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O.J. SIMPSON CASE: THE TALE OF THE TAPES

12 minute read
Elizabeth Gleick

Among the many memorable things the O.J. Simpson trial has wrought is a large and varied cast of characters with an overblown sense of their own importance. Starting with a few lawyers and moving on down through some of the dismissed jurors to the Kato Kaelins and Faye Resnicks, members of this new American gothic have milked the mikes, signed book contracts and chatted on Larry King Live with abandon. But one person whose self-image may be right on target is former detective Mark Fuhrman. “I am the most important witness in the trial of the century,” Fuhrman purportedly said during a tape-recorded conversation with screenwriter Laura Hart McKinny. “If I go down, their case goes bye-bye.”

Judging by the eruptions in and out of Judge Lance Ito’s courtroom last week, Fuhrman may have a point. While the weary jury continued to hear dry-as-fingerprint-dust technical evidence, out of their presence a titanic battle was under way over what has come to be known as the Fuhrman tapes. Between April 1985 and July 1994, Fuhrman and McKinny, who was writing a movie script about policewomen, had a series of tape-recorded conversations about police technique, Fuhrman-style. Though the tapes do not specifically offer evidence of Simpson’s innocence, they could have a shattering impact not only on the prosecution’s case but on the already troubled L.A.P.D. as well.

According to partial transcripts and comments by the lawyers in court, Fuhrman describes engaging in police misconduct of the most damning kind: beating suspects bloody, coercion and badgering minorities. Contrary to his sworn testimony last March that he had not used the word nigger in the past 10 years, Fuhrman’s blustering talk on the tapes is laced with that word and contains other terms offensive to African Americans, Hispanics, women and Jews. In a portion of the transcripts obtained by TIME, for instance, he tells Martha Lorrie Diaz, a friend of McKinny’s, that women cops are ineffectual “because they don’t do anything. They don’t go out and initiate a contact with some 6-ft. 5-in. nigger that’s been in prison for seven years pumping weights.” And in a twist almost unbelievable even in Simpsonland, he discusses-using derogatory language-run-ins with Ito’s wife, police captain Margaret York, which suddenly raised the issue of whether Ito should continue to preside over the trial. In the words of a key prosecution source who has listened to portions of the tapes and who is usually prone to understatement, “The tapes are a disaster.”

The mood inside the district attorney’s office is one of desolation. At best, Fuhrman appears to have lied on the stand, undermining his credibility as a prosecution witness. Even prosecutor Marcia Clark was willing to stipulate, in return for keeping the tapes out of court, that he used the word nigger on three occasions in the past 10 years. And at worst, depending on what portions of the tapes, if any, Ito permits the jury to hear, Fuhrman has breathed life into the defense’s pet theory: that Simpson is an innocent victim of a racist police conspiracy. Former Los Angeles district attorney Ira Reiner explains: “It is not that the tapes should influence the case by any objective standard. The issue is subjective importance. They will overwhelm the jury. If those tapes come in-and they are as advertised-acquittal is a probability. A hung jury becomes a mere possibility.”

The sheer explosiveness of the tapes-and the depth of the prosecution’s panic-was evident during a series of charged discussions with Ito about the tapes’ admissibility. With the information that York is one target of Fuhrman’s invective, Ito made an emotional acknowledgment that he could not remain impartial in the face of insults to his wife and would turn over those portions of the tapes to another judge. York, who as head of the L.A.P.D.’s internal-affairs department is now the highest-ranking female on the force, had sworn previously that she had no recollection of any dealings with Fuhrman. In the first flush of these revelations, the prosecution called for Ito to step down-then quickly reconsidered. Legal experts believe they may have raised the recusal issue in a desperate attempt to force a mistrial. On Friday, Judge John Reid ruled that York’s role in the case is irrelevant; Ito will rule early this week on whether the tapes themselves may be heard in open court.

As one of the first officers on the Bundy crime scene last June and the finder of the bloody glove, Fuhrman has all along been a key-and an embattled-witness. While the defense sent its investigators across the country to turn over every rock they could find in a search for dirt on Fuhrman, the prosecution had long known that the cop, who has a record of instability and previous racial incidents, could weaken their case. In January, when a reporter asked a key prosecutor if Fuhrman was going to be a problem, the lawyer flashed an expression of pain, then smiled and said, “No comment.” And Joseph Britton, an African American who was suing the city for use of excessive force by Fuhrman and other officers during an arrest following a 1987 robbery, received $100,000 from the city of Los Angeles to settle his case soon after it went to trial. According to Britton’s lawyer Robert Deutsch, the city was eager to settle when it learned that the case, which could potentially have included an examination of Fuhrman’s personnel records, was scheduled for trial during the Simpson proceedings in which Judge Ito had ruled those same records inadmissible. “There was clearly concern that the O.J. defense team might learn things from our trial that they couldn’t get to otherwise,” says Deutsch.

In spite of such problems, the prosecutors decided it would look suspicious to the jury if such a central witness did not testify, and that Fuhrman would be an articulate presence on the stand. Until the tapes were discovered, that gamble seemed to have paid off: Fuhrman appeared to have sustained little damage during his March cross-examination by F. Lee Bailey.

Although defense attorneys spent much of last week crowing about the tapes, how they obtained them is another tale altogether. McKinny, who along with her husband Daniel teaches at the North Carolina School of the Arts, insisted to PrimeTime Live last week that she has no idea how the defense found its way to her, and her lawyer concurs. As F. Lee Bailey tells it, he learned of the tapes last month through a call from a lawyer who gave him McKinny’s first name and telephone number; defense investigator Patrick McKenna took it from there. McKenna says he dialed and left a message; McKinny called him about 15 minutes later. “I took a deep breath and said to her, ‘I work for O.J. Simpson, and I really believe in my heart of hearts that he is innocent,'” McKenna recalls. “‘Please don’t hang up on me. I understand that you have some tapes, and I am begging you to let me hear them.’ She said she would have to call her lawyer. I gave her all my phone numbers, my home, my office, my cellular, my dog’s phone number. And her lawyer called me about a half-hour later.” McKenna says McKinny did not want to come forward with the tapes, but they continued to negotiate until the defense subpoenaed the tapes.

McKinny has said she and Fuhrman first met by chance at Alice’s Restaurant in Los Angeles in 1985. When he learned that she was working on a screenplay about the force, he offered his help as a technical adviser who would receive payment only if the script was bought. Over the course of the next nine years, McKinny told PrimeTime Live, she would send him questions and they would then get together to discuss them. “She is the kind of person who feels she needs to live her stories,” says someone who was close to McKinny.” She just would tape-record everything. She tape-recorded me.” As research for a project on homelessness, another acquaintance says, McKinny once spent a month living out of cardboard boxes on the streets of Santa Monica, California.

Although McKinny appeared to be fighting hard to keep the tapes out of the Simpson trial, losing that battle earlier this month in the North Carolina courts, her motives, like those of so many people connected to this case, may not be entirely unselfish. She told PrimeTime Live that the tapes are not for sale, yet Michael Viner, owner of Dove Audio Inc., which has published a number of books about the Simpson case, says he was approached about buying them, but the price was prohibitive. Sources at the television show EXTRA, the National Enquirer and the tabloid Globe also say the tapes were offered to them, with the bidding to begin at $250,000-more than they were willing to pay. McKinny will not comment, but a friend, her boss Sam Grogg, dean of the School of Filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts, cannot believe she has any hidden agenda, financial or otherwise. “Laura is a person who looks for the truth,” he says. “For anybody to think she’s trying to leverage this, they couldn’t be more wrong.” Still, even Grogg says, “I’m sure she’s keeping a journal.”

Since it is likely that the jury will hear at least some of the Fuhrman tapes, the most the prosecution and the police department can do now is scramble to mute their impact. Prosecutor Clark has insisted that Fuhrman is role-playing “a bad boy” on the tapes-and that, in any case, the issue of Fuhrman’s racism is irrelevant to Simpson’s guilt or innocence. Private investigator Anthony Pellicano, who worked for Michael Jackson during his legal troubles and now works for Fuhrman, also declared last week, echoing Clark, that the tapes just show Fuhrman “talking a lot of trash. He wanted this woman to be excited about his stories. And he was blustering and posturing and puffing himself up and making himself look macho and everything else that you could imagine.” As for the matter of his sworn testimony regarding the word nigger, Pellicano insisted that Fuhrman, who retired from the force this month and now lives in Idaho, was just confused. “Did you ever hear the term mental block? I mean, when someone asks you a question like that, sometimes you don’t-you block out everything except what you think you hear. That’s what happened.”

If Fuhrman was in fact spinning some sort of fantasy, he was also weaving real names and police incidents into it. The L.A.P.D., whose reputation has long been bruised by allegations of racism, had barely recovered from the Rodney King beating case when the Simpson trial began. And now, after months of testimony in which the defense has tried to blame sloppy police work and evidence planting for the mountains of blood-soaked evidence against their client, it may have another tough fight ahead. According to Johnnie Cochran, “these tapes have nothing to do with any screenplay. He is talking about what he did on the job…some of which, quite frankly, is criminal conduct. This man is going to have to be indicted along the way.” For instance, according to transcripts obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Fuhrman talks about how, after some officers were shot in 1978, he and some other cops brutally beat four suspects. “We basically tortured them. We broke ’em,” Fuhrman boasts. “Their faces were just mush. They had pictures of the walls with blood all the way to the ceiling and finger marks of [them] trying to crawl out of the room.” Afterward, says Fuhrman, the officers were so bloody they cleaned themselves up with a garden hose.

According to the Times, this episode may match one that occurred in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. But another officer present at the Boyle Heights incident, Sergeant Michael Middleton, now retired, has denied the story, saying, “There was no bloody room. I went in there.”

At a press conference last week, Police Chief Willie Williams answered a stream of Fuhrman-related questions in angry bursts. He reiterated his objections to the idea that his officers are framing Simpson, maintaining that “it is inconceivable that behind this one murder all of a sudden you’re going to get 10, 20, 30 or 40 people … from six or seven different department organizations, to plot against Mr. Simpson.” As for Fuhrman’s descriptions of police misconduct, Williams snapped: “We have zero tolerance for racism, sexism and any type of anti-Semitism. That is nonnegotiable.”

Williams claimed to the press that no investigation of incidents mentioned in the tapes would be launched until the department gets its own copy to listen to. But sources say that L.A.P.D. investigators, armed only with unconfirmed information about the actual names, are already going through old records to review files about several cases.

Among the L.A.P.D. rank and file, disillusionment is running high. “It’s hard for the police officers, and it’s hard for their families, because this is not how we do business,” says Sergeant Mike Albanese, who has worked for the L.A.P.D. for 24 years. “Is what is happening now germane to the death of these two people? The defense has done a splendid job of disguising the truth. I think a lot of folks here are just weary. They’re frustrated that the truth has taken a backseat in this case.”

This weariness was probably expressed most eloquently by the family of murder victim Ron Goldman last week. Ron’s father Fred and sister Kim begged the lawyers to remember what the case is really about-the brutal murders of two young people. Blasting the defense lawyers for playing “the race card,” a tearful and enraged Fred Goldman said, “This is not the Fuhrman trial.” In the end, however, the jurors may decide otherwise.

–Reported by Elaine Lafferty and James Willwerth/Los Angeles and Lisa H. Towle/Raleigh

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