The People and the System

O. J.,

September 28, 1994

If the O.J. Simpson trial were the norm in what it takes to convict or acquit a man charged with murder, then we might as well give up on criminal trials. We couldn't afford them.

In money terms, according to an investigation by Mike Jensen of NBC, Mr. Simpson is now spending $1 million a month in legal fees. Some of his many lawyers get as much as $650 an hour. His jury consultant is getting $100,000. The trial is expected to last four to six months, after which, if he is convicted, there will be appeals; and if there is a hung jury, there will probably be another trial. Even his $10 million net worth may not cover it.

There are also excessive money costs for the prosecution ("the people"). Mr. Jensen estimates the cost to Los Angeles County at $750,000 so far, with probably $2 million to come.

Some of the people are shouldering non-financial costs. This trial will, one way or another, reduce the ability of L.A. to fund fully its other responsibilities for law enforcement and the administration of justice. Meanwhile, as many as 1,000 residents may be called to establish the initial jury pool. They are having to fill out 75-page questionnaires, and some may be subjected to an intrusive and demeaning cross examination. Eventually, 12 jurors and eight alternates will have to devote perhaps a half year of their lives to determining the guilt or innocence of Mr. Simpson. If the prosecution has its way, those months will be spent sequestered, away from family, friends, livelihood and many amenities of ordinary life.

The spectacle aspect of the Simpson trial comes at a bad time. Most Americans already have a low opinion of what goes on in courtrooms.

A recent Gallup Poll found that only 15 percent of respondents had "a great deal of confidence" in "the criminal justice system." Forty-nine percent had "very little or none." Part of that is due to the widespread scorn for lawyers (only 8 percent of the public has a great deal of confidence in them), but part is due to a low assessment of judges and juries in dealing with criminal matters. A new Los Angeles Times Poll found that 55 percent of L.A County residents have only "some or very little" confidence in juries to decide criminal guilt or innocence competently. About as many respondents felt jurors decide on the basis of preconceived notions as on evidence. Polling over the last decade shows some 80 percent of the public consistently dissatisfied with judges' sentencing in criminal cases.

The Simpson trial will be the most watched in history. It shows no signs of reversing public concern about the system. Just the opposite. The legal profession (and the press) better take that to heart. The more that people lose faith in the criminal justice system, the more likely it is that they will resort to other means to resolve disputes.

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