O J defence exploits `racist police' testimony


in Los Angeles

The O J Simpson trial is entering what promises to be a crucial phase: the cross-examination of Mark Fuhrman, a police detective who is the focus of claims that the case is about the same brand of official racism that produced the Los Angeles riots.

For months, defence lawyers have been brandishing a fattening file of evidence alleging that the detective is racist and may have tried to frame the former football star in the stabbing murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman, a 25-year-old waiter.

Few legal experts dispute that the showdown could play a critical role in the outcome of the case. It touches on one of the nation's most volatile fault lines: the conflicting views of blacks, many of whom believe police will go to great lengths to incriminate them, and whites, who believe the police's dangerous fight against crime is being hindered by sniping critics.

When the 43-year-old detective first stepped into the limelight last year to testify in a preliminary hearing, he looked like an ideal prosecution witness - clean-cut and efficient. Watched by millions of television viewers, he calmly described how he lead the investigation to Simpson's mansion on 13 June, where he discovered a spot of blood on his Bronco vehicle and a bloody glove in the grounds that matched one found at the murder scene.

Since then, the defence has found a rich seam of mud. A 31-year-old estate agent, Kathleen Bell, has alleged that he once told her that he disapproved of inter-racial relationships and would like to "take all the niggers, put them together in a big group and burn them."

Papers have emerged showing that between 1984-86, Mr Fuhrman, an ex-US Marine Corps machine gunner who served in Vietnam, was admonished over what an official noted as "very strong views regarding women and minorities in police work". Around the same time, he and other officers were charged with sexually harassing a black female colleague.

Allegations have surfaced that the detective belonged to a group within the Los Angeles police called "Men Against Women" and, more ominously, was the ringleader of WASP, White Anglo Saxon Policemen.

Critics of the police say Mr Fuhrman's record bears all too many similarities to those of other members of the Los Angeles Police Department, whose racism, brutality and corruption played a leading role in the cocktail of factors which ignited the city's 1992 riots. It is unclear how much of the evidence will be admitted in court; Judge Lance Ito has already banned the production of a newspaper cartoon on the detective's desk which purportedly includes a swastika. But Mr Simpson's "Dream Team" of lawyers (or "Scheme Team", as some LA wits now call them) hope to produce enough to sway a jury which contains eight blacks.

One of the issues that Mr Simpson's lawyers hope to obscure is the fact that, no matter how racist Mr Fuhrman may or may not be, a police frame-up would still have required an extraordinarily elaborate conspiracy. Not only would Mr Fuhrman have moved a bloody glove from the murder scene (despite the presence of other officers) and planted it in Mr Simpson's grounds, he would also have to have smeared it with some of the celebrity's blood.

But, as Mr Simpson's lawyers have been quick to observe, they do not have to prove anything. All they need to do is convince one juror that there are grounds for reasonable doubt.