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THE O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL : NEWS ANALYSIS : Fuhrman Barely Bruised After Going 'Mano a Mano' With Bailey

March 17, 1995|TIM RUTTEN and HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman went Marine to Marine with F. Lee Bailey and walked away with few apparent bruises.

As Wyoming defense lawyer Gerry Spence put it: "I've never seen a better witness than this guy--and I've seen thousands of witnesses."

But the next time the jury hears about Fuhrman, things may be considerably rougher.

O.J. Simpson's defense team can be expected to bring out a string of witnesses who will contend that Fuhrman used racial epithets and expressed particular venom about interracial couples, such as Simpson and his former wife, Nicole. This testimony would directly contradict Fuhrman's denials of uttering racially derogatory slurs in the last 10 years or expressing any hostility toward such couples.

The defense's goal is to portray Fuhrman as a lying racist who planted a bloody glove at O.J. Simpson's house in an effort to frame him for the murders of his ex-wife and Ronald Lyle Goldman.

The question is: Will the jury buy it?

Several legal experts say the defense could still succeed, but will need to do better than it did during the Bailey-Fuhrman matchup.

"I believe that at the end of 5 1/2 days of examination, Fuhrman clearly was the winner," said Los Angeles defense lawyer Albert De Blanc Jr. "Detective Fuhrman was able to 'figure out' F. Lee Bailey and kept the round-by-round cadence on his side.

"But Bailey opened one hole big enough to drive a freight train through--if you can find the train and some passengers. That happened when Fuhrman said in answer to Bailey's question that he has never used a particular racial epithet in addressing anyone during the past 10 years.

"That opens up the door for the defense to produce contradictory and impeaching evidence. Whether they can find it remains to be seen. So far, they've only produced the names of three such witnesses--Kathleen Bell, Andrea Terry and, potentially, Maximo Cordoba," De Blanc said, although he noted that Bailey said outside court Wednesday that defense phones have been "ringing off the hook" with additional witnesses.

It is already apparent that Cordoba may have credibility problems. He is now making statements that are diametrically opposed to what he told The Times in September when he said Fuhrman had never uttered a racial epithet in his presence. As a testament to his shifting story, Cordoba was dropped from the prosecution witness list Thursday. How Bell and Terry will fare as witnesses also remains to be seen.

The issue of how much more Simpson's defense team has to do to erode Fuhrman's credibility sufficiently to convince the jury that the detective may have planted a bloody glove is laden with assumptions about the reactions of eight African American jurors to hearing repeated questions about whether Fuhrman used the word nigger .

Earlier in the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden vigorously tried to block any questions about Fuhrman's alleged use of the word, contending that it would so inflame black jurors that they could not rationally assess Fuhrman's testimony.

"All Bailey's questions this week were asked in front of a jury that knew about the Mark Fuhrman issue before the trial started," said Newark, N.J., criminal defense lawyer Raymond M. Brown, referring to the fact that allegations about Fuhrman had surfaced long before the jury was sequestered. "This is not happening in a vacuum. So the question 'Have you used the word nigger in the last 10 years?' is somewhat pregnant," said Brown, who is African American.

"It doesn't follow inevitably or inexorably that if Fuhrman is a racist that he planted the glove, but it makes it more believable and more likely," Brown said. "There is everything in the experience of urban African Americans that cops will do almost anything to us; but that doesn't mean they always do."

Oakland civil rights lawyer John Burris agreed. Burris said although he has frequently sued police on brutality charges, he still has trouble believing a police officer would take the extreme step of planting evidence to frame Simpson on murder charges.

On the other hand, Burris said that if the defense produces witnesses who seem plausible as they challenge Fuhrman's truthfulness, "his credibility will be significantly undermined. If they do, the defense will have provided a basis for the jury to disregard all his testimony."

Nonetheless, "it will still take a leap of faith for the jury to conclude that he planted the glove, even if they think he is a racist," Burris said.

"The defense has an incredible burden to carry if they're going to convince this jury that Fuhrman planted evidence," defense lawyer Jill Lansing said. "They'll have to explain not only how he did it, but why he did it. It seems to me that suggesting that Mark Fuhrman framed somebody for a double homicide reflects a level of hatred on his part that should be demonstrable through more than a mere question."

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