Simpson case showed role money plays in justice system

June 10, 1999|By Johnnie Cochran

NEARLY four years after O.J. Simpson's acquittal for the June 12, 1994, murders of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman, many Americans still fail to grasp the lessons of that trial.

Instead of a tempered national discussion about race and how the verdict was reached, we are doing more shouting and less listening. Instead of police departments working hard to eliminate pockets of racism, we see a rash of high-profile police brutality cases.

Instead of a self-examination by the press about the notions of privacy and probity, we continue to be pulled downward by tabloid values. And instead of thoughtful reflections about what went on in that Los Angeles courtroom, we are treated to recollections based more on fantasy than on fact.

The biggest myth perpetrated by the verdict's critics is that Mr. Simpson's acquittal was based solely on the use of the so-called "race card," a term that trivializes the issues of race. If that had been the case, however, our jobs as defense counsel would have been much easier.

No martyr here

To put it bluntly, few, if any, people thought of Mr. Simpson as black. His social circle was almost entirely white. His extraordinary athletic skill and congeniality permitted him to flourish within white society. To portray Mr. Simpson as an African-American martyr is absurd.

Despite assertions to the contrary, the defense team also never implied or said outright that Mr. Simpson was framed because he was African-American. And I have never believed that there was a clear, conscious conspiracy on the part of the Los Angeles Police Department. Rather, the charges Mr. Simpson faced stemmed from a combination of sloth, incompetence, ambition and racial bias within the LAPD.

Also, to assume that the jury of nine blacks, two whites and one Latino reached an acquittal because of race is an insult to it.

Did previous instances of police misconduct contribute to a sense among the jurors that cops are not perfect? Absolutely. Those who are most outraged by the Simpson verdict are obliged to work to restore law enforcement's credibility.

Mr. Simpson was not the beneficiary of trickery by his defense lawyers. However, Mr. Simpson did benefit from having a robust and a vigorous defense, a team of dedicated professionals who demonstrated that the state could not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Flawed justice system

All defendants are entitled to such advocacy. Sadly, few receive it. The judicial system is uneven and at times unfair. Witness the instances of wrongfully convicted inmates who are now belatedly being freed by DNA evidence.

Indeed, the key lesson from the Simpson trial is not that justice is color blind. It is that the only color justice recognizes is green.

White defendants before Mr. Simpson, such as John DeLorean and Claus von Bulow, also benefited from this. In the case of Mr. Simpson, here was someone who had profited through his own talent and hard work. He was a winner in the game of capitalism. Yet, when Mr. Simpson chose to deploy his resources to ensure that his rights as a citizen and a defendant would be protected, he was condemned. No one in similar circumstances would have acted any differently.

As an African-American, and as the leader of the so-called "dream team," my role continues to spur controversy. I have chosen not to hide but to engage.

I speak often to university, community, church and professional groups. But the racial divide still burdening this nation is most apparent in the simple astonishment that an African-American such as I can triumph because of his intelligence. It's acceptable, it seems, for blacks to be successful entertainers and athletes. But for African-Americans who achieve by using their minds, praise from the general public is often either absent or reluctant.

This country does not have a state religion. In a sense, though, our courts are a civic temple, where the most vexing questions are resolved and where the state's power is held in check. Sometimes, African-Americans can make the courts embrace our highest ideals. It is disheartening to know that some see this as a terrifying threat.

Before the anniversary remembrances of the Simpson saga once again are swept away, we need to return to the one part of that trial that escaped the gaze of the television cameras: the jury room.

In that space, men and women of various backgrounds reasoned together. They exchanged views and reached a conclusion. Rather than question that, it is time for us to engage in a similar discussion. Without a rational exchange of ideas, there is only fear and ignorance.

Johnnie Cochran is a lawyer and host of Court TV's "Johnnie Cochran Tonight." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 6/10/99

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