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ON CALIFORNIA

O.J. Simpson and the ABCs of Justice

September 14, 1994|PETER H. KING

Here's one thing that can be said with certainty about Keith Adcox, Steven Ainsworth, Rodney Alcala, Clarence Allen, Watson Allison, Jesse Andrews and Tony Ashumus. They weren't much as football players. And that's too bad for them.

Manuel Babbit never pitched rental cars. Anthony Bean never appeared in a "Naked Gun" movie. Donald Beardslee, Ronald Lee Bell, Fernando Belmontes, Richard Benson, Rodney Berryman, Lawrence Bittaker and Maurice Bloom Jr.--to most Californians, these are just names, strangers. They are not celebrities. They are barely, by societal standards, human. This, they could testify, is a big problem.

In the same fix are Fernando Caro, Constantino Carrera, Kenneth Clair, Douglas Clark, Richard Clark, William Clark, Calvin Colemen, Russell Coleman, Kevin Cooper, Tiequon Cox, Armenia Cudjo and Raynard Cummings. Not one pro tailback in the crowd. Not one colleague of Bob Costas. Not one Brentwood millionaire. Not one O.J. Simpson.

What they hold in common with L.A.'s most famous murder suspect is this: They were accused of a heinous crime, a crime that carried with it the potential penalty of death. They now reside within the mustard-colored walls of San Quentin, part of a state Death Row population of 377 men and four women. O.J. Simpson--win, lose or draw at trial--now knows he will not be joining them. He is different.

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From the start, the Simpson affair has been loaded up with extra freight. This was more than a double murder case. It was a whole curriculum, a device for instructing the public on domestic violence, institutional racism, court process, the Fourth Amendment, genetics, the First Amendment and the lifestyles of people who occupy guest houses behind mansions. And should Simpson prevail at trial, the case might also teach a lesson on the tradition of presumed innocence.

That, though, will have to wait. The current installment in the Simpson lecture series concerns capital punishment. Last Friday, the L.A. County district attorney announced that the death penalty would not be sought by the people against O.J. Simpson. Reasons were not explained. They didn't have to be. This was, after all, O.J. Simpson. This was not Jackson Daniels, Robert Danielson, Stephen De Santis, Ronald Deere, Robert Diaz, Fred Douglas, Henry Earl Duncan or Alfred Dyer.

True believers in capital punishment must feel cheated. A few no doubt had signs all painted and ready for execution night. Gas the Juice. And such. It would have been quite a show and--the death crowd would argue--a contribution to society. They believe--though the research points otherwise--that executions keep potential killers-to-be on the straight and narrow. Imagine, under this logic, the deterrent value of an O.J. Simpson. If he could get gassed, anyone could get gassed. But he could not get gassed. And isn't that interesting?

Another battle cry heard often in support of capital punishment is simple, Old Testament justice. Eye for an eye. Tooth for a tooth. Slash for a slash. The prosecutors believe they can prove Simpson is a brutal killer. They don't believe this justifies taking his life, and why not? What makes Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman so different from the victims of, say, Thomas Edwards, Antonio Espinoza, Curtis Fauber, Stevie Fields, David Fierro, Theodore Frank, Lavell Frierson and Keith Fudge? Never be murdered by anyone with a fan club, maybe that's the lesson here.

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To an opponent of capital punishment, the Simpson decision is doubly wonderful. Not only does it deprive the executioner once. It also lays bare the essential flaw in the dirty business of deciding who will die and who will be warehoused. And that is unfairness. If California wants to kill criminals, it ought at least to be fair about it. And this, humans being human, is an impossible standard.

There always will be prejudices at play, prejudices of race, class and simple familiarity. On this point, listen to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, the Nixon appointee--a "law and order" jurist--who declared this summer he never again would support a death sentence, never again would "tinker with the machinery of death." Why not?

Because "the decision whether a human being should live or die is so inherently subjective, rife with all of life's understandings, experiences, prejudices and passions, that it inevitably defies the rationality and consistency required by the Constitution."

This is wisdom from someone who has been there, and it has been reinforced, in a reverse, twisted sort of way, by the Simpson decision. It also is wisdom that comes a bit late for Gerald Gallego, Robert Frederick Garceau, Oscar Gates, Kenneth Gay, David Ghent and all the rest of the Death Row strangers. The list runs too long for this space, from Adcox to Zapien. Trust me, though. There's not a Heisman in the bunch.

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