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SIMPSON TRIAL : The LAPD Was Dragged to Judgment

March 26, 1995|Joseph Wambaugh | Joseph Wambaugh, a 14-year veteran of the LAPD, is a novelist whose books include "Finnegan's Week" (William Morrow). He has also written "The Blooding" (Bantam), the story of the discovery of DNA fingerprinting

RANCHO MIRAGE — Well, the O.J. Simpson defense team has reached a crunch. If they're going to stay with the race card (perhaps the only card in their hand), it's necessary to throw the conspiracy net over folksy Detective Philip L. Vannatter, who found the blood evidence at the Simpson estate. Ditto for dry-as-dust Detective Tom Lange, who was present at all times. For good measure, they should net Lt. Frank Spangler, who provided Detective Mark Fuhrman with an alibi that precludes evidence tampering at the Bundy crime scene.

The conspiracy must widen, but it can still work, because all these cops probably qualify as racists. We've learned it encompasses every white male who has told an ethnic joke or uttered the dreaded "N word" in the past 10 years--even in his sleep.

If defense lawyers Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and F. Lee Bailey are successful in hanging the jury or acquitting their client by race-baiting, we're seeing the beginning of the end of the jury system as we know it. But maybe that's a good thing, given the absurdity of preemptory challenges, sequestration and unanimous verdicts. However, the irony is that in celebrity-obsessed America, the Simpson race card is a Joker. Celebrity obliterates ethnicity. Simpson turned white 20 years ago. Most whites who cling to a belief in his innocence are in stubborn denial that a celebrity can be capable of terrifying savagery.

Defense lawyer Robert L. Shapiro has apparently concluded there will be life after Simpson. He's been busying himself with bait-and-switch sound bites that distance him from the Dream Team, by claiming he would not have played the race card. He's even shaken hands with Fuhrman's defamation lawyer and worn an LAPD solidarity pin on his lapel.

Perhaps Shapiro can persuade celebrity law professor and defense consultant Alan M. Dershowitz to replace him at the counsel table. Recently, the Harvard gadfly flitted back into the case by announcing on television that cops go to school to learn perjury. Of course, Dershowitz has never met a camera he didn't hug, and is responsible for more goofy sound bites than anyone except House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

At least his nutty statement aroused Chief of Police Willie L. Williams from his Simpson-case slumber, forcing him to utter a denial and cheerlead at an LAPD support rally. Williams, you may recall, was brought here from Philadelphia to heal racial wounds after the Rodney G. King incident, so the last thing he wants is to be drawn into race-baiting denials. Question: What do Williams, Shapiro and W.C. Fields have in common? Answer: On second thought, they'd all rather be in Philadelphia.

By now, can any American, white or black, doubt that celebrity drove the police from the beginning? Didn't we see Spangler sigh in relief as he related how he dumped the case onto the Downtown detectives? And how did the Downtown dicks respond when they learned their female victim's famous ex-husband had a history of domestic violence and lived only a few minutes away? They started fretting about his "well-being." What was their state of mind when they observed a blood spot on the door of the Bronco? You guessed it: more worries for his welfare. It didn't even occur to them that he might be the Big Foot who left his shoe print, in blood, at the crime scene.

So, either there's an ostrich virus rampant at the Los Angeles Police Department, or celebrity concerns clouded police perceptions and evoked some curious conclusions. And when they discovered the bloody glove at the Simpson estate, as well as a blood trail from the Bronco to Simpson's very door and could no longer deny he was the prime suspect, did they have the confidence to arrest him when he returned from Chicago? Not the media-whipped, post-King LAPD.

They sort of arrested him. Somebody handcuffed him, but somebody said to uncuff him. Somebody said to invite Mr. Simpson down to Parker Center for a chat, a photo, a blood sample. Please. And then somebody determined that the prime and only suspect should be released (!), thus permitting him to orchestrate the most bizarre event in the annals of California law enforcement: a police processional providing a freeway escort to Simpson and Al Cowlings, attended by cheering multitudes and enough cops to assure that Simpson's last performance went without a hitch.

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