Simpson Trial Thrown Into Chaos; Judge Excuses Himself From Fuhrman Issue
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ His voice choked with emotion, the O.J. Simpson trial judge disqualified himself Tuesday from ruling on explosive tapes involving his police-captain wife and Detective Mark Fuhrman but stopped short of turning the entire trial over to another judge.
The prosecution, however, argued that Superior Court Judge Lance Ito should remove himself completely from the case, which he has overseen for more than a year.
``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 could have some impact,″ Ito said of his reaction to remarks by Fuhrman, a star witness in the case who spoke disparagingly of Capt. Margaret York, the judge’s wife.
Disclosure of specific racist remarks Fuhrman made on the tapes _ and the comments about Ito’s wife _ threw the trial into chaos and threatened a substantial delay.
``This is a blockbuster! This is a bombshell!″ defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. said. ``This is perhaps the biggest thing that’s happened in any case in this country in this decade.″
The remarks are from taped conversations between Fuhrman and a North Carolina professor who interviewed the detective from 1985 to 1994 as part of a screenwriting project.
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 how to pull over black motorists for no reason, refers to Simpson lawyer Robert Shapiro as a ``Jew″ and predicts the Simpson prosecution is doomed without him.
Cochran fought frantically Tuesday to keep Ito from bowing out and derailing the murder trial at a critical time in the defense case. He said no other judge could understand the issues as Ito does and insisted the comments involving Ito’s wife were irrelevant.
``I ask you with all the fervor of my being, don’t stop this trial!″ Cochran implored Ito.
But prosecutor Marcia Clark said the judge should 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.″
Supervising Superior Court Judge James Bascue rejected a bid for delay by the defense for a possible appeal of Ito’s ruling and quickly assigned the volatile tape issue to Superior Court Judge John Reid, who stepped into the Simpson case once before.
Reid said he wanted to start listening to the tapes, read transcripts and review Fuhrman’s testimony before going further. He said he hoped to start hearing arguments Friday.
The stunning events brought to the fore an issue that has percolated since the outset of trial _ racism and the role of the Los Angeles Police Department in an alleged frame-up.
Fuhrman, a tall, handsome detective who shone as the prosecution’s star witness in a preliminary hearing in July 1994, quickly became a lightning rod of controversy when the defense accused him of racism and cast him as the villainous mastermind of a plot to frame Simpson.
Cochran said that after the preliminary hearing, Fuhrman boasted on the tapes, ``I am the most important witness in the trial of the century. If I go down, their case goes bye-bye.″
Clark countered in court Tuesday, ``I’m not saying Mark Fuhrman should be painted as a god or a hero. But he is certainly not a critical witness.″
Cochran said the detective uttered a racial epithet 30 times on the tapes and spoke 17 times of lying, beating up suspects and covering up other officers’ misconduct.
The defense claims jurors, nine of whom are black, need to hear the tapes to determine Fuhrman’s credibility. Prosecutors said the tapes are only marginally relevant. Until the judge’s wife’s name came up, the issue seemed capable of resolution by Ito.
But the judge’s anguished action turned it into the most potentially cataclysmic turn in a trial already marked by extraordinary events, including dismissal of 10 jurors and revolt at one point by some panelists.
The tapes and York’s involvement put the judge’s ethics on the line.
Ito said the issue was not whether he was biased for or against Fuhrman but whether there was an appearance of bias.
Although he said his wife, as a successful woman in a male-dominated profession, has learned to deal with tough situations, ``a reasonable concern this court could impartially rule on these material issues is there. I have an obligation to recuse myself ...″
He said he could not be the one to decide how much of the tapes are relevant to Simpson’s trial and should be heard by the jury. Nor could he rule whether his wife’s professional relationship with Fuhrman was relevant and if she should be called as a witness.
Jurors were out of the courtroom most of the day, kept in the dark about the trial-rocking developments. The judge said he hoped they could hear other testimony while the tape matter is being handled. The defense has only a few witnesses left before resting its case.
The defense has accused Fuhrman of planting a bloody glove to frame Simpson for the June 12, 1994, murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Simpson’s attorneys have argued that the tapes show Fuhrman lied when he testified for the prosecution at trial that he hadn’t referred to blacks as ``niggers″ in the last 10 years.
Both sides made it clear in open court that they don’t want a mistrial.
``We want a verdict in this case, with this jury,″ Cochran said. ``It’s our client who has been in custody since June 17 (1994), and he’s maintained his innocence since that day. And now we can establish that innocence through their lying witness.″
Clark said her concern was the anguish of the victims’ families.
``The families have had their lives on hold long enough,″ she said. ``They have suffered. They have grieved. ... They have a right to have this jury decide this case and have it resolved.″
Simpson, seated at the counsel table, appeared disturbed by Clark’s comments and summoned Cochran. Minutes later, Cochran told the judge, ``Mr. Simpson wants the court to be aware ... his heart goes out to the families of the victims in this case.″ But, Cochran added, Simpson, too, is a victim.
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 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 station quoted its sources as saying Fuhrman was angry when he emerged from the December 1985 meeting with York and felt he was wrongly accused.
Fuhrman’s attorneys didn’t return numerous calls seeking comment Tuesday.
The Fuhrman tapes were recorded by Laura Hart McKinny, a North Carolina screenwriting professor. Simpson’s lawyers discovered them through an anonymous tip last month and fought successfully in court there for access to them.
In the tapes, Cochran said, Fuhrman 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.″