During a day of high courthouse drama, former Los Angeles Police Det. Mark Fuhrman on Wednesday entered a plea of no contest to a felony perjury charge in a deal that kept him out of jail but keeps alive controversy sparked by his role in the O.J. Simpson murder case.
With the plea, Fuhrman admitted that he lied last year when he testified that he had not used a racial slur in a decade.
In a downtown Los Angeles courtroom just down the hall from the one where Simpson was tried and--a year ago today--acquitted, Fuhrman, his hands clasped in front of him, was asked whether he understood what he was doing. "Yes, I do," he said in a clear but soft voice.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk, himself a former police officer, pronounced the plea bargain "appropriate and fair." Noting that the plea amounted to an admission of guilt, he sentenced Fuhrman to three years probation and fined him $200.
A few moments later, Fuhrman was gone--out the back door and apparently on his way back to his new home in Idaho.
But not, it seems, for long.
In a courthouse hallway, Fuhrman was served with a subpoena requiring that he testify for the defense in the civil wrongful death case against Simpson underway in Santa Monica. Though the document was merely thrown at him, experts predicted that the service of the subpoena will be ruled valid, meaning that Fuhrman will have to return in a few weeks--to find himself back on the witness stand.
"He's a specter from the past, and now he's coming back to haunt the plaintiffs," Southwestern University law professor Robert Pugsley said. The name Fuhrman, he added, "has now become a code word for everything that's wrong with the LAPD."
In court papers that substituted for a probation report, Fuhrman said he "deeply regrets the effect his testimony has had on the general public, the Los Angeles Police Department and its employees, and his family."
But Police Chief Willie L. Williams said the department will be dealing for a long time with the damage caused by Fuhrman's testimony. "The wounds that were opened up by his comments," Williams said, "will take years for this department to overcome."
The plea bargain, meanwhile, closes the book on a criminal probe begun by the district attorney's office, then turned over in November to the state attorney general's office to avoid a conflict of interest.
It did not, however, provide closure.
"We almost sentence him tongue in cheek because we merely satisfy the requirements of the law without satisfying our sense of justice," said the Rev. Cecil Murray of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.
"The guy will go back to Idaho, and everybody can claim some kind of victory," said Brenda Shockley, president of Community Build, a nonprofit community development corporation and a lawyer by training. "But the damage that he did, not just to the Police Department but also to the system of justice, has not begun to be addressed."
Fuhrman's attorney, Darryl Mounger, said the retired detective had agreed to the deal over his professional objections.
"He believes it is in his best interests," Mounger said in court. "He also believes it is in the best interests of his family and the citizens of Los Angeles. He is choosing to do that, contrary to my advice."
Later Wednesday, Bill Harkness, president of the Police Protective League, decried the government's pursuit of Fuhrman for perjury, calling it "pathetic."
Harkness blamed Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and "his group of bullies up there in Sacramento with all their political posturing before the election."
Asked at a Los Angeles news conference if prosecutors were playing politics with the timing of the deal, Lungren said no. The Simpson case has long been the key issue in the race for Los Angeles County district attorney between incumbent Gil Garcetti and challenger John Lynch.
"To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it's over when it's over," Lungren said. "This is when it concluded."
Lungren said state prosecutors also had good reason to pursue a plea bargain--even if it means no jail time. A perjury conviction can bring up to four years in state prison.
"The few persons who are actually convicted of perjury typically do not receive prison sentences or jail time," Lungren said.
He added: "I was concerned and remain concerned that launching a highly charged trial on this matter would only reopen the tensions endured throughout this community during the Simpson criminal trial."
Fuhrman has played a key role since the early hours of the investigation into the June 12, 1994, slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.
He went to the homicide scene, led other detectives to Simpson's house, reported spotting blood on Simpson's Bronco, vaulted a fence to search his estate and said he discovered a bloody glove in a dark area laced with cobwebs.