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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

THE O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL : D.A.'s Tap Dance Around Fuhrman Tapes

August 15, 1995|BILL BOYARSKY

You have to be a mind reader to properly cover Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti's press conferences.

He's upbeat and talkative and he hates to be pinned down on controversial issues. In fact, in the words of the old gangster movies, he just plain clams up.

Take for example Thursday, when Garcetti bobbed and weaved to avoid answering what is becoming the central question of the O.J. Simpson murder prosecution: Why was the D.A.'s office so slow to learn about the Fuhrman tapes and Mark Fuhrman's well-known history of bigotry?

The tapes record nine years of occasional conversations between Fuhrman and Laura Hart McKinney, a college professor-screenwriter who used these interviews as background to portray the real lives of police officers. Judge Lance A. Ito will decide whether to admit them as evidence in the trial.

If he does, they will not only shake up the Simpson trial, but dump more trouble on the battered Los Angeles Police Department.

The defense, furiously hyping the tapes, say they reveal the real Fuhrman: a woman-hating racist. Moreover, the Simpson side says, the tapes provide a chilling look at hostile attitudes through much of the LAPD toward racial minorities and women.

Fuhrman's lawyer plays down their significance, insisting that the detective was just giving his impression of a racist cop. Think of it as role-playing, as they say in L.A. psychodrama circles.

*

Whether Fuhrman was role-playing or just being candid, the tapes have engrossed reporters and boosted Fuhrman's importance as a witness. It was Fuhrman who said he found the famed bloody glove at the Simpson mansion, although the defense insists that he planted it. And it was Fuhrman who testified he had not used the word nigger in the last 10 years, a word the defense says he used on the tapes.

All that provided the backdrop as reporters entered the district attorney's conference room at 12:30 p.m. Thursday for his monthly meeting with the media.

Suzanne Childs, his press secretary, passed out cookies she'd baked the night before, but the treats didn't lighten the mood. The press still wanted to know why Garcetti and his staff hadn't known sooner about Fuhrman and the tapes.

Garcetti replied that he had nothing to say about the Fuhrman tapes. "I don't want to speculate what effect they will have in our effort to search for the truth to determine who is responsible," he said. As a matter of fact, he said, "we were not aware of the tapes."

Actually, word of their existence reached the Simpson defense team sometime in mid-July. The prosecution heard of them at about the same time, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Darden.

By July 17, reports of the tapes had surfaced in print and on television. So the Garcetti team certainly wasn't taken by surprise.

Sensing Garcetti was ducking, the reporters pushed him. One question dominated, asked repeatedly in different ways: Wasn't the district attorney's office aware that Fuhrman long had a racist reputation among his colleagues, an attitude he, himself, confirmed when he talked about his prejudices when unsuccessfully applying for a disability pension several years ago?

Fuhrman says counseling and maturity have changed him. But the prosecution's failure to deal with, or even acknowledge, the old Fuhrman troubled the reporters. They knew his record was no secret to some of those who knew him in the LAPD. It was a factor, according to police sources, in his being passed over last year for an opening in the prestigious robbery-homicide division.

"Why didn't you have him say 'I was a sinner, once,' " I asked Garcetti.

The D.A. fenced. "I will not discuss the issue," he said. He added that it would be an "interesting" discussion, "but not at this time."

*

Not at this time, or perhaps any time.

Although the D.A., an elected official, is supposed to be independent of the police, that's not how it works in real life.

That was clear from Garcetti's priorities when he reduced his budget this year. He eliminated financing for a unit that investigates shootings of civilians by police officers. "The vast, vast majority of times when an officer is involved in a shooting, it isn't even a close case," Garcetti told his press conference.

That left Los Angeles County without even the semblance of an outside investigative agency to probe shootings by the sheriff's and police departments. Talk about bad timing--or bad judgment. Garcetti spoke at the height of the furor surrounding the fatal shooting of a Lincoln Heights youth by a Los Angeles police officer.

Garcetti and his deputies are brothers and sisters with the cops in the law enforcement club. That helps explain why the D.A. doesn't want to investigate officer-involved shootings--or why he and his deputies did not dig out Mark Fuhrman's background before presenting him as a witness for the people.

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