The mostrecently excused juror in the O.J. Simpson case has painted for Judge Lance A. Ito a picture of a panel torn by racial tensions in which black and white jurors have gone shopping separately, have exercised separately and have watched movies separately.
By the former juror’s reckoning, racial animosity permeated the steam room, phone room, exercise room and movie room as well as the jury box and the van that ferries the panelists to court daily.
Her account raises questions about whether 12 people who cannot agree on what videos to watch or how long they can stay on treadmills can agree on Simpson’s guilt or innocence.
The tales of tensions in the peculiar sequestered world of the Simpson jury, in which jurors spend night and day with people they refer to only by their numbers, were contained in a transcript released Thursday of Ito’s interrogation of Jeanette Harris on Wednesday.
Harris is the 38-year-old black woman removed from the panel last week for withholding her encounters with domestic violence. Charges made by her on television after her dismissal prompted Ito to begin an investigation to determine if the jury has become tainted.
In one instance, Harris told the judge, two white women hit a black juror over the head. In another, a white woman “kicked” and “stomped” on two black jurors as she made her way to her seat in court.
But the tensions spilled over to the sole Hispanic woman as well, Harris said; in one instance, she said, the Hispanic woman, an alternate, would not breathe the same air as an elderly black alternate.
“You know, this is not just little trivial things that come off the top of my head,” she said. “There were literally racial problems: ‘I don’t want to breathe the same air this woman is breathing.”’
There are eight blacks, three whites and a Hispanic man on the jury; the six alternates include four blacks, a white and the Hispanic woman.
Harris charged that racial tensions among the jurors have been exacerbated by the sheriff’s deputies who guard them. She told Ito that officers had given whites greater access to telephones and gym equipment, had allowed them to linger longer during shopping trips and had been more lenient with them when they showed up late for the drive to court. “There are tons of things that happened,” she said.
But others among the six jurors who have been dismissed have offered a far more benign portrait of relations on the panel. One of them, Michael Knox, described the jurors as “one big family.”
Prosecutors, embarked on an increasingly quixotic quest for unanimity in the jury, tried to minimize the divisions.
“Movies and shopping trips to Ross for Less - I don’t equate that with making a decision on O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence,” said Deputy District Attorney Christopher A. Darden. “These people are smarter than that. These people understand the significance of their deliberations and their potential verdict.”
But on Wednesday, Darden urged Ito to remove any deputies shown to be playing favorites or fomenting racial discord.
None of the fault lines underneath the panel was apparent Thursday afternoon, however, when jurors heard Barry Scheck, the newest celebrity lawyer on the defense team, complete his bruising and minute five-day cross-examination of Dennis Fung, the Police Department criminal evidence expert who collected blood samples and other materials in the hours after Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman were killed June 12.
In what defense lawyers consider one of the most important concessions of the case, Fung recanted his prior testimony that he personally had carried a vial of Simpson’s blood out of the defendant’s home on the afternoon of June 13 and had placed it in a police van. A defense videotape, Fung said, had helped him remember that his assistant had carried the vial in a plastic garbage bag.
Fung previously had testified that moments earlier, one of the police detectives in charge of the investigation, Philip Vannatter, had handed him the vial of blood drawn from Simpson. But Scheck suggested that Vannatter had given Fung nothing that day and that Fung was lying to protect him.
In fact, the defense contends, the police did not process the vial until the following morning, giving them ample time to sprinkle or pour blood on objects incriminating Simpson.
Scheck elicited Fung’s admission after an intense hour of courtroom drama in which the defense lawyer played, frame by frame, several videotapes of two trips Fung and his assistant had taken from Simpson’s home to the police evidence van.