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THE SIMPSON VERDICTS : From Coast to Coast, a Nation Is Divided on Simpson Verdict : Reaction: A black clerk in Miami sees 'hope for the system' while a white Chicago student smells the power of money. Opinions tend to break along racial lines.

October 04, 1995|ANNA M. VIRTUE and DOUG CONNER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Stephanie Coats picked up her coffee and paused, cherishing the moment.

All along, she said, she had thought that O.J. Simpson was innocent. But, she conceded, she was worried. "I thought he would be found guilty because of the way the system works."

Then came the blood test evidence. That shook her.

"Then the Fuhrman cover-up started, and everything fell into place for me," said Coats, who is African American and a payroll clerk at a Miami employment agency. "For me, it's more than O.J.'s trial. It's a moral issue. If he had been found guilty, any hope I had that racism could be beaten would have disappeared.

"Now I think there's hope for the system."

Ideally, a number of whites and blacks across the nation agreed, race should not have been an issue at Simpson's trial on murder charges in the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. But it did become an issue, and it refused to disappear Tuesday as people from Seattle to Miami reacted to his acquittal. They were divided mostly along racial lines.

Standing behind Coats, at a coffee shop in an office building near downtown Miami, Sharon Halloran, who is white and works for a defense attorney, broke in: "He's guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Because he did it!"

Halloran said Simpson was acquitted at least partly because of Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles police detective, now retired, whose repeated use of racist pejoratives became an angry point of contention. "Justice wasn't served. Race shouldn't have become an issue.

"After this verdict, spousal abuse will go up. The batterer will say he can get away with it. I'm not sure how to fix the system, but something has to be done."

There were, to be sure, blacks who thought that Simpson was guilty and whites who thought he was not. Steve Black, 32, waiting for a bus in downtown Seattle, said he did not think that justice was served. Black, who is African American and works for a real estate agency, said that money far too often determines who is acquitted.

"That's where I think it fell down," Black declared. "If it had been me or anybody else, or any other black man, if you want to put it that way, other than O.J., without the money and without the fame, he'd be in jail or on death row or dead already."

Conversely, June Morrissey, 53, who is white and a nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital in Savannah, Ga., said she thought all along that Simpson was innocent. She sat near the hospital emergency room talking with a black woman who had brought in her daughter for treatment. When a waiting room TV broadcast the verdict, Morrissey and the stranger clasped hands.

Both were in tears.

"I never thought he was guilty," Morrissey said. "I firmly believe in our justice system that says you are innocent until proven guilty. In this case, they never proved O.J. guilty."

There were those, as well, who were conflicted. Lamar Brown, 26, who is black and a personal trainer at a YMCA in Houston, says he felt momentarily relieved when the verdict was read. "I was happy because he got free. I don't know why I felt happy, except I saw a man, a human being, who was free from all of this.

"Then I thought, 'Man, he murdered these people. The evidence was there, and he got off.' I don't get it."

Most positive reactions to the Simpson verdict, however, came from blacks, and most negative reactions came from whites. Tyrone Prince Ford, who shines shoes at a Washington, D.C., barber shop, said that anything but an acquittal verdict would have been "100% racism."

Ford, an African American who moved away from Los Angeles because of the 1992 riots, felt that justice was done. "All my black clients know he isn't guilty, and all the whites said guilty. Everyone picks a particular piece of evidence to support their point of view."

Erica Whitehurst, 29, who is black and is director of contracts for an energy renewal firm in Washington, called the verdict excellent.

"They tried to pin it on him," Whitehurst said. "Maybe he had something to do with it, or knew who did it. I believe that. But they tried to pin the whole thing on him. Maybe he's not totally not-guilty. But for the crime they were trying to prosecute him for, he's not guilty."

In Chicago, law student Mark Scott, 32, who is white, gasped when he heard the verdict. "I can't believe that!

"Money! The evidence was overwhelmingly against him. Money tried this case. It's a sad day for the legal community. Smoke and mirrors carried the day."

Kathy Epstein, who is white and a 19-year resident of Chicago, said she was so angered by the verdict that she almost cried.

"[It was] race and money," she declared. "He was 100% guilty. He is a playboy murderer, and women will follow him, for some reason. They even follow murderers in jail."

At Journal Graphics in Denver, a firm under contract to transcribe every word of the Simpson trial, employees divided into opinionated camps.

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