Accomplices in the court

June 21, 1994

O.J. Simpson was one of the last people Americans expected to see arraigned in a courtroom for the murder of his former wife and a male friend. He has pleaded "not guilty" to the charges, but a history of violence toward Nicole Brown Simpson and numerous reports from friends that she feared for her life have already destroyed his public image.

It is unseemly to let sympathy for Mr. Simpson's plight obscure the fact that two innocent people have been brutally killed. But it is also worth pondering whether he would be in jail on charges that could bring the death penalty if an earlier courtroom appearance had turned out differently.

In 1989, he pleaded no contest to charges of spousal abuse. Because of the severity of the beatings -- Mrs. Simpson required hospitalization -- prosecutors recommended a month in jail, followed by a year-long program for men who batter their wives. The jail time was important. Unless a man wants to change, therapy won't make much difference, and incarceration is one way to drive the message home that beating one's wife is a crime, not just "a family matter," as Mr. Simpson reportedly told police when they arrived on the scene.

But Mr. Simpson -- like many men accused of similar crimes -- was able to get a much sweeter deal: no jail time, a fine and community service which he was allowed to choose. His counseling was downgraded from intensive therapy to telephone sessions with a psychiatrist of his choice. In other words -- no big deal. Too bad. Had Mr. Simpson learned better ways to express anger or control jealous rages, things might have turned out differently for everyone touched by this crime.

If Los Angeles municipal Judge Ronald Schoenberg bears responsibility for his actions in that 1989 case, at least he can claim that some punishment was meted out. That's not always the case, especially when defendants are middle-class or affluent and represented by a lawyer.

Statistics from six police districts in Baltimore City during 1993 suggest that lenient treatment of spousal abuse is not rare at all. Of the final dispositions on 4,150 cases, only 642 guilty verdicts were handed out, with 375 cases getting probation before judgment. Only 25 of these resulted in jail time of more than one year; most got 90 days or less. If those figures suggest lenient treatment, it's worth noting that some observers believe city district court judges, who hear the bulk of these cases, are more knowledgeable and enlightened on domestic violence issues than judges in some other parts of the state.

As the Los Angeles district attorney said in his press conference Friday, the handling of the 1989 Simpson case was "a joke, a terrible joke." The greater tragedy is that this joke was one of many played out in courtrooms around the country.

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