Racial factor creates Simpson case confusion

July 22, 1994|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- O. J. Simpson has never been easy to categorize. In his public and private lives, he crossed the color line to become what marketers call race neutral. Now, as a murder defendant, he is creating confusion and divisions among blacks here over his role and symbolism.

From Joe Hicks of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who insists that race plays no part in the case, to Dennis Schatzman of the Los Angeles Sentinel, a black-run newspaper, who says the case is "all about race," it is hard to find complete agreement.

"It's a Rorschach on race and gender," says Kimberly Crenshaw, a professor of constitutional law at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"Whatever your issue is, you can look at this case and you can see it."

Mr. Simpson has pleaded innocent to murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and her friend Ronald Goldman, 25. Their slashed and stabbed bodies were found outside Ms. Simpson's condominium June 13.

Mr. Simpson is scheduled to be arraigned today on the murder charges. Again, the major television networks plan to carry the proceedings live. A judge and the date for the pretrial hearing are expected to be named.

In the early stages of the investigation, race was a "sleeper issue," mostly unrecognized among the fast-moving developments, Ms. Crenshaw says.

But the issue has emerged in recent weeks as the defense team has become more aggressive in its efforts to influence public opinion here.

On Tuesday, the Field Poll, a leading California opinion research agency, reported that while 62 percent of whites believed that Mr. Simpson was "very likely or somewhat likely" guilty, only 38 percent of blacks agreed with them.

The survey of 847 Californians was conducted by telephone from July 12 to July 17. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Fifty-eight of the respondents were black; the margin of error for blacks on the question regarding Mr. Simpson's guilt is plus or minus 13 percentage points.

Mr. Simpson's lawyers raised the issue of race by suggesting to reporters for Newsweek and the New Yorker that a police detective on the case, Mark Fuhrman, had racist tendencies and could have planted evidence against Mr. Simpson.

Yesterday, the lead lawyer for Mr. Simpson, Robert Shapiro, said: "Race is not an issue in this case, and I will not bring it up, and anyone who speculated on that is just speculating on their own, and the speculation is incorrect."

Legal experts said they believe that the defense made the allegation to try to influence potential jurors with material that might not be admissible in court.

But experts in jury selection said that careful pretrial questioning should weed out biased jurors, whether black or white.

The defense launched a media blitz Wednesday with a toll-free tip line and a $500,000 reward for information on "the real killer."

The volume of calls to (800) 322-3632 on the first full day was as heavy as 100 a minute.

Many people could not get through. Some who did heard only dead air. A few got a recorded voice thanking them for calling and then offering four options.

Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, a jury consultant, said that the extraordinary pretrial publicity, rather than the issue of race, would be the biggest challenge in selecting an unbiased jury.

Some commentators have called the defense tactics irresponsible in a city where the issue of racial bias in the criminal justice system remains an open wound after the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed the acquittal of four officers accused of assault.

The mere spectacle of a prominent black man charged with murder was enough to touch off cries of racial bias among some blacks here.

But Mr. Simpson was not a "member of the club" for politically active blacks and did not at first win their strong support, says Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

"It's the same way a lot of blacks supported Clarence Thomas even though they were opposed to his views," Dr. Poussaint says.

"Ultimately they supported him because he was a black man under attack."

The more vigorously Mr. Simpson has been pursued by the criminal justice system, the "blacker" he has become, Mr. Schatzman said.

"Everything is magnified, and black people, irrespective of the fact that he never set foot in South Central, can identify with him now," Mr. Schatzman said.

Mr. Hicks scoffed at that view, saying that Mr. Simpson's wealth, not his color, was the key factor. Some have said that Mr. Simpson may have more in common with the Menendez brothers -- two rich white men from Beverly Hills, Calif., accused of killing their parents -- than with most black defendants.

"That a poor, black inner-city resident will verbally come to the defense of a rich black celebrity accused of a crime, simply on racial grounds, makes little sense," Mr. Hicks said. "But it may reflect the facts of life in America."

Almost any of the wide range of opinions on the case could be heard the other day at the Magic Shears Barber Shop in South Central Los Angeles.

Some men expressed suspicion that sooner or later any successful black man would be pulled down. And there was resentment among some women at a black man who had married a white woman.

"I feel they are raking him through the coals because he is a black man," said Otha Aaron, a library clerk.

Meanwhile, black Los Angeles attorney Johnnie L. Cochran, a friend of Mr. Simpson, has joined the defense team, TV stations reported.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.