Ito’s Future in Simpson Case Comes Down to Private Decision
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ In a case of such hype and hyperbole, it was sweetly ironic that the biggest decision by the O.J. Simpson judge _ whether to continue or bow out _ may turn on something as simple and private as love.
Prosecutor Marcia Clark promised to come to court today and ask that Superior Court Judge Lance Ito remove himself from the trial because of the appearance of a conflict of interest.
At issue is Ito’s marriage to a police captain who is allegedly disparaged _ along with blacks and Jews _ by Detective Mark Fuhrman on tape recordings. The defense wants to play the tapes to discredit Fuhrman, who found a bloody glove behind Simpson’s mansion. Prosecutors said Fuhrman won’t disappear as a factor in the case, and therefore Ito should go.
On Tuesday, an emotional Ito removed himself from the narrow issue of whether the tapes should be admitted into evidence. Superior Court Judge John H. Reid was immediately put to work on that task.
``I love my wife dearly,″ Ito said from the bench, halting to fight for composure, ``and I am wounded by criticism of her, as any spouse would be. I think it’s reasonable to assume that (the Fuhrman statements) could have some impact.″
Ito has presided over the trial for more than a year. Now, in its waning days, he must decide whether the pain he suffered upon hearing of Fuhrman’s remarks _ exactly what the detective said about Ito’s wife was unclear _ will prevent him from being fair and impartial.
The conflict-of-interest battle sent the trial into a tailspin, forcing attorneys and Simpson to appear before three different judges and raising the possibility that appellate fights could delay the trial.
Defense attorneys accused prosecutors of trying to remove Ito from the case after the judge hinted he would allow the jury to hear some of the Fuhrman tapes. The detective is said to use racial slurs and speak of framing suspects on the tapes. The jury has nine black members.
``Today, they came for Judge Ito,″ defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. said at a news conference, referring to prosecutors.
On this morning’s ``Today″ show, another Simpson attorney, Alan Dershowitz, said the prosecution is trying to generate a mistrial.
``What they’re doing is deliberately creating a turmoil hoping to throw the case into frenzy,″ he said. He suggested the prosecution wants a different judge in order to get a more favorable ruling, or a mistrial so ``they can start all over again and not use Fuhrman and correct their mistakes.″
For his part, Fuhrman lawyer Robert Tourtelot said in the broadcast that he hadn’t heard the tapes nor had he talked to his client about them. He further said that Ito ``doesn’t deserve any of this.″
Stan Goldman, a professor at Loyola Law School, said the prosecution clearly hoped for better luck on the Fuhrman tapes in front of Reid, a tough judge with a reputation for being friendly to prosecutors.
``They all know that Ito is probably going to give the defense a good deal on the Fuhrman issue, and they’re pulling out all the stops here,″ Goldman said.
District attorney’s spokeswoman Suzanne Childs said the office would have no comment on any pending issues, including the defense claim that Fuhrman perjured himself earlier this year at the Simpson trial by saying he had not referred to blacks as ``niggers″ in the past 10 years.
Simpson says he was home alone during the June 12, 1994, knife murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.
Fuhrman was the prosecution’s star witness at the preliminary hearing, recounting how he found a bloody glove on Simpson’s estate hours after the murders. But the detective quickly became a lightning rod for controversy when the defense accused him of being a racist and cast him as the mastermind of a plot to frame Simpson.
At the center of the storm are taped conversations between Fuhrman and a North Carolina scriptwriter who interviewed him from 1985 to 1994 as part of a screenwriting project about police.
The tapes have been kept secret and are under a strict protective order limiting access to a handful of lawyers, but some details have dribbled out. Court transcripts of private meetings Monday revealed that on the tapes, Fuhrman describes police brutality, calls Simpson lawyer Robert Shapiro a ``Jew″ and predicts the Simpson prosecution is doomed without him.
Cochran fought fiercely for Ito to refrain from bowing out and derailing the murder trial at a potentially critical time for the defense. He said no other judge could understand the issues as Ito does, and he insisted the comments involving Ito’s wife were irrelevant and the defense wouldn’t seek to introduce them as evidence.
But Clark said the judge might have to surrender the bench to another jurist for the rest of the trial, not just with regard to the ruling on whether jurors should hear the tapes.
``There is no ability to sever this issue,″ Clark said. ``All rulings involving Fuhrman witnesses become suspect.″
If the tapes are ruled admissible and prosecutors call Ito’s wife, Capt. Margaret York, to testify, Ito may be forced to pull out altogether.
In the end Tuesday, Ito removed himself from ruling on the admissibility of the tapes but stopped short of disqualifying himself from the rest of the trial.
He said the issue was not whether he was biased for or against Fuhrman but whether there was an appearance of bias.
Jurors were out of the courtroom most of the day, kept in the dark about the tumultuous developments. When Ito somberly addressed them before they were excused for the evening, he said a legal issue had arisen which ``involves my further participation in this trial.″ One juror clapped his hand to his mouth and others shifted in their chairs in apparent surprise.
Contact between the judge’s wife and Fuhrman became an issue last November, and she filed a court affidavit acknowledging she had been his watch commander in 1985. She said she couldn’t remember having any interaction with Fuhrman.
But KCBS-TV, citing unidentified sources, said York had a closed-door meeting with Fuhrman after he allegedly snickered when she warned officers about the defacing of a calendar by someone who wrote ``KKK″ in the space for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
The sources told the station that Fuhrman was angry when he emerged from the December 1985 meeting with York and felt he was wrongly accused.
Simpson’s lawyers discovered the tapes, recorded by professor Laura Hart McKinny, through an anonymous tip and fought successfully for access to the information.
In the tapes, Cochran said, Fuhrman also offers tips on how to stop black motorists.
``He says you see a nigger in a Porsche and he doesn’t have a $100 suit on, then you stop him because he has probably stolen the car,″ Cochran said. ``You don’t look at the license plates.″
Fuhrman also talks about how police brutally retaliated after the shooting of officers in a predominantly Hispanic precinct.
``They go in and they beat the people until their faces turn to mush,″ Cochran said, recounting what was said on the tapes. ``There is so much blood on their uniform they have to come out and they have to spray themselves down with hoses.″
Police officials are reviewing records to see if certain incidents mentioned by Fuhrman on the tapes took place, the Los Angeles Times reported today.