Most homicide detectives think not-guilty verdict was mistake Police are divided over who in prosecution to blame for losing case

The O. J. Simpson Verdict

October 04, 1995|By David Simon | David Simon,SUN STAFF

Elsewhere there may be debate.

But among those who investigate violent death on the streets of U.S. cities, yesterday's verdict in Los Angeles is being greeted by general dismay, perfect hindsight and the sort of sardonic station house humor that characterizes homicide detectives everywhere.

"What are the police supposed to do now?" muses Kevin Davis, an investigator with the Maryland attorney general's office and until recently one of Baltimore's top homicide detectives.

"Go out looking for someone who has O. J. Simpson's blood?"

Deadpans Detective Larry F. Mullane, a veteran with the Jersey City Police Department's major case squad, "Ten million dollars buys a lot of defense. I'm saving up so that I can whack my wife and maybe the mailman, just for the hell of it."

Consensus breaks down

But the near unanimity that detectives expressed on the matter of Mr. Simpson's guilt is decidedly lacking when it comes to the performance by police and prosecutors in California.

Some say poor evidence recovery procedures led to the verdict; others blame Detective Mark Fuhrman for making the prosecution vulnerable to theories of a racist conspiracy.

Still others blame the district attorney's office for over-trying its case.

Says Sgt. Paul Carroll, a Chicago homicide veteran who is rewriting that department's homicide investigation procedures:

"The longest homicide trial in this city is five weeks, and that was John Wayne Gacy with 33 victims.

"What happened in the Simpson case would not be allowed to happen here."

Mr. Davis, a veteran of hundreds of trials in Baltimore Circuit Court, agrees: "Can you imagine anything like that happening in front of judges like [Elsbeth] Bothe or [Robert] Hammerman?

"Johnnie Cochran would be in the Baltimore City Detention Center on contempt charges, and Marcia Clark would be back prosecuting juvenile cases."

Surprise at fundamental errors

Courtroom strategy aside, many detectives also expressed surprise at some of the lapses in evidence recovery, particularly in a high-profile investigation.

"Stupid stuff," says Mr. Davis. "You get a blood sample, you put it in the refrigerator. You don't drive around with it.

"They left holes that the defense drove a $10 million truck through."

For the Los Angeles police to make fundamental mistakes in evidentiary chain of custody was bad enough, detectives say.

Worse came when television cameras were allowed to videotape the processing of the crime scene -- allowing defense attorneys to use that tape to contradict the testimony of crime lab technicians.

"It would not have occurred here, I can tell you that," says Lt. William Rice of the Detroit Police Department, a homicide veteran for 14 years.

"We don't allow cameras near a crime scene."

Similarly, investigators expressed amazement that someone with a history like that of Los Angeles Detective Mark Fuhrman would be sent out of the office on such a high-profile case.

"A guy like that should not be in homicide," says Baltimore's Mr. Davis.

"You dump him in the rubber-bullet squad or the telephone reporting unit.

"He should be inside headquarters at a telephone, asking what color was the Schwinn bicycle and where it got stolen from."

A blow to professionalism

While white police detectives are not generally cited as one of the most racially sensitive peer groups, Detective Fuhrman's boasts about planting evidence and virulent racist attitudes are an uncomfortable extreme for detectives who pride themselves on professionalism.

"No question, Fuhrman has hurt law enforcement nationwide," says Lt. Sam Bowerman, who does criminal profiling of violent offenders for the Baltimore County homicide unit.

And yet, even burdened by Detective Fuhrman -- and the fact that the lack of an eyewitness or confession required prosecutors to present a circumstantial web of motive, opportunity and lab work -- most detectives say there was sufficient evidence for conviction, if only it had been more competently handled and presented.

One who does not is Maj. Wendell "Pete" France, commander of the Baltimore homicide unit, who argues that the high-profile nature of the case required better police work and preparation of the case:

"To get a not-guilty verdict after eight months of time and effort says something about the case and how it was presented."

Major France believes that for the amount of time that his counterparts in Los Angeles invested in the case, they came away with too many holes, errors and lapses.

For him, the lesson is simple: "Take your time. Do it right. As it stands now, the possibility exists that O. J. Simpson is actually innocent of the crime."

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