman used the racial epithet a total of 41 times in the interviews, they will not experience the shock that swept through Ito’s courtroom and beyond as tapes and transcripts featured Fuhrman uttering the word time and again and suggesting, among many other things, that black members of the City Council “should be lined up against a wall and f------ shot.”
Those and other comments had trickled out in news reports over the past few weeks, but their airing in court Tuesday stunned much of Los Angeles and the nation. Thursday, Ito’s decision not to let the jury hear the comments sent out new waves of disappointment and distress.
“We certainly expected more than this,” said Geraldine Washington, acting president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People’s Los Angeles chapter. “People are calling us from all over this country. The phones are busy. From the tone of the calls, it is a feeling of disbelief and outrage.”
Police, alert to the possibility of tension, guardedly patrolled city streets. There, a few residents praised Ito’s decision, but most expressed dismay.
“They are playing with the jury,” said one Boyle Heights resident, Elias Nunez. “It’s as if we were blindfolded.”
In rejecting excerpts of Fuhrman describing misconduct in other cases, Ito said they required a “leap in both law and logic” to be linked to the Simpson investigation. Just because Fuhrman bragged about lying or fabricating evidence in other cases does not mean that he planted a glove outside Simpson’s house, Ito concluded.
“It is a theory without factual support,” Ito said.
While Ito rejected defense efforts to have 61 tape and transcript excerpts presented to the jury, he said that two could be introduced because they directly contradicted Fuhrman’s sworn testimony that he had not used the racial slur in the past 10 years.
In one, contained in a transcript but erased from its original tape, Fuhrman states: “We have no niggers where I grew up.”
In the other, he is asked by screenwriting teacher Laura Hart McKinny why black Muslims live in a particular area. “That’s where niggers live,” he responds. The jury will hear that comment in Fuhrman’s voice because the tape of that interview was saved.
Explaining why he would not admit into evidence the dozens of other offensive references, Ito wrote: “The court finds the probative value of the remaining examples is substantially and overwhelmingly outweighed by the danger of undue prejudice.”
He said the use of “nigger” in those many other passages had the potential to provoke the jury, particularly because the epithet in question is “perhaps the single most insulting, inflammatory and provocative term in use in modern-day America.”
Simpson’s lead trial lawyer, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., responded to the ruling with a sharp condemnation of Ito. The decision, Cochran said at a news conference outside his Wilshire Boulevard office, was “perhaps one of the cruelest, unfairest decisions ever rendered in a criminal court.”
While urging residents to remain calm, the normally unflappable Cochran, surrounded by the rest of Simpson’s high-priced legal team, accused Ito of “doctored, tortured reasoning” and proclaimed: “The cover-up continues.”
Cochran said defense attorneys were weighing an immediate appeal, but legal experts said the defense would have little chance of prevailing. With his options suddenly curbed, Cochran continued to vent his anger even after his news conference.
“This inexplicable, indefensible ruling lends credence to all those who say the criminal justice system is corrupt,” he said in an interview. “This is unspeakable.”
Peter Neufeld, another of Simpson’s lawyers, was even more pointed in his criticism. “It is a victory for racism,” he said of Ito’s ruling. “It is a green light for a rogue and racist cop to engage in brutality, evidence tampering and the fabrication of probable cause with impunity.”
Prosecutors had urged Ito to exclude all the tapes and transcripts, but the district attorney’s office released a statement expressing satisfaction with the ruling.
“While we decry racism, these tapes are for another forum, not this murder trial,” Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said in a statement released by a spokeswoman. “The court’s ruling will help keep the focus where it should be: on relevant evidence that allows the jury to determine whether Mr. Simpson is responsible for the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. Now let’s get on with the trial and get it to the jury.”
Simpson has pleaded not guilty to the double homicide, which was committed on June 12, 1994.
In contrast to his boss’ statement, Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden, one of the lead prosecutors in the case and the only leading member of the prosecution team who is black, took a different position.
“This is the worst [ruling] I could have anticipated,” he told a reporter for Reuters news service. “It is completely and totally irrelevant. . . . Just hearing one excerpt has an impact on me.”
Although legal experts said Ito’s ruling was a significant victory for the prosecution, the judge did leave a narrow opening for the defense to continue to press its claims of the tapes’ relevance. He wrote that because the defense has yet to rest its case, he was leaving open the possibility that he would review the various excerpts if defense attorneys offer other evidence that might make them relevant.
Praise and Criticism
The Fuhrman ruling had been eagerly anticipated and was snapped up ravenously by the press corps covering the case. Within minutes, details of it were broadcast worldwide, a reflection of the intense interest that has gathered around the issue in recent weeks.
Across Los Angeles Thursday night, some residents praised the judge for avoiding what they considered a side issue in the trial, but many fumed at Ito’s decision.
In Leimert Park, a predominantly black community, neighbors gathered at a coffee shop to listen to jazz, drink coffee and discuss the latest developments.
“Fuhrman is a critical part of the case,” said Richard Fulton, the owner of 5th Street Dick’s Coffee Co. “To not allow the jury to hear everything he says doesn’t look right. It doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t feel right. They’re doing everything they can to convict this man.”
At a nearby Laundromat, Julius Jackson, 77, said: “I think it’s just unfair. Why two out of 41? Why not at least half? These tapes show the kind of man Fuhrman is. The jury really needs to know.”
Maria Aguirre, who was shopping in Boyle Heights, agreed.
“He should allow all the tapes, or at least more of them,” she said. “I think it is important to the case because there is a lot of racism.”
But many white residents in the San Fernando Valley and the South Bay applauded Ito’s ruling, though reaction was not unanimous.
“Every time a black person is brought on trial, people are looking to make it a race issue,” complained Paul Kenner of Reseda, a 49-year-old merchandiser. Ito’s ruling, he said, “avoided another major problem as far as racism goes.”
Munching on Chinese food at the food court in the Northridge Fashion Center, Jim Zuckerman was more blunt. “Black people think about their skin color before right and wrong,” the Northridge photographer said. He said he did not think Ito’s ruling mattered much since he expected a hung jury. He looked ahead to the retrial: “If there aren’t any black people on that [second] jury, everyone’s going to cry racism. If you put one black person on, it’s going to be hung.”
“Quote me,” he added.
But Debbie Howard, a Torrance store manager, disagreed with those who supported Ito’s ruling. “If the jury is going to hear a little of the tapes, they should hear them all. It doesn’t seem fair otherwise.”
The anger of some residents was countered by gratitude from the family of Ron Goldman, which had joined with prosecutors in arguing that the Fuhrman issue was a distraction from the question of Simpson’s guilt or innocence.
Fred Goldman, the father of Ron, had angrily criticized Ito this week for allowing the tapes to be played in open court. On Thursday, he and other members of the Goldman family gathered in a subdued news conference outside their home to praise the judge.
“We hope that this is an indication that this trial will be back on track,” Fred Goldman said. “We all want to thank the judge for his time and effort.”
But the Goldmans’ gratitude toward Ito was matched by their contempt for the defense team, especially Cochran.
“I’m sure he is disappointed that he can’t turn this trial into a racial horror,” Goldman said. “He should be ashamed of himself for trying.”
Fuhrman Lawyer Quits
While most attention was riveted on Ito’s ruling, fallout from the Fuhrman interviews continued outside the courtroom as well. In Washington, a federal official announced that the Justice Department will review allegations of civil rights violations arising from the interviews, while in Los Angeles, the former detective’s civil attorney said he was “profoundly disgusted and horrified” by his client’s comments and thus could no longer represent him.
“My heart is filled with grief, and my thoughts and prayers at this time go out to the many, many people whose lives have been stung by Mr. Fuhrman’s comments,” attorney Robert H. Tourtelot said in a written statement, “as well as the many fine men and women of law enforcement throughout this country who may be wrongly judged as a result of Mr. Fuhrman’s statements.”
Tourtelot has been Fuhrman’s aggressive and outspoken advocate since last year, defending him against attacks from Simpson’s lawyers and filing a libel suit against the New Yorker magazine and defense attorney Robert L. Shapiro for a story in which unnamed defense attorneys alleged that Fuhrman was a racist who planted evidence in the Simpson case.
“As all those throughout the world who have followed the Simpson case are aware, I have represented the civil interests of Mark Fuhrman for over one year now,” Tourtelot said. “During this time I have acted to the best of my knowledge and ability in response to what I believed were libelous charges made against Mr. Fuhrman. “I was profoundly disgusted and horrified by the contents of Mr. Fuhrman’s taped conversations. . . . , as I listened along with the rest of the world last Tuesday. I have made the decision to discontinue my representation of Mr. Fuhrman in all matters. The reasons are personal but no doubt obvious.”
Despite his distaste for his client’s comments, Tourtelot stressed that he continues to believe that Fuhrman did not plant evidence.
“To believe otherwise not only defies logic but the mountain of evidence which is unrelated to Mr. Fuhrman and points directly to Mr. Simpson as the killer,” Tourtelot said.
“Allowing this diversion from Mr. Simpson to Mr. Fuhrman has turned this trial into a circus which represents a mockery of our judicial system.”
Tourtelot’s resignation does not leave Fuhrman unrepresented; he has recently hired criminal defense attorney and former LAPD Officer Darryl Mounger. Private investigator Anthony Pellicano said he will stay on the case.
The withdrawal of Fuhrman’s lawyer made him the latest casualty in the spiraling controversy. On Thursday, Gov. Pete Wilson added his voice to the chorus of officials condemning the former detective’s statements.
“There is no condoning that and no excuse for it,” Wilson said. “I think that the shock that the public has experienced is a natural reaction.”
Federal Inquiry Begins
In Washington, a senior Justice Department official announced that the department’s civil rights division is reviewing a written request from the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP for a federal investigation into Fuhrman’s comments.
On the tapes, the detective boasts of using excessive force on suspects, of singling out minorities for mistreatment and of fabricating evidence, particularly against minority suspects. The NAACP’s Washington wrote to the Justice Department on Aug. 18 to say that the organization was “deeply concerned that these alleged incidents may have given rise to numerous civil rights violations.”
Federal officials routinely investigate citizen complaints regarding possible civil rights violations, but the most commonly used civil rights statutes bar prosecutions for events that are more than five years old except in cases that could result in a death sentence.
During a briefing for reporters, Deputy Atty. Gen. Jamie S. Gorelick said the NAACP letter has been referred to the Justice Department’s civil rights division. She added that she did not know how long that review would take.
Asked whether there is concern in the Justice Department that to look into the allegations about the Los Angeles Police Department could interfere with the Simpson trial, Gorelick said: “We clearly would not take any investigative steps that would interfere with the trial. And it is, in my view, too soon to tell what steps we would take--but for the trial. But I can assure you that we will not do anything that will interfere with that trial.”
Echoing those comments, a knowledgeable Justice Department source said it was highly unlikely that the department would subpoena any tapes while the trial is under way.
Deval Patrick, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote to the NAACP on Thursday confirming that the division would review the organization’s concerns.
“We will review the information you have provided and any other information you may have in this connection,” his letter said. “In cooperation with the office of the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, Nora Manella, we will evaluate the material and conduct further investigation as warranted.”
Police Commission President Deirdre Hill, who heads the civilian panel that oversees the LAPD, said the Police Department would not flinch from a federal investigation.
“I would think that the department would be open to any law enforcement investigation,” she said. “That’s an important part of public trust.”
At the same time, Hill added that she hopes that investigations, either by local or federal authorities, do not create an atmosphere of “wallowing in negativity.” The most important response to the Fuhrman tapes and transcripts, she said, is to focus on the future and recommit the LAPD to rooting out any vestiges of racism and other problems.
With so much attention focused on the tapes and their potential implications beyond the Simpson trial, the ACLU filed a motion asking Ito to release the material--a move it said would help the community come to grips with the former detective’s explosive allegations.
“The sooner we can see the totality of the evidence,” said Doug E. Mirell, an attorney for the ACLU, “the sooner we can get this behind us.” McKinny’s lawyer objected to the ACLU motion, and Ito did not address it in his order.
After two days without testimony, Ito scheduled a court session for this morning. Defense attorneys have indicated that McKinny will be their next witness and that it would then play the tapes--an event that could take place as early as today but might wait until next week.
Times staff writers Ronald Ostrow, Tim Rutten, Henry Weinstein, John Schwada, Edward J. Boyer, Carlos Lozano, Julie Tamaki, Efrain Hernandez, Nicholas Riccardi, John M. Glionna, John L. Mitchell and correspondent Leila Cobo-Hanlon contributed to this report.