No judge is perfect, but as the spectacle unfolded yesterday of an athlete-celebrity being arraigned in a brutal double murder, one Los Angeles municipal judge must have felt a special pang.
In 1989, Judge Ronald Schoenberg presided over a case in which O.J. Simpson pleaded no contest to a charge of spousal battery. The judge overruled prosecutors' request that Mr. Simpson spend a month in jail because of the severity of the beating (his wife required hospitalization) and that the athlete undergo an intensive year-long treatment program for men who batter their wives.
Instead, Mr. Simpson received no jail time. He was also allowed to pick his own psychiatrist and receive counseling over the phone. Prosecutors have called that deal unprecedented in such cases.
Details about the case, including police reports from the incident that triggered the charge, were made public after news organizations filed freedom of information requests. It's not reassuring to learn that the night police arrived at the Simpsons' home in 1989, Nicole Simpson came running from the bushes screaming, "He's going to kill me, he's going to kill me."
For his part, Mr. Simpson expressed disbelief in 1989 that police would interfere in "a family matter." A police report quotes him as saying, "The police have been out here eight times before, and now you're going to arrest me for this?" But Nicole Simpson kept saying, "You never do anything about him. You talk to him and then leave."
Even later that year, in the courtroom, Mr. Simpson showed no remorse, no recognition that beating his wife was unacceptable behavior. Wherever he got that notion, Judge Schoenberg's leniency reinforced the message. It was a miscarriage of justice, not just for Nicole Simpson but, regardless of the outcome of his trial, for O.J. Simpson.
Had the judge considered domestic violence the criminal behavior it is, not just "a family matter" to be resolved by the physically stronger partner, O.J. Simpson may have been able to reconcile with his former wife, rather than ending up accused of her murder and that of a male friend.
Serious treatment of spousal batterers can produce results. When confronted with the fact that their behavior is criminal -- not to mention unconscionable -- violent men may be able to mend their ways. But unless their assaults are taken seriously by the criminal justice system, they have little reason to change.
From judges to athletes to ordinary folks, Americans too often dismiss violence within the home as none of the public's business. With all the attention it has garnered, maybe the tragedy of the Simpson case can help turn that around.