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THE SIMPSON LEGACY: LOS ANGELES TIMES SPECIAL REPORT : Twist of Fate / HOW THE CASE CHANGED THE LIVES OF THOSE IT TOUCHED : ROBERT TOURTELOT : For Lawyer, Betrayal Caps a Long Year's Work

October 11, 1995|NORA ZAMICHOW

Until Detective Mark Fuhrman came along, attorney Robert Tourtelot's highest-profile case had been a suit involving an Anaheim card club. At 60, after three decades as a lawyer, he was about to not only collide with fame, but to experience a stunning betrayal.

Fuhrman was already being accused by the Simpson defense and some media reports of being a bigot when Tourtelot agreed to represent him. Fuhrman reassured his attorney that he had no skeletons in the closet, Tourtelot said.

So for the next year, Tourtelot championed his client, blasting detractors who accused Fuhrman of racism and planting evidence. Tourtelot filed lawsuits against the New Yorker and a tabloid, charging that their stories smeared his client. He publicly hammered Simpson defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who injected the race issue into the case.

But when the now-infamous tapes of conversations between Fuhrman and an aspiring screenwriter were played in court, Tourtelot did a rapid about-face.

He quit as Fuhrman's attorney.

It was a simple but painful decision, he says.

"When I listened to the tapes, I was profoundly disgusted and horrified," Tourtelot says, sitting back in his Westside office, where autographed photos of Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush hang on the wall. "I never saw anything that indicated to me he was a racist or bigot. My personal impression, up until the tapes, was that Mark was being unfortunately maligned, his character assassinated."

Tourtelot said Fuhrman told him he hadn't remembered the tapes. Tourtelot felt misled and angry.

Did Fuhrman lie to him?

"To say he lied is not fair to him. I never said, 'Are there tapes?' I didn't know about the tapes, but obviously I was distressed enough and somewhat angry that I believed I could no longer represent his interests."

Tourtelot dropped the defamation suits he had filed on behalf of Fuhrman. (Fuhrman, Tourtelot says, "couldn't get 10 cents after what he did to himself with those tapes.")

"Obviously, I was operating under a different set of facts," Tourtelot says. "That was a year of my life, a lot of time spent and for what?"

But it was also a year of watching a trial that made Tourtelot realize areas where the judicial system needs to be shored up, he says, such as changing the unanimous verdict requirement in all but capital cases.

"I intend to write and speak out about what I think was wrong," Tourtelot says.

This winter will see the release of Tourtelot's first book, "Witness to the Prosecution: An Insider's View to the Trial of the Century."

Because of this, Tourtelot deflects some questions--such as whether Fuhrman showed remorse--with a simple answer: "That's going to be in my book."

The sudden celebrity that Tourtelot attracted has been staggering. He's now stopped in supermarkets and airports. Calls to his office have quadrupled from people begging him to take their cases. Appearing so often on television, he decided to trim down; he lost 20 pounds. He dined with Diane Sawyer, Geraldo Rivera and Larry King and appeared dozens of times on various talk shows.

Tourtelot knew he had appeared on TV too much when his 9-year-old daughter asked to borrow the scissors--ignoring the fact that at that moment, her father was on TV in the "Geraldo" show.

This is not likely to change: The family of Ronald Goldman has hired Tourtelot to handle their wrongful death suit against Simpson--a case that could well become the civil "Trial of the Century."

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