September 15, 2003 12:00 PM

In 18 years as a cop in Los Angeles, Mark Fuhrman never wavered in his support for capital punishment. “I believed,” he says, “that certain things are absolute—you rape a woman and kill her, you will be put to death.” He also felt that every person on death row deserved to be there.

Eight years after turning in his badge, Fuhrman, now living in Sandpoint, Idaho, has a different take on the death penalty. “I no longer have faith that it is administered fairly or justly,” he writes in Death and Justice: An Exposé of Oklahoma’s Death Row Machine, his fourth book. Among the cases that changed his mind was that of Robert Lee Miller Jr., who spent seven years on death row before being cleared in 1998 by DNA evidence. Miller was lucky. Writes Fuhrman: “I fear that innocent people have been executed.” Adopting this new philosophy is not the only shift the former homicide detective has undergone since his police career ended in disgrace after the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial. A key witness, Fuhrman perjured himself by testifying that he had never used a racial epithet. (“I made my apologies, I said I was wrong,” he says.) Fuhrman, 51, has rebuilt a life as host of a radio talk show and author of real-crime books. (His ’98 bestseller Murder in Greenwich pinned Martha Moxley’s murder on Michael Skakel, who was later convicted.)

It was a guest on his show, Jack Dempsey Pointer, head of the Oklahoma

Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, who inspired him in 2001 to look at the death penalty in that state, which had executed the most inmates that year. “We don’t even know if they’re innocent or guilty,” Pointer said of those executed.

Intrigued, Fuhrman began investigating. The results shocked him. “I had people say, ‘We do two things really

good here: football and the death penalty,’ ” he recalls. But he concluded that poor police work and sloppy or manipulated forensic evidence—much of it handled by Joyce Gilchrist, former head of the Oklahoma City crime lab, who was fired amid scandal in 2001—may mean that innocent people had been sentenced to death.

“It’s people taking the easy road—lazy, incompetent, hungry for political power,” he says. When a life is at stake, he add , “you have to investigate these cases as if your loved one is involved—both as the victim and the suspect.”

At a time when support for capital punishment is waning, Fuhrman’s book could help end it. “It will be abandoned,” predicts Yale law professor Stephen Bright. “People like Mark Fuhrman will contribute to an increased awareness of the issue.”

Writer Dominick Dunne, who met Fuhrman while covering the Simpson case, applauds his friend’s new thinking. “It would be a tough transition,” says Dunne, “but I’m thrilled.”

But for Fuhrman, this is a time of change. Divorced from third wife Caroline since 2000 (they share custody of Haley, 12, and Cole, 10), he is building a new home. One recent afternoon he watched as some 100-year-old beams were unloaded at the construction site. “I like this old wood,” he said, patting it thoughtfully. “It’s like me. Full of scars.”

Mike Neill

Johnny Dodd in Sandpoint

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