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O.J. AND LOST INNOCENCE : Children are deeply affected by the Simpson case--its graphic violence and overwhelming publicity--and they harbor strong opinions about guilt or innocence.

July 13, 1994|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joshua said he'd had enough of the televised O.J. Simpson preliminary hearing by the time it reached closing arguments Friday, but the frowning face of the famous defendant was still on his mind when he hit the beach that afternoon.

"I feel sorry for him," said the tanned 10-year-old, dragging his body board through the sand near the Huntington Beach Pier.

"He looks so sad. . . . He's in big trouble."

Added his 9-year-old buddy, Brian, also of Huntington Beach: "He's a nice guy. He's on TV. They wouldn't let him be on TV if he killed someone."

Just as adult America has been obsessed with the Simpson affair, so has young America been fixated--in their case on a sports hero they never saw play.

They have been largely overlooked in the media rush to interview anybody with an opinion on the case. Yet today's kids are every bit as opinionated, passionate and conflicted as their parents and older siblings about what is becoming the most publicized and sensational murder case in U.S. history.

The hoards of news crews have left the courthouse for now, but legal experts aren't the only ones raising questions since Simpson was arrested in the double-homicide of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Experts say the confusion felt by youth is more pronounced because they are the part of our population most affected by violence, yet they lack the tools of maturity to sort it out.

"If he did do it, he wasn't himself," declared 14-year-old Angie del la Torre. "He just lost it. . . . Something's wrong; he was possessed."

Angie and her friends were still reeling from the preliminary hearing, every minute of which they say they watched with interest.

"Everybody's watching it," said 13-year-old Lisa Long. "My mom taped the whole thing."

The boys said they knew Simpson from trading sports cards, while the girls knew him as "the Hertz guy" and from the "Naked Gun" movies.

"You wish he didn't do it," said Ryan Myers, 13. "Yeah," added Joey Maletic, also 13, "he was like a sports hero."

*

While kids like Angie and her friends are able to weigh the facts in the case, younger children have a tougher time, says Brea psychotherapist Toni Aquino.

The confusion, fueled by unrelenting media coverage and gavel-to-gavel broadcast of the courtroom events, has children weighing factors like celebrity and consequence, gaping wounds and bloodstains--true-life topics far more graphic than your basic schoolyard discussions of right versus wrong.

Aquino, along with other experts in child psychology, agree that because the double slaying and the high-profile circumstances surrounding it have dominated adult conversation, kids naturally soak it in.

"My concern is that it's not just how they take it in, it's that we are presenting children with a plethora of violence, day in and day out, and it's taking on the tenor of normalcy," she said. "The far-ranging ramification of it is yet to be known."

Home environment and the way parents present the events surrounding the Simpson case also play a big part in its lasting effect on America's children, Aquino says.

"They are affected by it in terms of how their parents deal with it," Aquino said. She added that children from stable families tend to be left more confused by the possibility of a likable personality like Simpson committing such a heinous crime, while children in a violent environment are more cynical, and simply become even less trusting of adults.

Peg, a telephone counselor at the Hotline Help Center in Orange, says she advises any parent faced with troubling questions to hear their children out, and focus on their feelings.

"My biggest advice is to listen, and reflect on how sad the whole situation is," she said, "I would ask the child what they were feeling, and respond to those feelings. I would tell them that the facts aren't important, that it's in the court. No one knows what happened, but I would reflect on the pain of not only O.J., but also of his kids, and the families of Nicole and of Ron Goldman."

Aquino agrees, adding that parents should reassure their children, reinforcing that it won't happen to them, and that they are loved and secure in their home.

"They need to know that their world is safe," she said.

*

Youth minister Jim Burns said he witnessed firsthand how emotionally affected even 17-year-olds have been with the situation from its unpredictable start.

Arriving at a scheduled graduation speech at the Crystal Cathedral on June 17, he expected to be greeted with smiles and laughter. What he didn't expect was the nearly-hysterical cluster of teen-age girls that met him before his address.

"He's going to kill himself," one of them sobbed. "And it's going to ruin my graduation."

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