Meaning differs for each watcher Individuals see race, celebrity, money as key

For some, it's been a bore

Activists, historians, writers, politicians offer their views.

The O. J. Simpson Verdict

October 04, 1995|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Dan Fesperman in Berlin, Bill Glauber in London, Michael A. Hill in Johannesburg and Clara E. Germani in Moscow contributed to this article. Sun librarian Susan Waters provided research assistance.

For Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Edgar Wideman, the Simpson case highlights just how dangerous skin color has become in the United States.

For Mario Cuomo, it symbolizes the hypocrisy of the death penalty. For historian Arthur Schlessinger Jr., the case doesn't mean a "damn thing."

For millions of Americans, the O. J. Simpson case is resonating with deep personal meaning. But with its messages of racism and domestic violence, privilege and police corruption, it is taking on different meanings from one community to another around the country.

Many agree that the case teaches us important, powerful lessons about life in America. But what, exactly, are those lessons?

To explore the symbolism and significance of the case, The Sun interviewed poets and authors, historians and statesmen, film makers, artists and community activists around the nation and in major international cities.

The reactions ranged from outright rejection of any meaning behind the case to eloquent soliloquies about the impact the trial may have on race relations, domestic violence or jurisprudence.

Many said color played a pivotal role in the case, consuming far too much time, providing a distraction from the central point of the double-murder trial. Others said the case demonstrated just how far white police officers will go to try to convict African-American suspects.

Some said the trial exposed a troubling bias in the white news media. Some hoped the case would not prevent battered women from seeking help from the courts. Others said the case has little to do with race, and more to do with wealth, power and fame.

While 20 people agreed to talk about the case, more than 40 others never returned requests for interviews or refused to comment.

Among them: poet Maya Angelou, Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, author Alice Walker, former President Jimmy Carter, Baltimore political strategist Larry Gibson, writer Pearl Cleage, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, and actors Laurence Fishburne and Charles Dutton.

Here are those who agreed to share their thoughts:

A dangerous distraction

John Edgar Wideman, novelist, Rhodes scholar, English professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of many books, Widemanincluding "The Homewood Books," "All Stories Are True," and "Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers, Sons, Race and Society." Mr. Wideman's brother and son are serving life sentences for murder:

"There should be at least an illusion that there is equality above and beyond the law. We have a desperate need to feel that the courtroom is the place to resolve guilt or innocence. But it's a real question, when you ask, is this about the lives of, most immediately, three people, two dead and and one in trial for his life, or is it equally about our collective destiny.

"It has consumed a lot of time, energy and money, and anybody with a brain who looks back will say, 'Isn't it bizarre that there are forces in a society that can focus its attention so absolutely to the denial of all of the other things that are going on? Isn't it dangerous that one thing is chosen to be the centerpiece of a nation's reflection about itself? Isn't it dangerous that we can lose ourselves in that kind distraction?'

"Issues of race are being played out daily, in the Congress, in the schools, in Bosnia; but the trail becomes a cartoon, where very large things are reduced, and we ask very simplistic questions. Somebody has the power to draw this cartoon that the whole country pays attention to, but we have no control over what this cartoon happens to feature, whether it's kids in Calvin Klein underwear or O. J. Simpson. It works like race itself. It's a distraction."

The popularity factor

Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, now a radio talk show commentator and member of a Manhattan law firm:

"We've learned that if you are rich, you have an immense advantage. Most poor people and struggling middle-class people who get into trouble cannot afford Cochran, and Dershowitz, and Bailey, and all the investigators. Money can buy you reasonable doubt. I say that with no bitterness. It's just a fact.

"It also says something about the death penalty. The person accused of this crime is accused of taking a weapon, a huge knife, and spending five minutes cutting and slashing away, destroying the life of two human beings. And still, despite all that, the prosecution fails to ask for the death penalty. How do you explain this?

"If he is not subject to the death penalty, who is? What we did here we did for a different reason. We did it because we had a very popular defendant. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying he's guilty. But some unknown man who commits a murder in the course of burglarizing a home, he's gone. Death penalty. Let's kill him."

A rich man can buy justice anywhere

Gary Solis, an American attorney who became a celebrity in England after explaining the Simpson case for months to perplexed Britons on his "Sky News" television broadcast:

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