JUSTICE

A crisis in the Simpson trial

A detective’s intemperate remarks undermine the prosecution’s case

PATRICIA CHISHOLM August 28 1995
JUSTICE

A crisis in the Simpson trial

A detective’s intemperate remarks undermine the prosecution’s case

PATRICIA CHISHOLM August 28 1995

A crisis in the Simpson trial

JUSTICE

A detective’s intemperate remarks undermine the prosecution’s case

For many of the actors in the modern-day fable that is the O. J. Simpson murder trial, the case has brought not only public notoriety, but private anguish. Apart from Simpson himself—who is charged with murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman—lawyers, witnesses and even jurors have faced a level of personal scrutiny unprecedented in a criminal proceeding. The only figure to remain relatively untarnished by the soap opera-like atmosphere of what Americans are calling their Trial of the Century has been Judge Lance Ito. But last week, it was Ito’s turn to endure the spotlight.

In a twist that is bizarre even by the unique standards of the Simpson case, defence lawyers revealed the existence of audiotapes containing derogatory comments about Ito’s wife, Capt. Margaret York, who is the highest ranking woman in the Los Angeles Police Department. The comments were made by one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, former detective Mark Fuhrman, who at one time reported to York. Clearly jolted by the revelation, Ito agreed with prosecutors that, if York had to testify about those comments, he would have to remove himself from the complex trial that he has been overseeing for seven months. “I love my wife dearly,” he told the court, appearing to be on the verge of tears. “I am wounded by criticism of her, as any spouse would be.”

The incident exploded like a bombshell in the midst of a trial already plagued by so many allegations that it seems more like a circus than a court of justice. The tapes, a series of conversations between Fuhrman and Laura Hart McKinny, an aspiring screenwriter and film-writing instructor from North Carolina, were prepared for a project on how frictions can arise among personnel on a bigcity police force. Covering a nine-year period beginning in 1985, they are larded with references by Fuhrman to police concocting evidence as well as harassing and beating nonwhite suspects. Fuhrman, who denied allegations that he was a racist when he testified earlier in the trial, vilifies women, blacks and Jews on the tape. He also insults York, whom he says used sex to further her ca-

reer. By putting Ito’s position on the bench in doubt, the tapes briefly raised the prospect of a lengthy delay to allow another judge to take over—or even of a mistrial. And by striking at the reputation of the Los Angeles police, they could still lead to an investigation of the troubled force.

“A lot of people who don’t believe what African-Americans say about the police will be shocked,” said prominent Los Angeles defence attorney Harland Braun. “Everyone will call for change.”

While prosecution lawyers had been aware of the existence of the tapes for at least a month, they appeared taken aback when the virulence of Fuhrman’s comments became known last week. Attempting to keep the tapes from being heard by the mostly black jury, lead prosecutor Deputy District Attorney Marcia Clark acknowledged that Fuhrman may not be a hero, but asserted that his comments merely show him “puffing and blowing” to a

writer seeking colorful information about life on a police force. He was talking about fictional scenarios, she insisted, and his remarks are irrelevant to the Simpson case. But the defence team could not hide its excitement over the contents of the tapes. Jubilant defence counsel Johnnie Cochran Jr. said they show that Fuhrman’s powerful testimony—he was the detective who found the notorious bloody glove behind Simpson’s house— has been proven to be that of a liar and a racist.

Initially insisting that Ito had no choice but to withdraw from the case, Clark later reached an agreement with the defence that he should stay on the bench while the tapes were sent to another judge, John Reid, for a ruling on whether York should testify. Reid, in turn, concluded before the end of the week that the testimony of York was not material to the case, leaving Ito free to preside over the remainder of the trial. Meanwhile, Clark continued to argue for the tapes to be kept out of court altogether. She accused Cochran of playing “the race card,” and said the introduction of the tapes was motivated by a cynical desire to upset Ito.

Some legal experts speculated that Clark stopped demanding Ito’s withdrawal because of intense public pressure not to precipitate either a lengthy delay, or worse, a mistrial. According to some members of the Los Angeles legal community, the tapes have bolstered a growing conviction that the case is turning in favor of the defence. “There is a significant risk that jurors will dismiss Fuhrman as a credible witness,” said Peter Arenella, professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles. “The defence’s good fortune continues. They have the tapes that could turn this trial into a referendum on the LAPD instead of O.J.’s guilt or innocence.” For the Simpson legal team, it appears that the best defence is a strong offence.

PATRICIA CHISHOLM with

ANNE GREGOR

in Los Angeles