Los Angeles wakes up today to an unsettling reality: It is a city in a nation so divided that we cannot even agree on what we all see when we look at the same picture. The acquittal of O. J. Simpson is a verdict that displeases many. It sticks in the craw of those who considered Simpson guilty. But the American system of justice properly puts a very heavy burden on the state to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It gives the clear benefit of such doubt to the defendant, under the basic precept that, as Benjamin Franklin said in 1785, "it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer."
The trial is over; the jury has spoken. One of the more repellent reactions to the verdict was the loud cheering that erupted in the street outside the court and elsewhere when the verdict was unsealed by Judge Lance A. Ito. The cheering, even for Simpson fans, was wildly inappropriate considering the unfathomable anguish of the Brown and Goldman families. Two young people were murdered with terrible brutality and a killer is on the loose.
This was a case that transcended local passions. When the verdict came down just after 10 o'clock Tuesday morning, politicians canceled news conferences in Washington, President Clinton interrupted a meeting, stockbrokers stopped trading and long-distance phone calls dropped dramatically. Nearly all eyes turned to an image coming from a lone television camera mounted on the wall of a paneled courtroom in Downtown Los Angeles where the strange and disquieting case of the People vs. Orenthal J. Simpson was about to come to a resounding and startling conclusion. After less than four hours of deliberations, the jury dispatched the fruit of 133 days of testimony and acquitted the football-star-turned-actor in the murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.
The public and the political leadership of this troubled city must come to grips with how a case that at first raised pointed issues of domestic violence toward women could ultimately have turned into a sad commentary on American racial divisions. Polls showed most whites found the mountains of circumstantial evidence accumulated by the police and prosecution to be convincing beyond a reasonable doubt, but most African Americans felt possible police misconduct raised that doubt. The thinking of the jury, 12 citizens of this polyglot County of Los Angeles, remains to be fully examined--as they choose to speak out, as some already have.
But apparently the jury members, nine of them African Americans, were inclined--out of personal experience or perception--to suspect that Los Angeles police officers were capable of planting evidence and abusing people of color, even a celebrity like Simpson. But one should not draw this color line too sharply. Anyone who has served on a jury in the Downtown Criminal Courts Building or in any other major American city knows that black jurors routinely and daily vote to convict black defendants of murder, rape, robbery and other crimes. And it should be noted that two whites and a Latino joined the black majority in acquitting Simpson.
Nonetheless, it is troubling that such doubts about the police apparently loomed so large that this jury, sequestered for 266 days, reached a verdict in about the time it takes to view two short movies. The jury went over virtually none of the 1,105 pieces of evidence and the testimony of 133 witnesses. What does this say about the effect of locking up jurors for nine months, away from their families and their normal lives? Were the jurors so anxious to go home that they had no stomach for lengthy deliberation? These are questions that require answers in the coming days. But in all this questioning we must not forget to ask the most obvious one: Isn't it just possible that, race and gender aside, this jury simply did not find that the prosecution made its case beyond a reasonable doubt?
The district attorney's office did the best it could with the substantial circumstantial evidence it had, though there will be much second-guessing about strategy: For example, was it wise for the prosecution to push such a specific time line for the murders?
But ultimately its case was undermined by sloppiness by Los Angeles Police Department officers and criminalists and the county coroner's office, and by continuing concern about racism within the police force. The best evidence in the world will not stand up in court if jurors have doubts about its integrity.
If there is any political message in this verdict, it is that the mayor, the City Council, the Police Commission and the chief of police must act without further delay to root out the remnants of racism and intolerance that date back at least to the days of Chief William R. Parker.
Probably as much as by anything, the prosecution case was damaged by the prominent role played by Detective Mark Fuhrman, now retired, the man who scaled the wall of Simpson's Brentwood estate and found the incriminating bloody glove. His fellow officers knew this man was a virulent racist, and he himself proclaimed it in 1983 when he applied for a stress disability pension. He said to psychiatrists at the time that he tortured suspects, breaking hands, faces and legs. His pension was denied. A department psychiatrist recommended that he not be allowed to carry a weapon again. But he was back on patrol within months, and later promoted. Over years, he would spew his racist venom into the tape recorder of an aspiring screenwriter.
Fuhrman's detective work in the Simpson case may have been excellent, but how could the Police Department or the D.A. think that a cop with such a record would make a good witness? How many other walking time bombs are on the force? Not many, we hope.
The trial did provide evidence beyond any reasonable doubt that the reforms recommended by the Christopher Commission after the 1991 police beating of Rodney G. King should be fully implemented as soon as possible. Chief Willie L. Williams must redouble efforts to rid the force of cops like Fuhrman--officers whom Williams characterized Tuesday as just a few "bad apples."
As for the legal system, the Simpson trial provides few clear lessons. The case was so atypical, so distorted by the media circus and overwhelming television and radio coverage, that it is hard to draw major conclusions apart from the fact that a tabloid-driven public loves celebrity scandal.
But it certainly did show, unsurprisingly, that a rich man can buy a better brand of justice than a poor man. The wealthy Menendez brothers of Beverly Hills admitted killing their parents but their murder-trial lawyers got two juries to deadlock through a defense that parental abuse had justified the shooting. Every judge, lawyer and police officer knows that many a poor defendant has been sentenced to life in prison or even death on far less convincing evidence than that obtained by the LAPD against O. J. Simpson. Not many defendants can afford the legal talents of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey and the New York DNA experts they hired.
The stunning denouement of the Simpson case should not deflect attention from the subject of domestic violence. Almost 4 million American women were physically abused by their husbands or boyfriends in the last year alone. The number of such abuse cases filed in Los Angeles Superior Court has soared 60% this year, and hot lines reported a surge of calls from frightened women during early publicity about the case. Since then, funding for intervention and treatment programs, here and elsewhere in the United States, has increased, and prosecutors have become more aggressive in pursuing suspected cases of spousal abuse. As with race, this is a complex issue that defies stereotyping, as witnessed by the fact that 10 of the 12 jurors who acquitted Simpson were female.
Putting aside considerations of race, legality, sexual abuse and media hype, the ultimate question comes down to one of human responsibility. In his 1956 novel "The Fall," Albert Camus wrote: "We are all exceptional cases. . . . Each man insists on being innocent, even if it means accusing the whole human race, and heaven."
Somewhere somebody, if not Simpson, is responsible for a horrific, bloody crime. With the jury's verdict Tuesday, the law has been served in its proper attention to procedure and evidence. It is to be hoped that justice will one day also be served and the killer or killers will ultimately be forced to pay a price.