The not-so-distant rumble of explosive audio tapes, in which a critical prosecution witness apparently utters racial epithets with abandon, all but drowned out the dull hum of tedious scientific testimony on Monday in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson.
As a forensic toxicologist completed his testimony, Simpson sat at the defense table reading the transcribed conversations of detective Mark Fuhrman and Laura Hart McKinny, a would-be screenwriter in North Carolina, in which Fuhrman describes police work in Los Angeles. A defense lawyer said Simpson was “chilled” by what he had read, though he also seemed delighted by its strategic value, twice turning to his counsel excitedly.
To his left, one of Simpson’s lawyers, Robert L. Shapiro, read McKinny’s screenplay-in-progress, the result of 13 hours of conversations with Fuhrman over nine years that continued even after Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman had been killed June 12, 1994. And Simpson’s chief lawyer, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., laid the groundwork for getting the tape recordings admitted into evidence by touting to the judge but not the jury what they reveal about Fuhrman, a man the defense portrays as having an uncanny knack for having been wherever the most incriminating evidence against Simpson was found.
Defense lawyers barely can contain their exultation over the discovery of the tapes, with which they may wind up their case. They clearly are salivating at the prospect of having the jury - nine of whose 12 members are black - hear a key prosecution witness utter on tape a word he has sworn not to have used over the last 10 years.
Cochran said he hopes the jury can hear five to six hours of the tapes - roughly half their total length - in which Fuhrman discusses the culture of the Los Angeles Police Department over a nine-year period with McKinny, a college professor from Winston-Salem, N.C., who is an instructor in film and screenwriting. McKinny’s lawyers have said that on 27 separate occasions in the recordings, Fuhrman uses the racial slur and talks of concocting cases against innocent people.
Those lawyers convinced Judge Lance Ito to restrict circulation of the tapes, even among the defense team, so as not to diminish their commercial value. As if to underscore their significance, Cochran asked Monday that three additional defense lawyers - F. Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowitz and Gerald Uelmen - be allowed to hear them.
“There is so much information on these tapes that I believe this court is going to find very, very relevant,” Cochran told Ito on Monday. “You need to read these transcripts.” He added that the defense is preparing a “major brief” for the judge containing the most provocative portions.
One defense lawyer, who asked not to be identified, later said of the transcripts, “I can’t imagine any prosecutor reading this who would not find them chilling.” Asked what the tapes contain, Deputy District Attorney Christopher A. Darden said only: “You got to understand, I’m black. Nothing surprises me.”
Lawyers for both sides huddled for half an hour Monday morning with Ito after prosecutors had raised the question of whether the judge should be precluded from determining the admissibility of the tapes. Ito’s wife, Margaret York, is head of the Los Angeles unit that investigates police misconduct, and Fuhrman may have alluded to her on the recordings.
That matter was unresolved. But prosecutors, who knew nothing of the tapes until recently, are likely to fight their use ferociously, and Ito warned the jury to expect considerable wrangling later this week.
The one party who does not have a set of the tapes is Fuhrman himself. Citing his intellectual property interests, two lawyers for the detective came to court Monday to ask Ito for them. “He’s been denied access to his own voice,” said one of the lawyers, Laurie Butler. Ito pledged to ask McKinny’s lawyers to make them available to him.
Fuhrman’s lawyers have said the tapes reflect Fuhrman playing a part rather than stating his own beliefs.
Testimony began Monday with Dr. Fredric Rieders, a forensic toxicologist from Pennsylvania, who told the court last month that he had found a chemical anti-coagulant called EDTA in blood lifted from the gate behind Nicole Simpson’s house and on a sock picked up near Simpson’s bed. Rieders’ conclusion fortifies defense claims that the police spiked some incriminating items with blood from the two Simpsons.