'Like a battered husband'

June 21, 1994|By William Safire

THE moving images in our minds of O.J. Simpson breaking through tackle or racing through an airport have slammed to stillness in a mug shot issued by the Los Angeles police.

For the first time, we are faced with this question: How do we react to the charge that someone famed for his winning ways may be a knife-wielding murderer of two people?

First, we suspend judgment until he enters his plea. If he continues to maintain he is not guilty, we extend to him the presumption of innocence -- not just as a formality, but as our assertion of the rights of every individual against the power of the state.

Next, we knock off this stuff about his being "an American hero." Although he was an authentic football hero, later capitalizing on his celebrity in films and television, Mr. Simpson was by no means a figure like Jackie Robinson -- who, through his sports example and later by extensive community work, found a way to have a positive impact on American life.

Then we do our best to set aside the usualracial overtone in the prosecution of a black in the killing of whites. Mr. Simpson came under suspicion because he was the former husband of one of the victims, not because of his color; his jurors must not be influenced by concerns of the impact on his fans and supporters of every race, exemplified by those mindless motorists who lined the freeway shouting "Go, O.J.!" as he was followed to his arrest by a procession of police cars.

Finally, those of us outside the judicial process should focus on what we know about this case, rather than on leaks from defense and prosecution.

And the most stunning piece of evidence so far made public is his suicide note, addressed "to whom it may concern," which is you and me.

That the document is a suicide note, or was intended by Mr. Simpson to be read as such, seems beyond dispute. After reasserting he had "nothing to do with Nicole's murder," he bade farewell to friends: "As I leave, you'll be in my thoughts." He used the dramatic suicide cliche: "I can't go on." He twice put his life in the past tense: "I've had a good life . . . I've had a great life." Impending self-destruction thus declared, Simpson -- "this lost person" -- then ran away from the cops, reportedly gun in hand.

The obvious question: If innocent, why couldn't he "go on"? Why run away from life, or from the police? His defense may say he was gripped by mental depression and irrationally thought a fair trial was impossible.

That's arguable; but the suicide note strikes me as evidence of a flight from responsibility -- Mr. Simpson's attempt to manipulate the emotions of friends and fans by claiming reverse victimhood.

"At times I have felt like a battered husband or boyfriend," he wrote. This from a man who, after eight previous complaints of wife-beating, was finally arrested five years ago and pleaded no contest to his wife's charge. An overly lenient judge let the celebrity off with a small fine, quickly forgotten community service, and promised phone calls to a psychiatrist.

Mr. Simpson would have us believe that the victim in 1989 was not the abused wife with the black eye and bruised neck, but the famous football hero.

The real perpetrator was not the husband who did not contest her charge but the press: He claims he entered his nolo plea only "to protect our privacy" and to "end the press hype." He dismissed her repeated calls to police as "all this press talk about a rocky relationship." Back then, in other words, the media made him do it.

A legitimate Simpson defense to today's murder charges would demand the government prove its case.

We can hope he avoids the no-responsibility defense, popularized by the Menendez and Bobbitt lawyers, holding that the real victim is not the dead or injured but the abused accused.

Justice can also do without this argument: A person who has money, looks and public adulation would have to be crazy or drugged out of his mind to commit murder -- and thus insane, cannot be held responsible.

This case will force domestic violence out of the shadows, which is good. But all justice is individual: two human beings were stabbed to death.

Responsibility rests not on cruel society, nosy reporters, drug-related derangement or maddening provocation, but on the murderer, whether an admired celebrity or a hated hoodlum.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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