A nation became a jury

October 08, 1995|By C. Fraser Smith

For the first time in history, an entire nation served as unofficial jury in a murder trial.

Looking in on the proceedings on television as often as real life allowed, citizens reached conclusions about the guilt or innocence of O. J. Simpson without having heard all the evidence.

Even the most addicted courtroom voyeurs could hardly see as much as the jury saw. And none shared the responsibility of those who endured every minute of the nine-month trial.

The jury-at-large had the luxury of relying on passions, preconceptions, conspiracy theories -- anything.

Every few days, a statistically valid sample was asked by pollsters to render a verdict. Without considering the perils of poll-taking, those surveys were a preposterous exercise: "Facts aside, Mr. and Mrs. America, did he do it?"

Then came the horror of the answers, surprising to some: Whites, preponderantly, said yes, guilty. Blacks, in similar proportions, said no, not guilty. Though widely seen as judgments based on race, some commentators have frequently pointed out that the split probably had more to do with life experience than with race.

Had we been asked during the trial to say if the Los Angeles Police Department lied, the black-white split might have been roughly the same until the latter stages of the trial, when two homicide investigators became entangled in a web of untruths and prevarications.

Thus did the Simpson trial become a giant fun-house mirror held up to the soul of America. Were we willing to decide the guilt or innocence of a man accused of double murder exclusively along racial lines? So said the jury of millions, according to the simplistic polls.

Probing questions coming after the bottom line, poll-takers adduced something like the following from blacks, according to one expert: Well, he may or may not be guilty, but the one thing I'm certain of is that the Los Angeles Police Department is guilty.

When the real jury's verdict was delivered last week, instant analysis suggested that race had been a dominant motivator -- not the facts of the case, but the race of the official jury's members. Three of the 12 were not African-American, but never mind.

Jeffrey Abramson, a Brandeis University professor, had argued earlier that the jury would behave responsibly.

"Although racial appeals to jurors are occasionally effective," he wrote, "every serious study shows that racial bloc voting is rare and that the prime determinant of verdicts is the strength of the evidence, not preconceptions rooted in race."

Shortly after the verdict, though, he had a different conclusion: .. "There can be little doubt that race emerged as the primary magnet in this case. It took the jurors and just moved them way away from slow and cautious consideration of the evidence.

"This was a case with unbelievable mounds of evidence. Those mounds had difficulties, but they couldn't have been discussed in three hours. It had to be a jury nauseated by the behavior of the L.A. police."

The speed of the verdict, he said, may have been part of a "message." The jurors acted "with lightning speed to reject the prosecution and to say how little respect they had for the case. It's a classic case where racial reality just can't be shut out of the courtroom."

Nor should it be, argues Paul Butler, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, an African-American and a former prosecutor in the District of Columbia.

"The law doesn't always lead to a just result," he said. "The reason we have juries instead of a computer is for juries to apply common sense." Sometimes, he argues in an article prepared for the Yale Law Journal, it is appropriate in cases involving nonviolent crimes for black juries to free defendants they believe are guilty.

Defense of nullification

Mr. Butler encourages blacks to engage in what is called "jury nullification" -- a message of outrage and controlled rebellion to what he called "a racist" criminal justice system. In its current form, he said, "racism seeps through" and should be challenged. Sentences for cocaine use are a prime example of the bias, he said: Penalties for use of crack cocaine, a "black" form of the drug, are tougher than for use of cocaine in powder or "white" form. As a result, he said, large numbers of young black men find themselves in jail, on probation or on parole: one in three, according to a study released last week by the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based organization advocating alternatives to prison.

While monthly figures show that blacks make up 13 percent of the nation's drug users, they constitute 35 percent of drug possession arrests, 55 percent of convictions and 74 percent of prison sentences, U.S. Department of Justice and Census Bureau figures show.

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