COLUMN ONE : The Case That Fits All Causes : For good or ill, Simpson-mania seems to provide a public forum for anyone with a message, a dream or even some with get-rich schemes.
No other case so dominates the American stage. None is so shamelessly hyped or so endlessly dissected. None is such a lightning rod for debate--not only about the crimes, but also about prickly matters of domestic violence, race and privilege, the vanishing notion of equal justice for all.
O.J. reaches far beyond the courtroom. O.J. is a force moving through our culture, shaping our thoughts, defining our priorities, exposing our flaws.
To anyone who harbors a gripe, a wish, a scheme to get rich or to transform the world, O.J. is the magic mirror: Look to the case and see what you hope to see. It is grand enough and compelling enough to justify nearly any viewpoint, any plan of action. It has been seized upon in the name of abused wives, cash-poor defendants, jury reform and Death Row inmates--and more than a few times it has been used merely to make a dollar.
“Any case with notoriety of this sort produces people who will stretch the issues to fit their cause,” said Dr. Claudewell S. Thomas, professor emeritus of psychiatry at UCLA. He views the case as an indictment of society. He deplores the media blitz, the book and talk show offers to players in the drama. Watching all that, he senses our country is losing its grip on what is right and wrong.
“It’s almost as if something huge and monstrous is picking our pockets,” Thomas said. “And we can’t see it.”
The murder case against Simpson--which goes to trial today in a Downtown Los Angeles courtroom--is a subject of intense emotions and sharp divisions in public perception, social scholars say. In such a monumental drama, social advocacy occurs on two planes: in the media by civic movers, and at deeper levels by groups and individuals arguing over coffee tables and telephones, in bars and on computer bulletin boards. Out of the ceaseless interplay of theories, biases and rumors, there comes a strain on the cultural fabric.
No matter how the case turns out, the discourse will smolder for quite some time and there will be substantial public trauma, said Michael J. Singer, a Long Beach psychiatrist.
“Psychologically, this will have a tremendous impact on this society, just as the Lindbergh case had an effect 60 years ago,” Singer said. But the cases are different: When Bruno Hauptmann was on trial for the kidnaping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby, the public felt almost universal empathy for the heroic aviator and his family.
Hauptmann’s conviction brought a collective sense of justice, Singer said, even though many believed he was innocent.
Simpson’s case is more rife with conflict. The hero, this time, is the accused.
“This case will not be put to rest,” Singer said. “It will create a tremendous amount of discussion and argument, and many books will be written on this for many years to come. . . .”
Activists Rushed to Turn Focus on Abuse
Among some activists, the rush to use the case to advance a political cause began early--only days after the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were found in Brentwood last June. Members of a media team from the National Organization for Women were pondering ways to bring attention to domestic violence, even while the infamous “low-speed chase” of Simpson transfixed the nation, said NOW press secretary Jeni Hyder.
Their strategies soon included a variety of “zap actions,” including speeches, demonstrations and news conferences, to bring rapid attention to the issue. While careful to withhold comment on Simpson’s guilt or innocence, NOW officials came up with messages they considered important, among them that four battered women are killed every day in the United States. Chapter leaders throughout the country were coached to help the media find “local angles” on domestic violence, Hyder said.
Newspapers nationwide featured the issue, as did Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Playboy and other magazines.
“You can’t deny that the O.J. case has brought women’s issues, as far as domestic violence (is concerned), way out into the mainstream,” Hyder said, noting that NOW is planning a massive April rally in Washington, D.C., to further publicize the cause.
Members of the nonprofit L.A. Commission on Assaults Against Women are speaking at clinics, schools and service groups, said Patricia Occhiuzzo Giggans, the group’s executive director. Calls to the commission’s hot line are up 20% to 25% compared to a year ago. Women often bring up the Simpson case, Giggans said.
“They ask about a relationship going bad and the potential for violence,” she said. "(They ask) how they can prevent themselves from getting into a relationship like that in the first place.”
To other groups, Simpson’s relationship with his ex-wife is less interesting than his treatment within the judicial system. One parents organization has held demonstrations--most recently a candlelight vigil--outside the Criminal Courts Building, where Simpson is on trial. They seek to call attention to his superior treatment and legal defense.
The parents contrast him with poorer defendants who funnel through the system from the city’s predominantly minority neighborhoods and whom they call “nO.J.'s” (no-jays), who lack his wealth, fame and high-powered lawyers.
“When the case came up with O.J., we were saying here’s a perfect time to step into the spotlight a little bit,” said Geri Silva, a founder of Mothers Reclaiming Our Children. “We have no resentment against O.J., but it’s disgusting to see one person get that preferential treatment. We’re saying, if it’s possible, let’s spread the wealth. Let’s bring everyone up to that level.”
Atlanta attorney Stephen B. Bright has preached a similar theme, taking advantage of forums that might not have existed if not for the Simpson trial. Bright, a defense lawyer who has spent 15 years handling death penalty cases, was invited to speak at the Harvard Alumni Assn. and the New York City Bar Assn. He also was asked to write an opinion piece about justice for the poor, which ran in the normally sensationalistic New York Daily News.
For many years, Bright said, the poor have received pitiable defenses in court, especially in the South. But until Simpson, no one seemed very interested in hearing about it.
“I see death penalty cases in the South that go to trial in two or three days,” he said. “I saw one case that was tried in a day. . . . By 2 a.m., the fellow had the death penalty. . . . And I see many where all the (defendant) had was a court-appointed lawyer making $30 or $40 an hour, who is not given a penny for an investigator or an expert, and who is really helpless to defend the person.”
In the weeks after Simpson’s arrest, the stark specter of the death penalty was the question that drove many social activists. Black ministers and civic leaders--among them John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League--met with Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti in July to lobby against the possibility of capital punishment for Simpson.
Mack used the meeting to point up the disproportionate number of blacks on Death Row and to appeal for minority representation on the all-white, eight-member panel that decides when county prosecutors will seek a death sentence.
Not long after that discussion, feminist attorney Gloria Allred appeared at a Downtown news conference to speak out on behalf of the victims of violence. Wearing a photo of Nicole Simpson, Allred countered Mack’s stance by imploring prosecutors to treat the defendant no differently from any other murder suspect who could face death.
Ultimately, Mack’s side prevailed: Although no changes were made on the review panel, prosecutors elected not to seek the death penalty, in part because of Simpson’s social prominence and clean record.
That decision quelled the death penalty debate, but potentially divisive issues of race still loom large. Blacks tend to see Simpson as more than just a man on trial. They see a black man on trial, a black role model standing before the accusing finger of a white society.
Even if blacks were not inclined to feel that way at first, some have been influenced by events in the courtroom--mainly, the defense’s accusation that a bloody glove was planted at Simpson’s estate by a white police officer. That charge, first made during last summer’s preliminary hearing, triggered an emotional courtroom argument this month over the possible use of the “N-word” during trial.
“He seems to be representing blacks now . . . and we don’t want our representative to be guilty,” Los Angeles resident Glenda Leonard, 43, said of Simpson. “Just hearing blacks talk, they say, ‘I’ve got a gut-level feeling that he’s not guilty.’ . . . A lot of blacks are thinking he’s been framed.”
Leonard, who lives near a flash point of the 1992 riots, expressed dismay over the emerging racial overtones of the trial. Some blacks fear that many whites, especially, are judging Simpson before all the facts are heard.
Blacks, Whites Differ Sharply on the Case
Dramatic differences in how blacks and whites interpret the trial are likely to contribute to more clashing of ideas and emotions as the proceedings unfold, some experts believe. A Times poll in September found that 13% of black respondents saw Simpson as guilty, compared to 42% of whites.
If Simpson is cleared of the charges, many blacks may see it as a joyous vindication, even while some whites mount a groundswell for political change or reforms of the criminal justice system.
“You get so cynical,” said Gail Snyder, 41, a Long Beach resident who said she would see a not guilty verdict as just one more breakdown in a system that failed to gain convictions in the first Rodney King trial, despite a damning videotape, and in the Menendez murder trials.
“If (Simpson) gets off,” Snyder said, “I’ll say, ‘I can’t believe it--but it figures.’ ”
Already, the difficulties of jury selection and concerns about equal justice have caused some academics to begin a chorus of calls for an overhaul of the jury system, said USC professor Dallas Willard.
“The court process is being put to all sorts of social pressures,” Willard said, noting that the trial has brought to light the diversity of today’s America. “The whole idea of a ‘jury of your peers’ has itself become a social issue. It didn’t use to be that way because your peers (were) all the same. But now, the big issue in the Simpson jury was how many blacks and so forth.”
Yet there are dangers in looking too closely at a single case, some scholars say. Perceptions become skewed, issues magnified--or made trivial.
“If you see something in context of a single case, it warps it a little bit--it warps it to the size of that case,” said author Joan Didion, who has written extensively on California culture. The jury reform debates are only one example, Didion said. “I worry about people bringing their own agenda to a specific case. In the onrushing train that a case is, (an issue) can get dropped and run over and sidetracked.”
The public’s deep-seated angst over Simpson has been made worse by the frenzy to capitalize, evident among memorabilia dealers, book publishers, and the tabloid and mainstream media.
David Levi, owner of a Beverly Hills baseball card store, said O.J. T-shirts, trading cards, posters, bumper stickers and autographed photos are part of an exploding market in which unlicensed dealers are doing hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales. Levi said he refuses, for moral reasons, to take part. He still displays a football signed by Simpson and marked “not for sale”; a year ago, it was available in a clear display case for $300, Levi said. Offers lately have reached $5,000 or more.
“I’ve had people bring the football up . . . (to the register) with a credit card and say, ‘Ring me up,’ ” said Levi, who inferred from such comments that he could name his price. “There are many times I’ve gone home and said, ‘Maybe I should have let that go.’ But I think about it and say, ‘I did the right thing.’ ”
Those who look to the case and see dollar signs have become the driving forces behind instant books about both O.J. and Nicole. Even Simpson is trying to cash in: Faced with the enormous costs of his legal defense, he has helped design a commemorative statue--$3,395, retail--and is about to release his own book.
Television and newspapers are scrambling to provide the latest, most compelling information, in part because of profit motives and market pressures. Some of the reports--that police recovered a bloody ski mask, for example--have been wrong. The errors have helped to drive a counter-trend: a campaign by social critics, and even some in the media, to bring the exploitation under control.
This month, Cable News Network assembled a panel of TV news executives and experts to critique the media circus that has enveloped the Simpson case and others. They cited the proliferation of cable channels and squeezed profits as reasons for sensationalism and airing of false rumors.
“What’s going on,” CNN correspondent Bruce Morton told viewers, “is the line between news and entertainment is disappearing, and what matters is getting ratings, getting circulation.”
To which Ken Auletta of the New Yorker added: “Journalism becomes . . . too often just another carnival barker trying to get people into our smaller tent. And we become desperate, and so desperate that we’ll do things that violate our standards.”
Air time that might otherwise go to the federal budget, or to strife overseas, has helped to make instant celebrities of trial lawyers Marcia Clark, Robert L. Shapiro and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.
On-Line Computer Forums Spring Up
The public’s fascination with the case has resulted in two talk forums about Simpson on CompuServe, the world’s largest on-line computing service. Users can debate about the media, the police, the evidence, spousal abuse, race or just about anything else. They even can download lists of evidence, transcripts, a graphic photo of the crime scene or a map of Simpson’s estate, said Jaclyn Easton, creator of the radio show “Log On USA.”
“I have never seen anything like this, on line,” she said. “Madonna doesn’t even have this.”
It is no surprise, then, that criminal law classes were jampacked this fall at UCLA and other schools. At Harvard, students were even asked to prepare memoranda that were sent to Simpson trial judge Lance A. Ito--all part of an introductory course subtitled: “The Law and O.J. Simpson.”
That kind of thing may create a public backlash, or at least Michael Medved hopes so. The longtime social critic, author of “Hollywood vs. America,” sees cause for concern in the fact that the United States has 70% of the world’s attorneys for less than 10% of the people; that McDonald’s gets sued over a spilled cup of coffee; that liability claims and skyrocketing insurance rates have meant the removal of diving boards from hotel pools.
“It’s appropriate to worry about kids joining gangs, but I think it’s also appropriate to worry about more kids becoming lawyers,” Medved said.
He does see a bright side to the furor over Simpson: Maybe people will think a little before blindly worshiping a great athlete.
“The fact that somebody can run fast, or throw a ball, or be brilliant on a baseball field or a football field or on a basketball court, doesn’t make that person a hero,” Medved said. “Sports is a wonderful aspect of American life, but we’ve gone a bit overboard with it.”
* SIMPSON COVERAGE: Related stories, graphics: A10-A12
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The Evidence Files
In the months since Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were found murdered on June 13, authorities have amassed what they call “a mountain of evidence.” Over the next six months, they are expected to present it to the jury that is considering the fate of O.J. Simpson, who is charged with the double homicide. Some of the key pieces:
At the Scene
Bloody footprints leading away from bodies
Blood drops to the left of the footprints
Knife wounds to both victims
Bloody left-handed leather glove
Watch cap with black hairs inside, blond hairs outside
Hair resembling Simpson’s found on Goldman’s body
In the Car
Blood on the floor mat*
Blood on the seat belt**
Blood on the door
Blood on the console
* PCR test indicates a DNA match to Ron Goldman
** Some drops inside the mechanism, suggesting that a bleeding person pulled out the belt
At Simpson’s House
Right-handed leather glove, bloody*
Blood drops in driveway
Blood drops in foyer
Blood in bathroom
Blood drops on socks found in bedroom**
* DNA tests show possible matches for Goldman and Nicole Simpson, inconclusive for O.J. Simpson, but possible mixture of all three.
** Possible DNA match to Nicole Simpson; conventional blood analysis shows her type.
Had a cut on the middle finger on his left hand.
Told police he had cut himself before leaving for Chicago but could not remember how.
Told police he had not cut himself at his ex-wife’s house in recent days.
Fled with friend Al Cowlings on the day he was surrender to authorities. Police later found nearly $10,000 and a passport in the car. His lawyers say he was suicidal and wanted the money to go to his children; prosecutors say Simpson was attempting to flee.
For the Prosecution
Witnesses may testify that:
O.J. Simpson hit Nicole Simpson’s car with a baseball bat in 1985.
O.J. Simpson hit Nicole Simpson in 1989.
Nicole Simpson called for help in 1993 as a man she identified as her ex-husband tried to break down a door to her house and screamed in the background.
Simpson did not answer the phone when a limousine driver arrived about 10:45 p.m. on June 12.
After several minutes, the driver saw a 6-foot tall, 200-pound African-American man stride into the house; Simpson then answered the phone and said he had fallen asleep.
Scientific analysis of blood at the crime scene shows that it matches Simpson’s in many characteristics and that blood stains found at Simpson’s home and car match that of Nicole Simpson and Goldman.
For the defense
Simpson’s lawyers say that:
Investigators mishandled evidence at the crime scene, compromising scientific tests and rendering DNA results unreliable.
Police concentrated so intently on proving that Simpson committed the crimes that they overlooked evidence pointing to other possibilities.
Passengers on Simpson’s flight to Chicago may testify that they did not notice anything unusual about his behavior shortly after the murders.
An expert may say that Simpson’s behavior in some ways does not match that of a classic domestic abuser, casting doubt on the prosecution’s theory that the murder was a domestic violence killing.
Some clues suggest there was more than one assailant, which is not consistent with the prosecution theory that Simpson acted alone. Police have never located the murder weapon or other potentially significant clues, such as shoes that left tracks in blood at the scene.
Researched by JIM NEWTON / Los Angeles Times