September 14, 2003
Reversal of judgment
Former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman makes a strong case against the death penalty after looking into Oklahoma's justice system
By Steve Weinberg Special to the Dallas Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Death and Justice: An Exposé of Oklahoma's Death Row Machine
Since leaving the Los Angeles Police Department in disgrace after O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder, homicide detective Mark Fuhrman has evolved into a prolific author with a one-track mind.
Fuhrman's previous three books use the word "murder" in the title: Murder in Brentwood, Murder in Spokane and Murder in Greenwich. The new book does not use that word in the title, but murder is very much on Fuhrman's mind.
Death and Justice is a transformative book for Fuhrman and an important book for his considerable audience. He takes readers on his first-person journey from death-penalty advocate to death-penalty opponent, using Oklahoma City as his backdrop.
That journey started during October 2001, as Spokane radio host Fuhrman interviewed Oklahoma defense attorney Jack Dempsey Pointer on the air: "It's a mess down here in Oklahoma," Pointer told Fuhrman. "We're executing people. We don't know if they're innocent or guilty. It's a regular death factory."
Fuhrman thought Pointer was exaggerating. But, at Pointer's invitation, Fuhrman traveled to Oklahoma City to see for himself.
There he found an aggressive district attorney named Bob Macy and a pro-prosecution police department forensic chemist named Joyce Gilchrist. After a year of investigating, Fuhrman found himself on Pointer's side: Innocent men and women were being convicted, and guilty defendants were receiving unfair treatment.
Because I just spent three years leading a national study of prosecutors, I knew about Macy and Gilchrist. I also know that outside of Oklahoma, their names are nearly unknown. Unfortunately, they have counterparts in many of the other 2,341 local prosecutorial jurisdictions across the United States.
Gilchrist did not cooperate with Fuhrman, so she remains an enigma throughout the book. Police forensic scientists exercising documented poor judgment (there are similar dramatic instances in Texas, Illinois, West Virginia and Montana, at minimum) receive little attention -- they are not elected officials like Macy and thus retain low profiles outside a small law-enforcement circle.
Macy, who recently left office before the end of his term, eventually did cooperate with Fuhrman. As a result, readers hear Macy's justifications in his own words. He makes clear that it is difficult being an elected prosecutor, because putting criminals in prison is a complicated process dominated by rights for the guilty.
The trouble is, as former cop Fuhrman has come to realize, when those rights are violated, the guilty sometimes go free on procedural grounds. That serves the community poorly by wasting precious tax dollars, putting a dangerous individual back on the street and sabotaging confidence in the criminal justice system.
Furthermore, rights violations by prosecutors such as Macy and pro-prosecution scientists such as Gilchrist can lead to convictions of innocents, as Fuhrman delineates in case after case. That is a shame for more than the wrongly prosecuted individual. It also means that the real perpetrator is at liberty to murder, rape or rob again.
Fuhrman acknowledges the shame of the criminal justice system in some jurisdictions. Because he has come to believe that innocent men and women are convicted on a regular basis, he no longer supports the death penalty. After reading this well-reasoned, well-researched book, you may agree.
Steve Weinberg is a veteran investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo.
||Truth in Justice