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How Celebrity, Race Eclipse Spousal Abuse Issue in Simpson Case

Sometimes I wonder how the O.J. Simpson story would have played if he’d been someone else.

Suppose, for example, he were a wealthy Brentwood attorney. How would we have written the story of his arrest for murder?

If the attorney had a record of spousal abuse like Simpson’s and had surrendered quietly, we probably would have said: “A Brentwood lawyer who had pleaded no contest to charges of beating his wife was arrested today on suspicion of murdering her and a male friend.”

The emphasis in the story would have been on the suspect’s pre-arrest behavior toward his dead wife. In Simpson’s case, reports of abusive conduct brought police to their home a number of times prior to the killings.

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Instead, we wrote: “O. J. Simpson, the football great who rose from the mean streets of San Francisco to international celebrity, was arrested Friday for the murders of his ex-wife and a male friend after leading police on a gripping two-hour chase through the rush-hour freeways of Southern California.”

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Simpson’s celebrity and the circumstances of his arrest overwhelmed the issue of spousal abuse. So did race--mainly fears in the black community that Simpson, who is African American, was being stampeded into the gas chamber.

The racial issue was evident last month when African American community leaders met with Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti. They suggested that Garcetti integrate his all-white, all-male panel of top aides who decide whether to seek the death penalty in murder cases. John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, said the group also told Garcetti that Simpson “be tried by a jury that is representative of the immense diversity of this city, including African Americans.”

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The abuse issue was raised at a news conference Aug. 1 by attorney Gloria Allred. She said Garcetti should seek the death penalty. “We agree with representatives of the African American community that the criminal justice system must respect Mr. Simpson’s rights,” she said. “But we want to also emphasize that the same system must also respect the rights of the victims.”

A few days after her comments, I received a telephone call from a prominent African American civil rights attorney, Melanie Lomax, asking why I hadn’t written a column on Allred’s views. “I am infuriated by the reaction to the O.J. Simpson case, when it seems to completely eclipse the idea of spousal abuse,” she said. “I have the overwhelming sense that he was and remains an abusive man. And he must be held to account for this particular spousal abuse and his history of terrorizing his former wife and his children.”

I was surprised to hear her criticize the African American leaders who met with Garcetti. Lomax is a leader who has been outspoken on the issue of fairness to African Americans. When Lomax was president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, she led the effort to oust Police Chief Daryl F. Gates. And she’s a force in politics as a contributor and fund-raiser.

Lomax acknowledged that, as the African American leaders said, there have been “glaring examples where the justice system did not work,” such as the Rodney G. King beating case.

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But she said the “leadership’s obligation is to define to the community some sort of moral commitment--that murder is not OK, that violence toward women is not OK, and that you’re not a hero in the community if you use your physical superiority to terrorize women.

“The leadership has permitted too many people to go off in a tangent and not recognize the moral imperatives of this case,” she said. “Setting aside the murder issue, the undisputed facts of threatening and stalking should be morally condemned. Instead, it seems they are wrapping their arms around him and I think it is appalling.”

Simpson’s attorneys, Lomax said, are banking on community support. “Clearly the defense is banking on a hung jury,” she said. “Clearly they are going to play to African Americans, clearly they are going to play to the sense of paranoid injustice that has a lot of merit. . . . The best we can hope for is that any African Americans on the jury do not look on it in simplistic terms. . . .”

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This is a complicated issue. On Tuesday, leaders of Mothers in Action, an African American community group, held a news conference to criticize the Allred position. “Pitting the rights of African Americans and other persons of color against the rights of women will not be tolerated,” said Johnnie Tillman-Blackston.

Later in the day, Allred emphasized that she represented women of all races who have been victimized. “This is not an issue of race,” she said. “It’s an issue of simple justice.”

What is certain is that these sensitive disputes, aired in the media, will be on the minds of prosecutors, defense attorneys and prospective jurors when the process of jury selection begins Sept. 19.


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