Fullerton police Sgt. Jeff Stuart, shows memorabilia from the OJ Simpson murder trial including a photo in the Las Angeles Times of him testifying in the preliminary hearing leading up to the trial.
ANGELA PIAZZA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
The banner headline ran in thick capital letters across the front page of a January 1996 tabloid:
“I DID IT”
Beneath the headline in the Globe was the iconic mug shot of O.J. Simpson taken after being arrested on suspicion of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.
To the left of the photo is the phrase: “O.J.’s chilling word-by-word confession to Rosey Grier – Explosive truth from the jail guard who heard it all.”
The “jail guard who heard it all” is Fullerton police Sgt. Jeff Stuart.
Today is the 19th anniversary of the jailhouse conversation overheard by Stuart that etched his name into the transcripts of one of the most sensational court cases ever.
DID O.J. CONFESS?
Stuart began his law enforcement career in 1991 as a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy assigned to the Men’s Central Jail. He was 23.
Shortly after his arrest in June 1994, Simpson was kept in the jail’s security housing unit.
Stuart was stationed in a command center, and oversaw a visiting area reserved for “keep-away” inmates – those inmates who were isolated because of their celebrity or high-profile status.
One evening that November, the young deputy checked in a visitor to see Simpson: Grier, a former NFL defensive tackle turned Christian minister.
While Grier and Simpson chatted by phone in a one-man visitation room separated by thick glass, Stuart sat at his desk. His back was to Grier, about three feet away.
“When it is normal conversation, the glass is pretty thick and you can’t hear anything,” Stuart said. “I went back to monitoring the floor and doing paperwork.”
Suddenly, he heard the thwacking sound of a phone slamming and then, he said, O.J. shouting:
“ ‘I didn’t mean to do it! … I’m sorry!’ ”
“He slams it down and yells at the top of his voice, which is loud enough to go through not only the ceiling but through the glass to Rosey Grier,” said Stuart, now 45.
Grier, after a second or so, Stuart recalled, shouted:
“ ‘O.J., you got to come clean. You got to tell somebody.’ ”
Stuart saw Simpson bury his head in the palms of his cupped hands.
“(He) was obviously visibly shaken,” Stuart said. “He was crying at the time.”
He then saw Grier motioning for Simpson to pick the phone back up.
Stuart wasn’t quite sure what to make of the outburst.
“It is a pretty ambiguous statement,” Stuart said. “It wasn’t a big deal to me when I heard it.”
When on a break in the deputy’s dining room, Stuart got called back to his post.
Supervisors told Stuart that Simpson was cursing him while being escorted back to his cell, ranting about a deputy falsely claiming to hear his confession.
But because Stuart hadn’t told anybody, he figured Simpson was trying to cover his tracks.
Stuart’s statement was sealed before making its way to the desk of Superior Court Judge Lance Ito.
Stuart was ordered to testify but was permitted to only acknowledge hearing a statement without revealing what was said.
“(It was) my first time ever testifying,” Stuart said.
The prosecution team tried to extract answers alluding to a confession of guilt.
The defense team, led by Johnnie Cochran, battled to keep the statement under wraps, arguing that conversations between inmates and clergy are protected under state law.
Stuart was grilled for more than two hours:
Did you hear a conversation? … Who made the conversation? … What were the dimensions of the room? … Where were you seated when you heard the conversation? … What was the thickness of the walls? … What was the thickness of the glass? … O.J.’s demeanor when the statement was made?
Ultimately, Ito ruled Simpson’s conversation with Grier was, in fact, protected and therefore not admissible.
The trial began on Jan. 24, 1995. On Oct. 3, Simpson was found not guilty.
By then, Stuart had switched departments to Fullerton.
When Stuart was contacted by a reporter from the Globe who asked him to tell the story of Simpson’s jailhouse statement, then-Chief Pat McKinley gave his blessing.
“I knew he was coming from the (L.A.) Sheriff’s Department but didn’t know he was part of the O.J. case,” McKinley recalled. “I had no problem with it.”
Stuart told the Globe reporter what he heard and saw on that day in the Men’s Central Jail. He was paid close to $10,000 for telling his story.
“There are some things that were added in that were a little sensationalized, but there is nothing that is factually inaccurate,” Stuart said.
With more than 20 years on the job, including assignments as a homicide detective and gang investigator, Stuart looks back on the Simpson verdict with more seasoned eyes.
“As a former detective, you take ambiguous statements and you look at other details and facts and put those together,” Stuart said.
“If I was a detective working the case and I heard that, I would want to go back and look at more evidence,” he said.
But even if Simpson’s statement had been heard by a jury, Stuart believes the verdict would have been the same.
“There was probably more evidence that was undisputed by the defense than you have in 10 homicide cases,” Stuart said.
Does Stuart think Simpson’s statement was an admission of guilt?
When considering all the other evidence … probably.
“I will never be 100 percent certain,” Stuart said. “We will never know.”
By LOU PONSI / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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