Sometimes a jury does the right thing

October 07, 1995|By Harold Jackson

FEW WHITE people have asked me how I feel about the acquittal of O.J. Simpson. I have surmised they either think they already know, or are ashamed of what they might express in reciprocation. No matter, I hear what they say to each other. Black people are used to listening and watching white folks who want to pretend they are invisible.

A lot of African Americans tried to remain ambivalent about Mr. Simpson's plight when he was first accused of murder. I mean, it wasn't like he was a pillar of the African-American community. He was an apparently apolitical athlete turned actor who seemed more comfortable among whites than blacks anyway.

The darkened photo

But once accused of murder, whites seemed to say you can have him, we don't want him. Immediately there were news reports on African America's reaction to the arrest of Mr. Simpson. There were polls divided along racial lines requesting opinions on his possible guilt or innocence. Time magazine even darkened a cover-page photo of Mr. Simpson, as if to ensure no one mistook his ethnic origins.

The message was clear. Mr. Simpson must be tried as a black man, with all the luggage -- good and bad -- that comes with that designation. That those who for the last year insisted the Simpson case must be about race would in the end denounce the possibility that race might have played a role in the jury's verdict is amusing.

Black people couldn't deny Mr. Simpson's re-entry into their nation even if they had wanted to. Having taken the brother back, they also accepted the possibility that, for all his wealth, he could become a victim of the same racially oriented inequities in the criminal-justice system that many African Americans believe exist.

Each day we learn more about why the jury acquitted Mr. Simpson. I must say, as a person who has served on juries with blacks who did vote to send African Americans to prison, that I never believed he would be acquitted just because his jury was mostly black.

In fact, I was on two juries with different similarities to the Simpson trial. The first was a 1978 murder case, a black man accused of killing a white grocer. We were sequestered five days. Our job wasn't to decide guilt or innocence; we were to determine the defendant's mental competency to stand trial.

I was the foreman. My recollection is that there were three other blacks on the panel. One, an elderly man said outright he thought too many black men were being sent to prison for crimes they didn't commit.

In the end, though, that dissident agreed that the suspect knew right from wrong, knew what he had and had not done and could assist in his defense. He was found competent, tried, convicted and sent to prison.

Did the possibility of further sequestration hasten our decision? I really don't think so. We thought about the families -- the murder victim's and the defendant's. But five days isn't nine months, which is how long Mr. Simpson's jury was sequestered.

About 10 years later I was again the foreman of a mostly white jury. A black man, an ex-con, was accused of being part of a drug-distribution conspiracy.

We found him innocent, for two reasons. First, he was believable when he insisted his only crime was failing to stay out of the company of drug dealers who also happened to be kin folks.

A lying witness

But the main reason was that a white cop, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, lied on the witness stand and the jury recognized what he said as a lie. He described seeing a drug transaction from a location that those of us already familiar with the site knew would be impossible.

We weren't about to send a man to prison knowing one of his accusers was capable of deceit. Just as defense attorney Johnnie Cochran said of the Simpson jury, our decision wasn't based on race, it was based on credibility.

Any discovered lie by a state witness would have jeopardized the Simpson prosecutors' case. Of course, it didn't help that the liar was Mark Fuhrman denying he likes the sound of ''nigger.''

=1 Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

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