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Al Martinez

Taking It Personally : Reflections on the Verdicts, the City and Ourselves : Feeling Saddened by the Outcome

October 04, 1995|Al Martinez | Al Martinez is a Times columnist.

An hour before the verdict was delivered in the O.J. Simpson trial, I sat over a cup of coffee and listened to the radio.

The talk was mostly about the case, interspersed with traffic advisories about fender-benders on the Ventura Freeway and debris in the third lane of the Hollywood.

It reminded me a little of the morning we waited for the verdict in the second trial in the Rodney G. King beating. A judge had delayed the reading of the decision in that case too.

Tension was a palpable presence in the city back then because the first verdict had triggered the worst urban uprising in U.S. history.

This time, it wasn't so much a fear of riots as it was a juicy anticipation of what fate O.J. faced, a curiosity laced with the same eager interest that made us wonder who shot J.R. on the old "Dallas" television series.

The trial of an accused double murderer had become more theater than reality. It was a show, a farce, a parade that oompahed through the center of our days with all the accouterments of mass entertainment.

And now, this Tuesday morning, it was about to end.

The quick jury decision had electrified the world. If we heard the word "stunned" once, we heard it a hundred times.

But then we got the verdict and "stunned" seemed too weak a word to describe the response. "Blown away" would be more appropriate.

*

O.J. Simpson had bought his way out of prison with a lineup of attorneys who managed to put every white cop in the city on trial. Their defense made O.J. the victim, and the people he was charged with killing became incidental elements of his redemption.

The Johnnie Cochran Troupe did everything but tap-dance and tumble before a jury that wouldn't know DNA from the PTA and apparently couldn't care less.

They heard cover-up and they heard police conspiracy, and they weren't about to let the LAPD get away with sending that sweet-faced, swivel-hipped downfield darling to prison.

And so they said he was not guilty of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. Then who did it? Who cut their throats that June night in 1994? Whose face was the last image emulsified on the dying eyes of two innocent human beings?

It's a question that will be addressed from now until the youngest among us dies of old age.

The price of justice, playwright Arnold Bennett once said, is eternal publicity, and the Circus of the Century will prove him correct by leaving a trail of verbiage as plentiful as the droppings of elephants in a passing parade.

But then, that's the kind of people we've become, eager for the entertainment that violence offers, removed from reality by a screen that manages to satisfy our blood lust without making dinner late.

We are desensitized by the distance that separates the back of the screen from the flesh and substance of pain. We can watch a war, a beating or a killing with the comfortable knowledge that nothing is going to reach through the tube and take us by the throat.

By that measure, the O.J. Simpson case, like the Gulf War, was a hit. It had a multiple murder, it had brutality, it had beauty, it had celebrity. Even the ending was a socko surprise.

*

The pilot that created the O.J. Show wasn't bad either.

We watched, transfixed, 15 months ago as a Ford Bronco led police cars and media helicopters on an odyssey that encompassed the slow-motion qualities of a dream.

In almost surreal contradiction, O.J.'s fans lined the route of that strange and compelling snail-crawl even as their hero sat in the back seat of the Bronco reportedly holding a gun to his head.

They cheered as the caravan passed, the way they once cheered the Juice as he sprinted across a goal line in another life, never believing for a moment that America's Monday Night Sweetheart could have cut anyone's throat.

If the pilot was fun, the trial was a party. We had Kato Kaelin, a wailing dog, a racist cop, a shrinking jury panel, celebrity attendees, battling experts, petulant attorneys, the "Dancing Itos" and a plane that flew by trailing a banner that said, "Nice hairdo, Marcia."

Too bad that Ron Goldman's father and Nicole Simpson's sister had to cast long, dark shadows by grieving publicly over losses too terrible to contemplate. But grief, too, is an element of drama, and we could absolve the guilt of our indifference by crying along with them.

*

I am left at the end of it all with mixed emotions, grateful for the conditions that allowed due process to prevail but saddened by a verdict that did justice no honor.

But what any of us think is inconsequential on the Tuesday afternoon that I compose this essay.

O.J. Simpson, sports icon and wife-beater, has been freed by a jury of his peers; free to live his life and free to be further enriched by his starring role in a drama that has come to a melancholy conclusion.

I switched from radio to television for the verdict and its aftermath of critiques and comments, expecting at any moment for Siskel and Ebert to appear with their final thumbs-up-down observation of a show that drained us all.

Then I turned off everything and sat in silence, too overwhelmed by the events of the morning to hear or see more, feeling like a downhill racer who'd just hit a tree.

The show had ended at last, the parade had oompahed on by. And two victims of a murder that darkens this city with a burial shroud of inconclusion lie uneasily in their graves.

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