Divided We Stand Will the O.J. Simpson case -- or the national rifts it has laid bare -- ever really be resolved?

February 06, 1997|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Arthur Hirsch and M. Dion Thompson contributed to this article.

It's the year 2004. A judge in Los Angeles calls the court to order.

Sydney and Justin Simpson vs. Orenthal James Simpson. A wrongful-death suit in the loss of their mother, Nicole Brown Simpson.

Will it never end?

Even without such a dramatic twist, the question remains. After three years and two verdicts, the O. J. Simpson case stands unresolved -- legally or otherwise. Just as appeals and other legal actions will keep the Simpson Saga alive in court for years, the ugly national rifts over race and justice that it so clearly illuminated resist any quick resolution.

Psychologists call it closure, the need to wrap up an issue and move on. The Simpson case has so far eluded closure; we may have to settle for an ending borne of simple exhaustion.

"It's like every time you turn the channel, it's O. J. this and O. J. that," Steve Rowell said from behind the counter at the Daily Grind coffeehouse in Fells Point yesterday. "Hopefully, we won't hear about it for the next 10 years, but we probably will."

"It's beyond me why they want to keep on [talking about it]," said Janet Berkley as she waited for a bus on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore. "Now the debate is what is he worth. That doesn't make any sense."

But even if the Simpson case itself has wearied us, the difficult issues it has brought to the forefront cannot be ignored, many say.

"This case must come to closure, but the issue of the criminal justice system and the dilemma of racism remain," said longtime civil rights activist Joseph Lowery, of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

To see how deeply divided the nation remains along racial lines, he and others say, look at the reactions to the two verdicts: Blacks applauding the not guilty criminal verdict, whites cheering the civil verdict that he is liable.

"It's a tie -- the black people won one and the white people won one and now we have to go into overtime," is how Lowery characterizes the situation.

"But who lost," he adds, "is the nation."

The Rev. Frank Reid III, the politically active pastor of Baltimore's Bethel AME Church, was discomfitted by reactions to the verdicts.

"I don't think there was a reason to celebrate either verdict. Two people lost their lives. Two children lost their mother. O. J. Simpson will never be able to live a normal life," he says.

"It's time for it to be over," Reid said, but added: "The case is no more than a symptom of a greater disease. The responses to those verdicts make it very plain the real problem is we live in two different worlds."

Imagine, Reid says, if all the time that just one talk-show host devoted to the Simpson case was, instead, devoted to spousal abuse. Or how to make the criminal justice system fair to all people, regardless of race.

"That would be bigger than O. J.," Reid says.

Indeed, for many, the larger questions raised by the Simpson case -- and our fascination with all its gory, tabloid aspects -- are more troubling than the defendant's guilt or innocence.

"It brought up a lot of things that people may not have acknowledged, but the bearing it had on the actual proceedings was not healthy," observed Isaac Cynkar, a student at University of Maryland College Park, as he studied at the Daily Grind. "It almost seems like the two trials became a sounding board for issues. It opened up a lot."

"The justice system doesn't work right unless you have money. His lawyers picked the first jury for him and he got a jury of his peers. The second case, he wasn't going to jail, so he wasn't concerned about it," said Mark Johnson, waiting outside the Upton metro stop on Pennsylvania Avenue. "Money talks. If you have money, you get good representation. The poor black person wouldn't have been able to afford that kind of representation."

But will the Simpson case lead to real discussion and real action on the issues it raised? Or will the endless circus that it continues to spawn -- the Playboy poses, the Annie Liebovitz portraits of the players, the books and movies still in the works -- merely continue to distract us?

"I see the trials as two humps of a camel, and we're now going down the second hump," says Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who has followed the Simpson case from the start. "Unless O. J. does something dramatic, or someone else comes forward and admits to the murders, it's hard to imagine we'll ever reach peaks like that again."

Barring a third hump to that camel, the Simpson case should be remanded to the real court, not the court of public opinion that it has dominated for so long.

Legal experts point to the appeals -- of the civil verdict that was handed down Tuesday and of the custody decision that sent Sydney, 11, and Justin, 8, to their father's home. And, in fact, the children legally have the right to file their own wrongful death suit in the loss of their mother anytime before they turn 19.

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