Jurors in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson returned to work for the first time in a week Tuesday and were immediately confronted with electrifying evidence that Detective Mark Fuhrman disparaged interracial couples, bragged about making up charges and repeatedly used a vicious racial epithet.
One witness, Kathleen Bell, fought back tears while telling the jury that Fuhrman told her during their first meeting that African Americans should be “gathered together and burned.” Then a second witness, Natalie Singer, recalled a 1987 conversation in which Fuhrman told her: “The only good nigger is a dead nigger.”
Tuesday marked the first time jurors have ever heard evidence of Fuhrman’s alleged racism and willingness to lie under oath. Outside court, new revelations continued to emerge about Fuhrman’s past: The Times obtained a 1978 letter in which the now-retired officer was accused of beating suspects after a police shooting in Boyle Heights.
Bell and Singer took the stand at the outset of Tuesday’s session, which ended on a note that is likely to end any lingering doubt in jurors’ minds about whether Fuhrman ever uttered the racial epithet--a point that even prosecutors concede at the same time that they dismiss its significance in the Simpson case. Near the conclusion of the court day, defense attorneys at last played for the jury an excerpt from a tape-recorded interview in which Fuhrman could be heard using the word, which aspiring screenwriter Laura Hart McKinny testified that he had said 42 times in her presence.
“They don’t do anything,” Furhman said of women police officers during the excerpt played for the jury. “They don’t go out there and initiate a contact with some 6-5 nigger who’s been in prison seven years pumping weights.”
“That was his voice?” Simpson attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. said after the tape was played.
“That’s his voice,” McKinny answered softly. “No doubt about it.”
Just before that, another excerpt was read to the jury, one in which Fuhrman said, “We have no niggers where I grew up.” McKinny began to say she considered that Fuhrman’s “least inflammatory and offensive” usage of the word, but Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito, who has come under fire for sanitizing the jury presentation, sternly cut her off and ordered the jury to disregard that comment.
The testimony that unfolded Tuesday marked the centerpiece of the defense attack on Fuhrman, who testified that he found a bloody glove outside Simpson’s house. It was being unveiled in court even as new information was coming to light regarding an explosive element of the inquiry into Fuhrman’s background.
According to materials obtained under the California Public Records Act, an attorney wrote to state and federal prosecutors in 1978 accusing Fuhrman of being one of several officers involved in beating suspects after a Boyle Heights incident in which two police officers were shot.
In the letter, dated Dec. 5, 1978, well-known civil rights lawyer Antonio H. Rodriguez describes beatings that he said occurred in the wake of a Nov. 18, 1978, shooting--an incident that Fuhrman appears to have alluded to in his interviews with McKinny. Rodriguez’s letter described “a confused mass of beatings and unjustified false arrests,” most of them by unidentified police officers. One officer, however, was identified by his last name.
“As they [two suspects] exited the police car in back of the station, without any reason or provocation on their part, they were assaulted and battered by several officers,” Rodriguez wrote, “including one by the name of Furman (sic).”
In court, jurors recoiled visibly at the testimony delivered by the three women whose accounts portrayed Fuhrman as a liar and a racist.
Throughout their testimony, panelists wrote furiously in their note pads, methodically chronicling the evidence that the defense hopes will lead to Simpson’s acquittal. One woman in the back row frowned deeply as Bell began delivering her testimony; another cradled her chin in her hand and stared intently at the witness. Two jurors sitting side by side in the front row gazed at the attorneys and then back at the witnesses as the questions and answers rebounded through a silent courtroom.
Witnesses Challenge Fuhrman
Tuesday’s testimony began with the long-awaited appearance of Bell, a former real estate agent whose voice shook as she described an encounter with Fuhrman in 1985 or 1986 at a Marine Corps recruiting station in Redondo Beach. Bell said she introduced herself to Fuhrman, thinking a friend of hers might like to date the tall, handsome police officer.
But after a few moments of conversing, Bell said, she mentioned Marcus Allen, an NFL running back and, coincidentally, a close friend of Simpson.
With that, Fuhrman’s “demeanor changed, and his attitude toward me changed,” Bell said. “He said that if, when he sees a black man with a white woman driving in a car he pulls them over. . . . I was taken aback a little bit, so I kind of paused, and I looked at the Marines and I just said, ‘Well, what if they didn’t do anything wrong?’ ”
Fuhrman’s response, she recalled: “He said he’d find something.”
Bell said Fuhrman called interracial marriage “disgusting,” and, with her voice breaking, she relayed the comment that most memorably stuck with her. According to Bell, Fuhrman said: “If I had my way I’d gather, all the niggers would be gathered together and burned.”
After months of anticipation, Bell’s time on the stand was surprisingly brief; Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden used only about 10 minutes for his cross-examination, a pattern repeated by Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark in her careful handling of Singer. Outside court, Bell told reporters she believes Simpson probably is guilty of the double murder.
The prosecution’s unwillingness to confront those witnesses signaled its determination to distance itself from the comments of the detective, whose taped interviews with McKinny have roiled the trial, the LAPD and the city.
“We have sat here,” Darden said outside the jury’s presence in an attempt to convince Ito to cut off the testimony about Fuhrman’s attitudes and comments in years past. “We have taken it on the chin. . . . I think the defense has clearly established that Fuhrman is a racist, amongst many, many other things.”
But, Darden added, “at some point . . . I think this court and the jury certainly as well may well lose focus as to what the real issue is here in this case. And the real issue is O.J. Simpson and what he did the night of June 12 and not Mark Fuhrman.”
Simpson has pleaded not guilty to the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. His attorneys have argued that a police conspiracy generated some of the physical evidence implicating their client in the double homicide--a contention that police, prosecutors and members of the victims’ families have steadfastly rejected.
‘Hatred and Arrogance’
Although prosecutors have repeatedly urged Ito to fight the defense’s effort to spotlight Fuhrman and his background, the judge has allowed Simpson’s attorneys limited forays into that topic.
Tuesday represented the defense’s most striking challenge to the detective, who testified under oath in March that he had never used the word “nigger” at any time during the past 10 years. Having heard audiotapes and seen transcripts making clear that Fuhrman did in fact use that word dozens of times during that period, prosecutors have long since given up trying to defend the detective, who retired from the Los Angeles Police Department last month.
But jurors have not been privy to the court sessions and debates that have engulfed Los Angeles for a month, so Tuesday’s session was their first exposure to the allegations.
In Singer’s account, which has received far less public attention than Bell’s, she also described an encounter with the detective and her emotional reaction to it. According to Singer, Fuhrman’s partner met her roommate at a hospital in 1987 and struck up a relationship with her.
Because of that, Singer had the chance to meet Fuhrman, who came to her apartment along with his partner one night. The two young men and women sat on couches that night and talked, Singer said, adding that some of what the police officer said shocked her.
“Did he use an epithet well-known to the world that denotes black people and begins with ‘N?’ ” Simpson attorney F. Lee Bailey asked.
“Yes,” answered Singer, who opened her testimony by confessing that she was nervous and who punctuated some of her responses with long, theatrical pauses as she sipped from a plastic cup of water.
“What was your reaction to his use of that word on your first encounter?” Bailey asked. “How did you feel?”
“Well,” she answered, “in the context the word was used in, I was shocked, stunned. I never met anyone that talks that way.”
Later, Singer described Fuhrman’s comments as “bolstered and held up and pushed out of his mouth with hatred and arrogance and despicability.”
Although Singer said she was shocked by the context as well as the word, jurors did not get to hear the full context in which some of the comments were made. Outside the jury’s presence, the defense attorney told Ito that Fuhrman had said that day that he liked to beat and kick black suspects, saying that it relieved tension. But Darden objected, and Ito ruled that those details had no bearing on the Simpson case and thus should not be presented to the jury.
Singer said she had been offended by Fuhrman’s remarks but did not initially insist that he leave. She was reluctant, Singer testified, because she had only recently moved into the apartment and did not feel she could insist on barring someone from the residence.
Soon after, Singer had a change of heart--prompted by a remark that Fuhrman allegedly made about her.
“He called me a,” she began, then turned to Ito and asked: “Am I allowed to curse?”
“Yes,” the judge replied. “You are.”
“He called me a f------ bitch,” she said.
Under cross-examination by Clark, Singer acknowledged that she should have put her foot down earlier about Fuhrman. But Clark did not aggressively pursue that point, part of the prosecution’s new reluctance to go to bat for the recently retired detective.
Defense Urges Reconsideration
The avalanche of evidence statements by and about Fuhrman have sparked an intensive LAPD Internal Affairs investigation and have raised a host of issues for the trial of Simpson. On Tuesday, Simpson’s lawyers asked Ito to reconsider his decision to limit the defense to two short and relatively sanitized excerpts of the Fuhrman interviews--one transcript and one tape.
Gerald F. Uelmen, the member of the defense team who passionately argued for admission of 61 tapes and transcripts, rose again Tuesday to urge Ito to return to that question. Uelmen argued that defense attorneys had presented evidence that Fuhrman had lied about five points: his use of racial epithets, his description of his actions after the case was turned over to LAPD robbery-homicide detectives, his testimony about how close he got to evidence at the crime scene, his testimony about when certain photographs were taken and his observation of bloodstains on Simpson’s car.
Clark responded that defense attorneys already had extracted more than enough testimony about Fuhrman and thus that Ito should not open the door to more.
She labeled the latest defense motion “smoke and mirrors and a lot of hot air,” and said that if Ito should reconsider anything, it would be his decision to allow McKinny to testify about her interviews with Fuhrman.
That argument ended with a small but significant ruling in favor of the defense: Ito declined to reconsider the entirety of his earlier ruling but did allow the Simpson team to use a different excerpt--the one in which Fuhrman disparaged female police officers as well as blacks.
The defense spent much of the day eliciting testimony from a pair of less crucial witnesses in an effort to bolster other, less provocative, elements of its case.
The first, William Blasini Jr., who buys cars for a living, testified that he had entered Simpson’s Ford Bronco while it was in police custody and had poked through the car, looking for the bloodstains that he had heard were inside, but finding none.
On cross examination, Clark presented him with photographs taken before and after Blasini testified that he had been inside the car. Both sets show the same stains, and Clark suggested that Blasini, perhaps because of an eye condition that he acknowledged makes it difficult for him to see under glaring lights, simply overlooked the stains.
Blasini insisted that was not the case, but Clark seemed satisified with that concession, quickly concluding her cross-examination. Rolf Rokahr, a photographer who works for the LAPD, also testified Tuesday, acknowledging that he believes a picture of Fuhrman pointing to evidence at the crime scene could have been taken before dawn June 13. That would contradict the testimony of Fuhrman about when the picture was taken. However, another police officer, Robert Riske, said he saw the photographs being taken later that morning, corroborating Furhman’s account.
Times staff writers Tina Daunt and Henry Weinstein contributed to this story.