On Wednesday Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark confronted two powerful outside forces shaping the O.J. Simpson murder trial--race and media manipulation.
It was an impassioned speech to an audience that counted--potential jurors beginning the final phase of questioning in the long screening process they must endure to join the panel that will decide Simpson’s fate.
The racial question has been part of the case from the beginning. That’s because Simpson is a famed African American football hero accused of killing his white former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, who was also white.
The phenomenon of media manipulation has also permeated the case. News leaks from somewhere in Los Angeles law enforcement have inflicted damage to Simpson’s side. At the same time, the defense has been planting stories suggesting that the prosecution and the Los Angeles Police Department have been guilty of racist behavior.
All this has been staple fare for newspapers and television, both mainstream and tabloid. The racist accusations against the LAPD and the D.A.'s office have been particularly damaging, coming as they do in a city recovering from the 1992 riots and with a long history of conflict between the cops and the African American community.
No doubt fearing that some of the media chatter had found its way into potential jurors’ ears, Clark brought the matter up during juror questioning. It was the first time Clark has acknowledged race as an issue.
Clark walked back and forth, looking the jurors in the eye, establishing one-on-one contact as she tried to discredit the defense portrayal of Simpson as a beloved figure who is being framed.
The defense, she said, is “playing public relations games on you,” giving inaccurate pictures of what’s happening in the courtroom. Obviously, she was referring to news conferences last week by Simpson attorneys Robert L. Shapiro and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. in which they said the prosecution was being too tough in its questioning of black jurors in an effort to have them disqualified.
“If you have been hearing media spinning going on there about what is happening in court, that’s junk, throw it out,” she said. And ignore the journalistic and legal commentators, she said, for “they will lead you astray.”
Actually, the jury candidates have been ordered by Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito to refrain from reading, hearing or viewing any news whatsoever. But Clark was dealing with reality. As civil rights attorney Melanie Lomax told me the other day, human curiosity is a powerful force. “The judge’s caution cannot be adhered to,” she said. “People will get their information in any way.”
Clark said she didn’t want to talk about race but “we’ve got to get it out so we can get rid of it.”
“Race is not a reason to convict,” she said. “Race is not a reason to acquit.” Racial issues, she said, are political and sociological. “These are issues,” she said, “that can be resolved at the ballot box.”
There was one other aspect of the case that Clark confronted--Simpson’s image from the football field and the screen. Both she and co-prosecutor William Hodgman have made it clear that O.J.'s fame poses a real threat to their case.
“This is not a popular case for the prosecution to bring,” she said. “I saw him in ‘Naked Gun’ and he made me laugh.” But she urged the jury panelists to ignore the image and focus on the evidence.
Simpson, she said, is “such a famous guy, he’s such a sympathetic guy, there’s going to be a real pull to do something different than the law requires.”
Defense attorney Cochran also urged the jury prospects to take a good look at Simpson. But where Clark wanted them to see a murder suspect, Cochran urged them to focus on the man.
The defense, he said, refers to him as the defendant to depersonalize him. “This is Mr. O.J. Simpson,” Cochran said, “a human being.”
Besides Simpson’s personality, Cochran also spoke of race. He wanted to make sure jurors will not count Simpson’s race “for him or against him” or will be influenced by the fact that “Mr. Simpson is an African American married to a Caucasian.”
Clark vs. Cochran. It was a great matchup, not only in terms of oratorical style but in presentation of the issues.
It was a preview of opening arguments, which may be two months away. The underlying themes of the trial have now been clearly written into the judicial record.