Half of Americans Disagree With Verdict : Times Poll: Many cite race as key factor in trial.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Across the nation, the verdict rendered by the jury in the O.J. Simpson case was met with disapproval by a plurality of Americans, who also felt strongly that justice was not served and whose confidence in the criminal justice system has plummeted as a result.

A national Los Angeles Times poll conducted Tuesday also found that Americans overwhelmingly believe that race loomed large as an issue in the trial--and inappropriately so, they said.

While only a minority said they were "angry" about the outcome, many also said that the jury that decided the complicated case after only a few hours of deliberations was biased in favor of Simpson and made its judgment as much because of inherent prejudices as on the actual evidence presented in court.

"I didn't feel like they reviewed all the evidence that was there," said Rick Rogers, a white, 38-year-old insurance agent from Gray, Tenn., who disagreed with the verdicts.

"I think once the racial part was brought into it, there is no way they could have gone back into the community with a guilty verdict. There's just no way they could have. . . . I don't think they would have ever been able to explain why they did that."

The Times Poll questioned 807 people across the country starting after the verdicts were announced at 10 a.m. in Los Angeles. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is four percentage points in either direction.

The poll mirrored the racial makeup of the nation, 11% of the respondents were black and the vast majority were white. But the pool of black respondents was not large enough statistically to allow comparisons of the views of blacks and whites.

In polls taken before the verdicts, the views of whites and blacks were often diametrically opposed, with whites more likely to believe Simpson guilty and blacks more willing to believe he was the victim of a police frame-up.

Although racial comparisons were unavailable in Tuesday's poll, several demographic differences were evident.

Those who make $50,000 a year or more--ironically, O.J. Simpson's former earnings range--were far harsher on the jury and also more likely to believe Simpson was guilty of first-degree murder than those making less than $30,000 a year. College-educated respondents also were more critical of the jury and more inclined to think that race was a major influence on the trial than those with less education.

Follow-up interviews with poll respondents found that views on Simpson's guilt or innocence did not always break along racial lines. Albert Lee of Arlington, Va., an air conditioning repairman who is black, thought that Simpson was "definitely" guilty.

But he spoke to the feelings of many blacks when he said that the verdict by the predominantly black jury could force white Americans to take a hard look at their justice system.

"In some ways, I think it's catching up," he said. "What they feel, which a lot of African Americans feel is that, you know, you watched the first Rodney King verdict, you watched a lot of verdicts where it was a predominantly white jury and white defendants and they usually get off. They usually are acquitted so I think they wouldn't admit this but they were thinking well, it's our turn now. . . .

"I think in the long run it will be a good verdict because it will force white America to look at their system and hopefully to look at the injustices."

Overall, according to the poll, 50% of Americans disagreed with the verdict in the killings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. A smaller 41% said they agreed with the jury's conclusions.

By way of contrast, 50% of those making $30,000 or less agreed with the verdicts; only 35% of those earning $50,000 or more agreed.

The poll respondents did, however, draw a distinction between agreeing with the verdicts and believing that Simpson was innocent in the two slayings.

About a quarter of Americans--24%--said he was not guilty, leaving a 17-point gap between those who said he was innocent and those who agreed with the verdicts that made him legally so. An additional 30% said Simpson was guilty of first-degree, premeditated murder, and 11% said he was guilty of second-degree murder.

Twenty-nine percent said they were not sure whether he was guilty or innocent.

Asked whether justice had been served in the Simpson case, 60% said that was doubtful--including 36% who said it was very doubtful. A minority agreed with Patricia Branham of Deming, N.M., a Latina who never believed that Simpson committed the crimes.

"I just didn't think O.J. was guilty," she said. "I didn't think they had enough evidence to prove he was guilty. . . . I just didn't think that he could have done it in that short a time."

Race, the issue that came to be inextricably entwined with the Simpson case, appeared to be the single dominating element of the trial, Times Poll respondents believed.

Seventy percent said it was an "important" influence, and 23% said it was the most important part of the case. Only 27% said it was not an important element.

In addition, when asked what was the turning point in the case, 30% cited the tapes that caught former Los Angeles Police Department Detective Mark Fuhrman uttering repeated racial slurs. That figure far outdistanced any other moment in the trial--only 8% cited O.J. Simpson's unsuccessful attempt to try on the famous bloody glove, and 4% cited the defense's closing arguments.

Even though the defense argued that Fuhrman's appearance ushered the subject of race into the trial, Americans largely believed that Simpson's attorneys used race "inappropriately"--by a 53% to 33% margin.

It was the jury, however, that seemed to get the blame for the verdict.

"Many people just seemed to think that this jury was biased toward Simpson right from the beginning," Times Poll Director John Brennan said.

Indeed, 43% said the jury favored Simpson from the outset, while a virtually identical 44% said they were not biased. Forty-one percent believed that the jurors decided the case on the evidence, and 42% said the group made its decision based on jurors' prejudices.

Although the numbers represent a split, they contradict the American judicial system's presumption that jurors are to be unbiased arbiters who leave their personal beliefs at the jury room door.

The case took its toll not only on the Simpson jury but the court system as a whole, which took a beating in the poll.

Fifty-seven percent said that because of the outcome they had less confidence in the criminal justice system than before the trial began. Only 8% said the trial made them more confident about the criminal justice system. More than half--52%--said they do not believe the court system is "sound."

Asked separately whether they had a lot--or only some--confidence in the jury system, a relatively small 33% expressed confidence and 62% gave it less than glowing reviews. All told, 29% said they had "very little" confidence in the jury system.

Interestingly, the lack of confidence in the court system was not matched by a sharp decline in people's views of law enforcement. Seventy-five percent approved of the way their local law enforcement officers handle their jobs.

Almost half, or 47%, said that racist beliefs were "uncommon" in law enforcement and 58% said it was also uncommon for police officers to deliver false testimony in a criminal case.

The Simpson case has spawned calls to ban cameras in the courtrooms of America, but the poll found that half of Americans believe that the television coverage of the proceedings had no effect on the outcome. An additional 28% said television biased the trial in favor of Simpson and 9% said it worked against him.

Overall, the media fared poorly--48% believed that reporters behaved irresponsibly in their handling of the matter, while 37% gave them good marks.

Assistant Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus contributed to this story.

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Views on the Verdicts

In a nationwide Times poll, the response to the jury's finding:

Disagree: 50%

Agree: 41%

Don't know: 9%

Source: Los Angeles Times Poll

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What the Nation Thinks

The acquittal of O.J. Simpson reverberated around the country. Here are results of a national poll conducted on Tuesday.

Confidence that justice was served:

Confident: 37%

Doubtful: 60%

Don't know: 3%

****

Q. Do you think the O.J. Simpson defense team appropriately used race as an issue during the trial?

Used race appropriately: 33%

Used race inappropriately: 53%

Did not use race: 7%

Don't know: 7%

****

Q. Do you think the trial would have received the attention it did if Nicole Brown Simpson had not been white?

No: 45%

Yes: 44%

Don't know: 11%

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What convinced the jurors of Simpson's innocence? (five most frequent answers)

* Fuhrman tapes: 30%

* Everything presented: 9%

* Glove didn't fit: 8%

* Timeline inconsistencies: 7%

* Closing defense arguments: 4%

****

Note: Numbers do not add up to 100% because not all answers are shown.

The Times Poll contacted 807 adults nationwide by telephone Tuesday. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. The sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points; for certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors, such as question wording and the order of questions. Polls of this type conducted in one night are subject to additional sources of error.

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