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THE SIMPSON VERDICTS : LAPD Was on Trial, Say Angry Officers : Police: The mood is grim at station houses. Many say jury disregarded strong evidence.

October 04, 1995|JEFF BRAZIL and JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

You could have heard a needle fall on the hard, bare tile floor of the Los Angeles Police Department's Robbery-Homicide Division when the word came, if it weren't for the gasps of disbelief and dispiritedness.

Inside the once-hallowed hallways of Parker Center's third floor where the storied Robbery-Homicide unit resides, the meaning of Tuesday's decision seemed almost too much to contemplate: The jury's acquittal of O.J. Simpson seemed to represent a guilty verdict for the LAPD on issues of purity and prowess, both of which were repeatedly called into question by Simpson's defense team. The work of two of their best, most experienced detectives--Philip L. Vannatter and Tom Lange--proved insufficient to withstand one of the world's most expensive defense teams and the shocking revelations about one of their own, former Detective Mark Fuhrman.

At that, they could only shake their heads and mutter.

"Unbelievable."

"Damn."

There was anger. Detectives--plainclothes and those in uniform--massed in small groups along the division's stark white walls that seemed starker than usual Tuesday. "That's Los Angeles--we condone murder," said one officer.

There was resignation: "S--- happens."

And cop-like cynicism: "See, I told you there was a Santa Claus."

And a profound frustration. "What's the point?" as one officer put it. "Let's fold up the tent."

On the sixth floor of Parker Center, a noticeably upset Police Chief Willie L. Williams watched the verdict announcement with members of the media and quickly ushered them out, saying he didn't want himself or his officers saying something that could harm the case in the event of future legal action.

Despite a departmentwide gag order, many detectives and rank-and-file officers could not corral their contempt--or their disappointment.

"I honestly believe if they had caught O.J. on film committing the murders they would have found him not guilty," said Detective Mark Aragon, a homicide investigator in the North Hollywood Division who has worked for seven years solving murder cases. "They would have said it was Fuhrman in an O.J. mask. This had nothing to do with two people being murdered. It had to do with the Police Department on trial. . . . It just really gets under your skin."

Officer Clark Baker, currently on stress leave from the Valley Traffic Division, said he believed the racial makeup of the jury--nine blacks, a Latino and two whites--had a significant effect on the outcome of the trial.

He speculated that the verdict may prod the LAPD to develop new methods for collecting evidence. On the other hand, he said, "morale has hit rock bottom."

As an example of the beating the LAPD and its Robbery-Homicide unit absorbed during the trial, one of the defense exhibits during closing arguments labeled the LAPD as the "black hole" where evidence went and vanished by design or was compromised by incompetence. Also during closing arguments, lead defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. lumped together Detective Vannatter and disgraced ex-Detective Fuhrman, calling them the "twin devils of deception." Cochran claimed that Vannatter lied to secure a search warrant of Simpson's home, while Fuhrman was accused by the defense team of lying on the stand.

Almost every high-profile case--the Robert Kennedy assassination, the Hillside Strangler case, the Night Stalker killings, among them--lands in the specialized Robbery-Homicide unit. Between them, Vannatter and Lange, the Simpson lead investigators, have 52 years of experience and have investigated 500 homicides.

Chief Williams scoffed at those who interpreted Tuesday's verdict as an indictment of the department and its most storied squad, made legendary by the fictitious Sgt. Joe Friday in the television show "Dragnet." But many disagreed, including some of his underlings.

"None of my people believe that" it isn't an indictment, one sergeant said. At the same time, said the sergeant, who asked to not be identified, his detectives believe it is an "unfair indictment."

Throughout the LAPD, veteran investigators said even before the verdict that they believed the Simpson case had diminished the public's respect for their work, and heightened expectations among jurors in other cases for levels of proof that may be unattainable.

Less than two hours after the Simpson verdict, Detective Carolyn Flamenco of the LAPD's South Bureau homicide unit watched a jury acquit a defendant of murder in a case she investigated.

"I took a deep breath and I had to walk out the door of the court, because the tears started coming," Flamenco said of the little-known case in the Compton courthouse. "I couldn't even poll the jury, I was so upset, on top of the O.J. verdict. I was hyperventilating. I thought: 'What are we coming to?' "

In Flamenco's eyes, the two acquittals were not totally coincidental. She had never lost a murder case until the advent of the O.J. Simpson prosecution. Since then, she has lost two cases and seen the skepticism of jurors grow.

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