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Half of Americans Disagree With Verdict : Times Poll: Many cite race as key factor in trial.

October 04, 1995|CATHLEEN DECKER and SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Across the nation, the verdict rendered by the jury in the O.J. Simpson case was met with disapproval by a plurality of Americans, who also felt strongly that justice was not served and whose confidence in the criminal justice system has plummeted as a result.

A national Los Angeles Times poll conducted Tuesday also found that Americans overwhelmingly believe that race loomed large as an issue in the trial--and inappropriately so, they said.

While only a minority said they were "angry" about the outcome, many also said that the jury that decided the complicated case after only a few hours of deliberations was biased in favor of Simpson and made its judgment as much because of inherent prejudices as on the actual evidence presented in court.

"I didn't feel like they reviewed all the evidence that was there," said Rick Rogers, a white, 38-year-old insurance agent from Gray, Tenn., who disagreed with the verdicts.

"I think once the racial part was brought into it, there is no way they could have gone back into the community with a guilty verdict. There's just no way they could have. . . . I don't think they would have ever been able to explain why they did that."

The Times Poll questioned 807 people across the country starting after the verdicts were announced at 10 a.m. in Los Angeles. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is four percentage points in either direction.

The poll mirrored the racial makeup of the nation, 11% of the respondents were black and the vast majority were white. But the pool of black respondents was not large enough statistically to allow comparisons of the views of blacks and whites.

In polls taken before the verdicts, the views of whites and blacks were often diametrically opposed, with whites more likely to believe Simpson guilty and blacks more willing to believe he was the victim of a police frame-up.

Although racial comparisons were unavailable in Tuesday's poll, several demographic differences were evident.

Those who make $50,000 a year or more--ironically, O.J. Simpson's former earnings range--were far harsher on the jury and also more likely to believe Simpson was guilty of first-degree murder than those making less than $30,000 a year. College-educated respondents also were more critical of the jury and more inclined to think that race was a major influence on the trial than those with less education.

Follow-up interviews with poll respondents found that views on Simpson's guilt or innocence did not always break along racial lines. Albert Lee of Arlington, Va., an air conditioning repairman who is black, thought that Simpson was "definitely" guilty.

But he spoke to the feelings of many blacks when he said that the verdict by the predominantly black jury could force white Americans to take a hard look at their justice system.

"In some ways, I think it's catching up," he said. "What they feel, which a lot of African Americans feel is that, you know, you watched the first Rodney King verdict, you watched a lot of verdicts where it was a predominantly white jury and white defendants and they usually get off. They usually are acquitted so I think they wouldn't admit this but they were thinking well, it's our turn now. . . .

"I think in the long run it will be a good verdict because it will force white America to look at their system and hopefully to look at the injustices."

Overall, according to the poll, 50% of Americans disagreed with the verdict in the killings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. A smaller 41% said they agreed with the jury's conclusions.

By way of contrast, 50% of those making $30,000 or less agreed with the verdicts; only 35% of those earning $50,000 or more agreed.

The poll respondents did, however, draw a distinction between agreeing with the verdicts and believing that Simpson was innocent in the two slayings.

About a quarter of Americans--24%--said he was not guilty, leaving a 17-point gap between those who said he was innocent and those who agreed with the verdicts that made him legally so. An additional 30% said Simpson was guilty of first-degree, premeditated murder, and 11% said he was guilty of second-degree murder.

Twenty-nine percent said they were not sure whether he was guilty or innocent.

Asked whether justice had been served in the Simpson case, 60% said that was doubtful--including 36% who said it was very doubtful. A minority agreed with Patricia Branham of Deming, N.M., a Latina who never believed that Simpson committed the crimes.

"I just didn't think O.J. was guilty," she said. "I didn't think they had enough evidence to prove he was guilty. . . . I just didn't think that he could have done it in that short a time."

Race, the issue that came to be inextricably entwined with the Simpson case, appeared to be the single dominating element of the trial, Times Poll respondents believed.

Seventy percent said it was an "important" influence, and 23% said it was the most important part of the case. Only 27% said it was not an important element.

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