When Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. compared Mark Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler on Thursday, Fred Goldman clenched his fists, twisted in his seat, and began to mutter angrily and audibly in a courtroom where the only sound had been the passionate final argument of O.J. Simpson's lead attorney.
At the first opportunity, Goldman bolted out the door and down nine floors to the microphone in the grubby, echoing lobby of the Criminal Courts Building. It all happened so quickly that only four or five of the hundreds of journalists in and around the building had time to make their own way downstairs to listen. But once he strode to the microphone, a nation heard what he had to say.
Cochran, Ronald Lyle Goldman's grieving father spat, is "a disgusting human being" who "ought to be put away." Fred Goldman, who is Jewish, went on to assail Cochran for accepting as bodyguards members of the Nation of Islam, followers of Louis Farrakhan, whose speeches and writings often have been criticized as anti-Semitic.
But to Simpson's family, which responded with its own televised news conference later, Cochran was the defender not only of their wrongly accused son and brother, but also of fundamental American liberties.
"It's wrong, even when you're hurting, for someone to get up and personally attack our lawyers and say that they're liars," said the defendant's sister, Shirley Baker.
She said the family had accepted help from the Nation of Islam because they had been denied the secure parking and escorts the county has provided the Goldman and Brown families.
Modern America is a complicated place and what it witnessed Thursday was not so much just another angry outburst in our ongoing national quarrel over race, but the collision between two strains of what is perhaps our most communal powerful force--victimhood. The only unchallenged moral authority in contemporary American society is the moral authority of victims. Thursday, both sides--Cochran, the indefatigable opponent of racism, and Goldman, the father of a murdered son--spoke in the righteous confidence all victims now enjoy.
And this being America, people around them started choosing sides.
"I heard the city rip apart," said defense lawyer Gigi Gordon.
Cochran had begun the day by renewing his attack on discredited former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman, whom he called "a lying, perjuring, genocidal racist." He also renewed his contention that the Simpson jurors bear the responsibility of sending a message beyond the courthouse walls. "Stop this cover-up! Stop this cover-up!" Cochran said. "If you don't stop it, then who? Do you think the Police Department is going to stop it? Do you think the D.A.'s office is going to stop it? It has to be stopped by you."
As he moved to a climax, Cochran drew a comparison between Fuhrman and the Nazi dictator. "There was another man not too long ago in the world who had those same views, who wanted to burn people, who had racist views and ultimately had power over people in his country," the defense attorney mused. "People didn't care. People said he is just crazy. He is just a half-baked painter. They didn't do anything about it. This man, this scourge, became one of the worst people in the history of this world, Adolf Hitler, because people didn't care or didn't try to stop him. . . . And so Fuhrman, Fuhrman wants to take all black people now and burn them or bomb them. That is genocidal racism."
Later, Fred Goldman, his voice and body shaking with anger, lashed back. Cochran, he said, is "someone who shoves racism in front of everything, someone who compares a person who speaks racist comments to Hitler, a person who murdered millions of people."
"This man is the worst kind of human being imaginable," Goldman said. "He compares racism of its worst kind in this world to what's going on in this case."
Cochran, Goldman said, has no right to raise racism when he is being protected by Farrakhan's followers. "He's talking about racism, and he talks about hate," Goldman said. "Who does he connect himself with?"
As Goldman spoke, his wife, Patti, placed her hand on his arm, in an apparent effort to stop him. But he shrugged her off.
"We have seen racism at its absolute worst in our country," Goldman said. "We have seen a man who perhaps is the worst kind of racist himself, someone who shoves racism in front of everything."
Goldman's comments prompted Simpson's relatives to speak up.
"We feel sorry for the Goldman family, because I see his family in court daily, and I know they hurt," Simpson's sister Shirley said, as she stood with her sister Carmelita Simpson-Durio, their mother, Eunice Simpson, and Simpson's adult children, Jason and Arnelle.
But, Durio said, "It's very shocking that once Johnnie gets up and starts telling what we feel happens that this has rocked somebody's world. I think it's time for everybody to wake up and realize that we are in a real world and we have dealt with racism all our lives, every single day."
Legal analysts were more clearly divided on the appropriateness of Cochran's analogy than on any other issue in the trial. And, in an ominous portent of the debate that may be ahead, they generally were split along racial lines.
"Mr. Goldman acted and spoke as you would expect a father who had lost his son to a brutal murder to speak and act," said Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson. "I think Cochran's words tore at Goldman's soul. Johnnie Cochran did a fine job of attacking Fuhrman and the LAPD. That was his job. But it wasn't his job to add unnecessary pain to a grieving family. Hitler is just different.
"I think we should be ever vigilant as to where racism may lead. But you must be extremely careful before you compare a rogue cop's remarks to the murder of 6 million Jews," Levenson said.
Former Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian was even more pointed. "Attorneys argue what they want in closing argument," he said. "But I've never heard anything as outlandish or as outrageous as a comparison between Mark Fuhrman--no matter how bad he is--and a man who carried out the systematic genocide of an entire people. The word overkill does not even come close to describing this portion of Mr. Cochran's argument. I do not blame Mr. Goldman at all for his emotional response."
But noted civil rights lawyer John Burris assailed Goldman, who he said "is so consumed by his own pain that he fails to recognize there are other interests in this society. Obviously he can have his pain, but there are many thousands of black families who deal with this every day and they have to find ways to deal with it. In no way does the pain allow them to circumvent someone's constitutional rights."
Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree worried about the implications of the acrimonious debate. Ogletree said: "My biggest concern is that the press conferences today have made it abundantly clear that this trial won't end with the jury's verdict but will allow a continued hostility toward the advocates on both sides and probably do more to damage race relations in an already fractured racial environment in Los Angeles County. I'm sad to see it."
Cochran did not respond to Goldman's remarks. But defense lawyer Barry Scheck said "a fair reading of the evidence and those tapes is that Mark Fuhrman expressed white supremacist views and he said it about every race, every religion. He expressed fascist views."
John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, put the blame for the trial's bitter new twist on the day's first news conference. "This vicious personal vilification of Johnnie Cochran is totally out of line, totally uncalled for and whether Mr. Goldman likes it or not, Mark Fuhrman is a racist, rogue cop and the defense has a responsibility to make that point."
But Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino said Cochran's comparison to Hitler "lets Hitler off too lightly."
"A deeper wisdom would have restrained this kind of extreme rhetoric. This is the wrong arena in which to deal with such a profound issue. I don't know of anyone who in any sense condones this vile and dangerous talk by Fuhrman. But is this the place in which such a matter can be discussed without leaving others to suspect that you are using racism for your own ends?"
Times legal affairs writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this story.
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The Families Speak Out
At an emotional news conference Thursday, Fred Goldman, the father of murder victim Ronald Goldman, sharply criticized Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. for comments he made during his closing argument. Later, in an equally emotional session, O.J. Simpson's sisters defended Cochran, their brother's lawyer. The following are excerpts from both news conferences:
We have seen a man who perhaps is the worst kind of racist himself . . . someone who compares a person who speaks racist comments to Hitler, a person who murdered millions of people.
This man is the worst kind of human being imaginable. He compares racism of its worst kind in this world to what's going on in this case. He has suggested that racism is the foundation of the Police Department, of our justice system. . . . This man is sick. He is absolutely sick.
He walks around for the past days screaming, if you would, in a silent way that he has--his life has been threatened, and who does he choose to walk with? Guards from the Nation of Islam. He's talking about racism and he talks about hate. Who does he connect himself with?
This man is a horror walking around amongst us. And he compares what Mark Fuhrman did to misery from the, the beginnings of history. This man ought to be ashamed of himself to walk among decent human beings. This man is a disgrace to human beings. . . . He is one of the most disgusting human beings I have ever had to listen to in my life.
He suggests that racism ought to be the most important thing that any one of us ought to listen to in this court, that any one of us in this nation should be listening to and it's because of racism we should put aside all other thought, all other reason and set his murdering client free. He's a sick man. He ought to be put away.
It's very shocking that, once Johnnie gets up and starts telling what we feel happens, that this has rocked somebody's world. I think it's time for everybody to wake up and realize that we are in a for-real world and we have dealt with racism all our lives, every single day. And if someone cannot accept the fact that we have Mark Fuhrmans walking around in this world who has collected all of the vital evidence and they say that he is not important in this case, they're living in a fantasy world.
We are a crime victim as well as the Browns and the Goldman family. Nicole Brown was a part of our family and we loved her very deeply. She's a very important part of our life and for 17 years we've had a great relationship with the Brown family and we continue to do so today. . . . We feel sorry for the Goldman family because I see his family in court daily. And I know they hurt. . . .
It also hurts us when we sit in that courtroom and we hear lies said about our brother. . . . And, believe me, there's been a lot of times that I would love to run down here and to tell you what I think. But we are in the United States of America and the law--not Shirley Baker, not Johnnie Cochran, not Marcia Clark--the law says that O.J. Simpson is entitled to a trial.
It hurts us when we hear the prosecution say things about our loved one. . . . But we do not come down here and attack them personally. The prosecution, they're doing their job and we have sat back for nine months and we've listened. Now, it's the defense's time.
Now we know he's innocent, we know that. But all these months we haven't preached that to you.
It's wrong for someone to get up and to personally attack our lawyers, and say that they're liars. We didn't create Mark Fuhrman. From June 13th we have said--from Day 1--that the evidence was planted and the evidence was contaminated.
The other families, they park their car someplace else. They're chauffeured in to down there. We pay $240 a month to park our car here. We walk on the outside. Now the Nation of Islam have come here and they have offered to embrace us and to help us so that we can go in and out. But now there's something wrong with that. You guys, this is the United States of America, let's have a trial.