In a stinging, emotional exchange, a black prosecutor Friday accused O.J. Simpson’s lawyers of seeking to “blind” black jurors by injecting race into the trial, and a black defense counsel heatedly replied that he found the accusation “demeaning.”
The clash, perhaps the most personal and riveting in the case to date, centered on whether Simpson’s attorneys should be permitted to question a white detective, Mark Fuhrman, on whether he ever used the word “nigger.”
The defense argued that the information is pertinent because it shows Fuhrman was a bigot capable of lying and of planting incriminating evidence, a bloody glove, against the defendant. Prosecutors asserted that Furhman never used the epithet and that, in any event, its introduction was far more likely to prejudice the jury than to provide any significant information.
It was impossible to determine the extent to which Friday’s soliloquies were deliberately hyperbolic, intended by each side to score legal and public-relations points. Whatever the case, it demonstrated the volatility of the race issue - which has long been a not-so-subtle subtext here - and provided a glimpse of the role it could play if Judge Lance Ito rules it may be infused overtly into Simpson’s trial.
Ito indicated that he will allow at least some of it into evidence once Fuhrman testifies, but said he would decide later in the trial. The judge said he might prohibit both sides from mentioning Fuhrman in their opening statements, which are scheduled for next Thursday or Friday.
“There’s a mountain of evidence pointing to this man’s guilt, but when you mention that word to this jury, or any African-American, it blinds people,” said Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden, who fired the opening blast in Friday’s debate. “It’ll blind the jury, it’ll blind the truth and they won’t be able to discern what’s true and what’s not.”
Darden said that if the “N-word,” as he called it, is allowed into testimony, black jurors will be so offended that they will feel compelled to take sides with Simpson. If that happens, the prosecutor maintained, “we can’t win.”
Johnnie Cochran, one of Simpson’s lead lawyers, was to have left briefly for a funeral after Darden spoke. Instead, he said he felt compelled to address the court before the morning session ended.
“It’s demeaning to our jury to say that African-Americans who’ve lived under oppression for 200-plus years … cannot work in the mainstream,” Cochran said. “African-Americans live with offensive words, offensive looks, offensive treatment every day of their lives. And yet they still believe in this country.”
His tone angry, Cochran then chastised his opponent for making “perhaps the most incredible remarks I’ve heard in a court of law.” He said he was “ashamed of Mr. Darden for becoming an apologist” for Fuhrman.
Legal analysts have theorized that the defense’s strategy would include attempts to win over black jurors so that, if it does not secure an innocent verdict, it might at least get a hung jury. Eight of the jurors are black, and Darden said Friday that the reason he and Cochran were chosen to publicly argue the matter was clearly because they were black.
Simpson is charged with killing his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. The defense wants to undermine the credibility of Fuhrman, the detective who found a bloody glove outside Simpson’s house.
The former football star’s lawyers cite three major pieces of evidence against Fuhrman: his file on seeking unsuccessfully to retire from the police department in 1981, in which he said his antigang work had left him violent and racially biased; the testimony of a woman named Kathleen Bell, who said Fuhrman told her in 1984 that he would “make … up” a reason to stop any car with an interracial couple and would like to “take all the niggers … and burn them”; and the assertion of a convicted felon, who said Fuhrman in 1991 moved an incriminating knife closer to him.
Ito said Friday that he thought the first assertion was probably not relevant and was too old, but added that the second two might be admissible.
Near the end of the day, Simpson appeared to wipe away tears when Cochran returned another slap earlier by Darden. The prosecutor, in contending the defense sought to “play the race card” in a way his side would not, had said: “We are not seeking to introduce to this jury that the defendant has a fetish for blondhaired white women. That would be inappropriate. That would inflame the passions of the jury.”
Cochran emotionally told the court that his client had the right to love and marry anyone he wanted, then he turned to Simpson. The defendant looked upset, and motioned with his hand as though wiping away tears.
MEMO: See also sidebar which appeared with this story under headline “Heated exchange”