Echoing the views of people nationwide, most Los Angeles County residents disagreed with the acquittal of O.J. Simpson and only a quarter of those questioned in a new Los Angeles Times Poll believe he was innocent in the slayings of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman.
Even with the not guilty verdicts, public sympathy for Simpson has ebbed significantly, indicating how difficult it will be for the Hall of Famer to regain the popular persona he enjoyed before June, 1994.
While 43% were sympathetic toward Simpson last September, only 34% described themselves that way now. The level of sympathy fell among blacks, whites and Latinos, although Simpson did remain a sympathetic figure to most blacks.
The telephone poll, which was conducted last Tuesday through Thursday, illustrated the deep racial divide on the Simpson matter, a stark disagreement in which blacks and whites are frequently polarized and Latinos reside generally in the middle.
Whites defended the prosecutors and blamed the mostly minority jury for the biased verdicts; blacks support the Simpson defense team and defended the jurors. Blacks were more than four times more likely than whites to think Simpson was not guilty. Almost half of whites describe themselves as “angry” at the verdicts, a position held by only 4% of blacks. The poll underscores that, whatever people thought during the trial, the verdict has divided them cleanly.
“More than details about the case, race seems to be driving opinions,” said Times Poll Director John Brennan.
Interestingly, however, there is relative unanimity when it comes to former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman, whose widely publicized utterings of racial epithets and boasts of beating minority suspects cast a pall over the trial.
Major groups measured in the poll--whites, blacks and Latinos; men and women; city residents and suburban dwellers--believed strongly that Fuhrman should be brought up on charges stemming from his comments.
Support for that move ranged from 69% among whites to 83% among Latinos. Among blacks, 82% felt Fuhrman should be charged. Even in the generally more conservative suburbs, 71% felt that Fuhrman should pay for his comments.
In a related question, respondents cited as the turning point in the trial the release of tapes of Fuhrman’s racist comments. Twenty-four percent said that, compared with 15% who cited the prosecution’s backfiring attempt to make O.J. Simpson put on the bloody gloves found at the crime scene and behind his home.
All groups also agreed that Simpson’s wealth was more important to the outcome of his trial than was his race. Among all respondents, 34% cited wealth as the most important factor and 27% cited race.
The poll questioned 760 county residents. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is four points in either direction.
According to the poll, local views about the Simpson case were almost identical to those held by people nationwide.
A national Times Poll conducted on the day of the verdict found that 50% disagreed with it and 41% thought it was correct. Among county residents, 51% disagreed and 41% agreed. In both polls, the strongly anti-Simpson views of whites greatly influenced the overall numbers.
Countywide, 65% of whites disagreed with the not guilty verdict, including 51% who said they disagreed strongly. Only 28% agreed with the jurors. Among blacks, however, 77% agreed with the verdict, including 68% who agreed strongly, and only 12% disagreed. The Latino community was far more split, with 50% agreeing and 43% disagreeing. A little more than a third of Latinos either disagreed strongly or agreed strongly.
The split was apparent as well when respondents were asked if they thought Simpson was guilty of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or had not committed the crimes. Nearly two-thirds--65%--of whites believed him guilty and only 13% said he was not guilty. In contrast, only 11% of blacks felt he was guilty and 61% said he was not guilty. Among Latinos, 41% said he was guilty and 31% disagreed.
Taking into account those groups and others which are too small to measure independently--such as Asians--fully half of the county thought he was guilty of either first- or second-degree murder, or both, and 25% said he was not guilty.
As in the national poll, there was more ambivalence about Simpson’s innocence than about the verdict. While 41% thought he should have been acquitted, only 25% thought he was not guilty. Put another way, the poll found that only 61% of those who agreed with the acquittal verdicts were also certain that Simpson was not guilty.
The poll concluded that the racial divide was not the only chasm separating various groups. When it came to the verdicts and also the level of sympathy for Simpson, there was a noticeable gap between men and women. Thirty-eight percent of women said they were sympathetic to the former football star, compared to 30% of men. Fifty-one percent of women said they were not sympathetic, compared to 64% of men.
While 56% of men disagreed with the verdicts, the same could be said for only 46% of women. And 44% of women agreed with the verdicts, while 38% of men did so.
“They’ve both got a gender component,” Brennan said.
Women were also more likely than men to believe that Simpson should have testified, 64%-49%. Whites leaned toward testimony, 49%-40%, while blacks leaned against it, 44%-51%.
The gender gap extended to the reasons people chose for believing Simpson was guilty. While women were in general more sympathetic to Simpson, those who believed he committed the killings were far more likely than men to cite domestic violence as the reason. Thirty-two percent of women cited his past abuse of Nicole Simpson as their reason for believing Simpson guilty, while only 19% of men cited it.
Even so, among women and men, and also among whites and blacks, the dominant reason for assuming guilt was the evidence against him. Among Latinos, the main reason given was his ill-starred flight from authorities last year in the white Ford Bronco.
On the flip side, those who believed that Simpson was not guilty gave as their main reasons the belief that the prosecution did not prove its case and that they had reasonable doubts about Simpson’s guilt.
As far as the Simpson trial itself, the poll made it clear why many county residents believe the prosecution failed to achieve a conviction: Most people, particularly whites, put the blame squarely on the jury.
Nearly two-thirds of whites--63%--believe that the mostly minority jury was biased in favor of Simpson, while 71% of blacks felt that the jury was unbiased and Latinos were split between the two options. Overall, the jury was believed biased by a 51%-39% margin.
Fifty-six percent of whites believed that the jurors made their decision not from a fair reading of the evidence but because of their own personal prejudices, a view shared by only 18% of blacks. Latinos, again, were split.
And more whites said that the jurors based their verdict on a desire to send a message about racism (47%) than on the evidence presented in the case (41%). That view was felt even more strongly by Latinos, 58% of whom said the jurors were sending a message. In contrast, 69% of blacks said the verdicts were based on evidence.
There was racial unity when it came to other facets of the jury’s behavior. Whites, blacks and Latinos all agreed that the jurors had already made up their minds before the start of deliberations--something that Judge Lance A. Ito repeatedly warned them not to do.
Majorities of all three groups also believed that jurors were able to receive information and news in the case despite their strict sequestration.
There was also something close to agreement when poll respondents were asked if they agreed with the way the trial was conducted. All three racial groups disapproved, among blacks and Latinos by a bare 51% and with a larger 62% among whites.
That strong disapproval among whites was not, however, visited upon the man controlling the trial. Ito’s handling of the case was praised by 68%, including 50% of blacks, 80% of Latinos and 63% of whites--virtually the same percentage of whites that disapproved of the way the trial was conducted.
The prosecution team was an equally popular 68%, winning almost three-quarters of whites and Latinos yet earning the disapproval of 52% of blacks.
The poll results made it clear, however, that prosecutors were engaged in an uphill struggle. Asked whether DNA in blood found at the murder scene and elsewhere had helped explain what happened or just confused the issue, 56% said it confused the issue. That view was particularly prevalent among blacks and Latinos, about two-thirds of whom said the DNA, which the prosecution believed cinched their case against Simpson, confused them instead of helping.
The white and black views were, not surprisingly, reversed when it came to the defense team. Fifty-five percent of whites disapproved of the defense team’s handling of its case, while 87% of blacks and 74% of Latinos approved.
As was the case with the verdicts, the polarized views were passionately felt. Forty-three percent of whites said they “strongly” approved of the prosecution, while 72% of blacks strongly approved of the defense attorneys.
One of the reasons for white antipathy toward the defense team was its use of race as an issue in the trial. During the trial, defense attorneys contended that Simpson had been set up by a racist police officer. And in his closing argument, attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. made repeated entreaties that the jury send a message about racism with its verdict.
According to the poll, whites by a 69%-23% margin felt that race was inappropriately used by the defense. But blacks and Latinos disagreed. Sixty-four percent of blacks and 47% of Latinos felt that race was appropriately used, with the remainder disagreeing or saying that race was not introduced into the trial.
Assistant Poll Director Susan Pinkus contributed to this story.
* LAPD PEP TALK: Chief Williams tells officers to “hang in there.” B1
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County Views on Verdicts
A majority of county residents in a Los Angeles Times Poll disagree with the verdicts in the O.J. Simpson case. In their views, blacks and whites are frequently polarized. Many residents think the jury was sending a message about racism in this country, and most believe that O.J. Simpson should have testified on his own behalf.
Do you agree with the jury verdicts of not guilty? (All)
Don’t know: 8%
Black White Agree 77% 28% Disagree 12% 65% Don’t know 11% 7%
If you think O.J. Simpson is guilty, what are the reasons? (5 most frequent responses)
All evidence points to Simpson: 40%*
He is a wife batterer: 24%
DNA evidence: 15%
He loved/was jealous of Nicole: 15%
He fled in the Bronco: 13%
If you don’t think O.J. Simpson is guilty, what are the reasons? (5 most frequent responses)
Prosecution didn’t prove their case: 29%*
I have reasonable doubt: 20%
Not enough time for him to commit the murders: 11%
Fuhrman tapes: 8%
Too arthritic to commit the murders: 7%
Should O.J. Simpson have testified on his own behalf? (All)
Don’t know: 7%
Do you think the jury made its decisions before deliberations began? (All)
Don’t know: 3%
Do you think the jury was trying to send a message about racism or did the jury base its verdicts on the evidence?
Send a message: 47%
Based verdicts on evidence: 39%
Don’t know: 14%
Black White Send a message 17% 47% Based on verdicts on evidence 69% 41% Don’t know 14% 12%
* Numbers may not add to 100% because not all answers are shown.
Source: Los Angeles Times Poll
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How the Poll Was Conducted
The Times Poll contacted 760 adults living in Los Angeles County by telephone Oct. 3 through Oct. 5. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the county. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points; for certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions were presented.