What if Simpson Had Been -- Poor?

January 22, 1995|By DOUGLAS L. COLBERT

Whenever an African-American man is accused of murdering two white people, the criminal justice system's ability to provide the accused a fair trial is severely tested. But when the accused is also a well-known and popular celebrity like O. J. Simpson, we begin to see a different weakness in the system: class consciousness.

To this point, O. J. Simpson is getting a fair trial, perhaps the fairest trial that anyone in his situation has ever received. Unlike most other African-Americans accused of killing white people, O. J. has to feel enormous confidence in the jury that has been chosen to judge him. Historically, all-white, or predominantly white, juries have been selected in such cases and they have systematically convicted accused blacks, causing many to believe that only a racially mixed jury can guarantee an impartial verdict. O. J.'s jury, therefore, is unique: It is one of the rare occasions, if not the only one, on which an accused African-American charged with killing white people will be judged by a jury including a majority of African-Americans.

Does this mean that O. J. will automatically be found not guilty?

Absolutely not, despite many white people's fears that black jurors will vote for O. J.'s acquittal. If the evidence proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, this jury, just like most juries, will return a guilty verdict.

But O. J. Simpson's case must be understood not only through a prism of race but through one of class. Because O. J.'s is a showcase trial, many people here and abroad will believe that this is the way in which the American criminal justice system operates. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you are poor and unable to afford a private lawyer, which is true for most criminal defendants, you don't get 2 1/2 months to select a jury; you are fortunate if the jury selection lasts 2 1/2 hours. Defense lawyers only wish that every judge had the patience and temperament of Lance Ito, who is permitting O. J.'s lawyers to fully challenge the prosecution's case. Judges do not allow pretrial suppression hearings to continue for days or weeks; they usually deny defense motions in minutes or hours. ** Court-appointed lawyers rarely receive voluminous pages of pretrial discovery material from the prosecution; in most states, the defense is lucky to receive ordinary police reports and the names of witnesses the prosecution intends to call at trial. Lawyers for the indigent are unable to mount a serious challenge to the prosecution's expert testimony; their limited resources make it unlikely that they could afford rebuttal witnesses concerning DNA evidence, for example. Plea negotiations are not conducted over many months, but are usually concluded in one- or two-minute court conferences.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that most poor people accused of crimes decide to plead guilty and take the best deal offered. They fear a harsher sentence from trial judges known for being tough on defendants who exercise their jury trial rights. The accused is aware that most court-appointed lawyers are unable to devote weeks and months to prepare a case. Many are assigned to try a case on the day of trial; even the most committed defenders are usually too overwhelmed with their case responsibilities to prepare adequately for every client.

O. J. Simpson is receiving a fair trial because he is wealthy and a celebrity. His high-priced defense team consists of dedicated lawyers who are prepared to provide him with the best possible defense -- though if current reports are to be believed, O. J.'s immediate problem is similar to the coach being asked to persuade a team of all-stars to share playing time.

Mr. Simpson's trial represents the true exception to the way in which the criminal-justice system operates. When poor people are on trial, as is true in the vast majority of cases, the system does not spend much time on enforcing procedural niceties. Most judges run a tightly controlled courtroom. Pretrial issues are resolved quickly, jury selection is brief, trials are swift, and punishment is certain. Anyone doubting this need only observe proceedings in the local courthouse.

In most jurisdictions, it is shocking to see the quality of justice afforded poor criminal defendants, the overwhelming number of whom are African-American men.

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