During a day of high courthouse drama, former Los Angeles Police Det. Mark Fuhrman on Wednesday entered a plea of no contest to a felony perjury charge in a deal that kept him out of jail but keeps alive controversy sparked by his role in the O.J. Simpson murder case.
With the plea, Fuhrman admitted that he lied last year when he testified that he had not used a racial slur in a decade.
In a downtown Los Angeles courtroom just down the hall from the one where Simpson was tried and--a year ago today--acquitted, Fuhrman, his hands clasped in front of him, was asked whether he understood what he was doing. "Yes, I do," he said in a clear but soft voice.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk, himself a former police officer, pronounced the plea bargain "appropriate and fair." Noting that the plea amounted to an admission of guilt, he sentenced Fuhrman to three years probation and fined him $200.
A few moments later, Fuhrman was gone--out the back door and apparently on his way back to his new home in Idaho.
But not, it seems, for long.
In a courthouse hallway, Fuhrman was served with a subpoena requiring that he testify for the defense in the civil wrongful death case against Simpson underway in Santa Monica. Though the document was merely thrown at him, experts predicted that the service of the subpoena will be ruled valid, meaning that Fuhrman will have to return in a few weeks--to find himself back on the witness stand.
"He's a specter from the past, and now he's coming back to haunt the plaintiffs," Southwestern University law professor Robert Pugsley said. The name Fuhrman, he added, "has now become a code word for everything that's wrong with the LAPD."
In court papers that substituted for a probation report, Fuhrman said he "deeply regrets the effect his testimony has had on the general public, the Los Angeles Police Department and its employees, and his family."
But Police Chief Willie L. Williams said the department will be dealing for a long time with the damage caused by Fuhrman's testimony. "The wounds that were opened up by his comments," Williams said, "will take years for this department to overcome."
The plea bargain, meanwhile, closes the book on a criminal probe begun by the district attorney's office, then turned over in November to the state attorney general's office to avoid a conflict of interest.
It did not, however, provide closure.
"We almost sentence him tongue in cheek because we merely satisfy the requirements of the law without satisfying our sense of justice," said the Rev. Cecil Murray of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.
"The guy will go back to Idaho, and everybody can claim some kind of victory," said Brenda Shockley, president of Community Build, a nonprofit community development corporation and a lawyer by training. "But the damage that he did, not just to the Police Department but also to the system of justice, has not begun to be addressed."
Fuhrman's attorney, Darryl Mounger, said the retired detective had agreed to the deal over his professional objections.
"He believes it is in his best interests," Mounger said in court. "He also believes it is in the best interests of his family and the citizens of Los Angeles. He is choosing to do that, contrary to my advice."
Later Wednesday, Bill Harkness, president of the Police Protective League, decried the government's pursuit of Fuhrman for perjury, calling it "pathetic."
Harkness blamed Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and "his group of bullies up there in Sacramento with all their political posturing before the election."
Asked at a Los Angeles news conference if prosecutors were playing politics with the timing of the deal, Lungren said no. The Simpson case has long been the key issue in the race for Los Angeles County district attorney between incumbent Gil Garcetti and challenger John Lynch.
"To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it's over when it's over," Lungren said. "This is when it concluded."
Lungren said state prosecutors also had good reason to pursue a plea bargain--even if it means no jail time. A perjury conviction can bring up to four years in state prison.
"The few persons who are actually convicted of perjury typically do not receive prison sentences or jail time," Lungren said.
He added: "I was concerned and remain concerned that launching a highly charged trial on this matter would only reopen the tensions endured throughout this community during the Simpson criminal trial."
Fuhrman has played a key role since the early hours of the investigation into the June 12, 1994, slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.
He went to the homicide scene, led other detectives to Simpson's house, reported spotting blood on Simpson's Bronco, vaulted a fence to search his estate and said he discovered a bloody glove in a dark area laced with cobwebs.
During Simpson's preliminary hearing, Fuhrman's chiseled looks and murder-mystery testimony about stumbling across the glove prompted women viewers to send him romantic notes and even marriage proposals.
And during the trial, analysts concluded that Fuhrman's cool demeanor and unflinching answers successfully neutralized a blustery cross-examination by defense attorney F. Lee Bailey.
Then, though, an aspiring screenwriter brought to court tape recordings of Fuhrman using the "N-word" at least 41 times.
And by the third time Fuhrman appeared at the murder trial, to invoke his 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, he had been not only discredited but also widely vilified. That appearance sparked demonstrations outside the Criminal Courts Building.
On Wednesday, however, there were just two curious onlookers outside. The only scene reminiscent of the murder trial was the crush of television crews gathered outside the main courthouse entrance--hoping Fuhrman would walk through the front doors.
He did not. Looking fit and trim, he arrived through a basement entrance, apparently for security reasons, then was whisked in and out of three courtrooms.
Early Wednesday morning, state prosecutors filed a simple two-page complaint charging Fuhrman with a sole count of perjury. It alleged that Fuhrman had taken an oath in the Simpson case to tell the truth but had lied when he said he had "not addressed any black person as a 'nigger' or spoken about black people as 'niggers' in the past 10 years."
It also alleged that the lie occurred March 15, 1995--the day that Fuhrman and Bailey squared off in court.
To comply with legal formalities, Fuhrman first appeared Wednesday at 10:55 a.m. in Los Angeles Municipal Court. A three-minute hearing began with Mounger entering a plea of not guilty and Judge Abraham Khan sending the case "forthwith" to Superior Court after Fuhrman gave up his right to a preliminary hearing.
The next stop was before Judge James Bascue, who assigns all cases at the courthouse. Bascue sent the case to Ouderkirk.
As Fuhrman was on his way out of Bascue's courtroom, however, there was a break in the carefully choreographed action. Gary Randa, the son of longtime Simpson secretary Cathy Randa, threw a civil trial subpoena at him--using an underhand, Frisbee-style toss. "Mark Fuhrman, you are served, buddy, you are served!" Randa shouted.
The subpoena fell to the floor. Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Spear picked it up and delivered it to someone in Fuhrman's entourage.
"It was a legal method of service," Spear said later. "It'll be up to a court to determine whether it was a legal service."
The defense in the civil case is sure to argue that tossing the subpoena at Fuhrman--and hollering that he was being served--is sufficient. But USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who teaches the intricacies of process serving, said Fuhrman could argue that the presentation of the subpoena was not valid.
"The rules just say you have to personally serve it," Chemerinsky said. "I think [Fuhrman] has an argument that this [method] doesn't meet the requirements."
But, Chemerinsky and other experts predicted, most judges would rule that throwing the subpoena at Fuhrman and yelling an announcement satisfies the rules.
"If it's thrown on the ground in front of him, that's personal service," UCLA law professor John Wiley said.
The defense badly wants Fuhrman on the stand because prospective jurors of all races, ages and attitudes have panned him as a liar whose testimony cannot be trusted. Analysts have suggested that jurors will regard Fuhrman--and perhaps every part of the investigation he had a hand in--with suspicion and distaste.
After the drama with the subpoena, the courtroom process resumed and Fuhrman's plea bargain was quickly finalized.
Deputy Atty. Gen. John Gordnier asked Fuhrman a series of questions, including: "You realize that with respect to the plea of no contest you are incriminating yourself with respect to the charge?"
"Yes," Fuhrman said.
Assessing the plea bargain, Ouderkirk said from the bench that he recognized "the seriousness of the offense" and the "need to maintain the integrity of the fact-finding process." But he also said perjury is a difficult charge to prove--particularly in this case.
By 2:28 p.m., not even four hours after it had begun, it was all over--and Fuhrman, head high, eyes straight ahead, walked out the back door of Ouderkirk's courtroom. He did not look back.
Times staff writers John Mitchell, Carla Hall, Bob Pool and Stephanie Simon contributed to this story.