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The Verdict Is In: A City Divided : The Simpson trial has raised questions of police propriety and racial antipathy

October 04, 1995

Los Angeles wakes up today to an unsettling reality: It is a city in a nation so divided that we cannot even agree on what we all see when we look at the same picture. The acquittal of O. J. Simpson is a verdict that displeases many. It sticks in the craw of those who considered Simpson guilty. But the American system of justice properly puts a very heavy burden on the state to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It gives the clear benefit of such doubt to the defendant, under the basic precept that, as Benjamin Franklin said in 1785, "it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer."

The trial is over; the jury has spoken. One of the more repellent reactions to the verdict was the loud cheering that erupted in the street outside the court and elsewhere when the verdict was unsealed by Judge Lance A. Ito. The cheering, even for Simpson fans, was wildly inappropriate considering the unfathomable anguish of the Brown and Goldman families. Two young people were murdered with terrible brutality and a killer is on the loose.

This was a case that transcended local passions. When the verdict came down just after 10 o'clock Tuesday morning, politicians canceled news conferences in Washington, President Clinton interrupted a meeting, stockbrokers stopped trading and long-distance phone calls dropped dramatically. Nearly all eyes turned to an image coming from a lone television camera mounted on the wall of a paneled courtroom in Downtown Los Angeles where the strange and disquieting case of the People vs. Orenthal J. Simpson was about to come to a resounding and startling conclusion. After less than four hours of deliberations, the jury dispatched the fruit of 133 days of testimony and acquitted the football-star-turned-actor in the murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

The public and the political leadership of this troubled city must come to grips with how a case that at first raised pointed issues of domestic violence toward women could ultimately have turned into a sad commentary on American racial divisions. Polls showed most whites found the mountains of circumstantial evidence accumulated by the police and prosecution to be convincing beyond a reasonable doubt, but most African Americans felt possible police misconduct raised that doubt. The thinking of the jury, 12 citizens of this polyglot County of Los Angeles, remains to be fully examined--as they choose to speak out, as some already have.

But apparently the jury members, nine of them African Americans, were inclined--out of personal experience or perception--to suspect that Los Angeles police officers were capable of planting evidence and abusing people of color, even a celebrity like Simpson. But one should not draw this color line too sharply. Anyone who has served on a jury in the Downtown Criminal Courts Building or in any other major American city knows that black jurors routinely and daily vote to convict black defendants of murder, rape, robbery and other crimes. And it should be noted that two whites and a Latino joined the black majority in acquitting Simpson.

Nonetheless, it is troubling that such doubts about the police apparently loomed so large that this jury, sequestered for 266 days, reached a verdict in about the time it takes to view two short movies. The jury went over virtually none of the 1,105 pieces of evidence and the testimony of 133 witnesses. What does this say about the effect of locking up jurors for nine months, away from their families and their normal lives? Were the jurors so anxious to go home that they had no stomach for lengthy deliberation? These are questions that require answers in the coming days. But in all this questioning we must not forget to ask the most obvious one: Isn't it just possible that, race and gender aside, this jury simply did not find that the prosecution made its case beyond a reasonable doubt?

The district attorney's office did the best it could with the substantial circumstantial evidence it had, though there will be much second-guessing about strategy: For example, was it wise for the prosecution to push such a specific time line for the murders?

But ultimately its case was undermined by sloppiness by Los Angeles Police Department officers and criminalists and the county coroner's office, and by continuing concern about racism within the police force. The best evidence in the world will not stand up in court if jurors have doubts about its integrity.

If there is any political message in this verdict, it is that the mayor, the City Council, the Police Commission and the chief of police must act without further delay to root out the remnants of racism and intolerance that date back at least to the days of Chief William R. Parker.

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