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THE SIMPSON LEGACY / LOS ANGELES TIMES SPECIAL REPORT : Trial & Error: FOCUS SHIFTS TO A JUSTICE SYSTEM AND ITS FLAWS : Weighing the Necessity of Change / How One Case May Reshape Criminal Justice in America : THE TIMES POLL / Faith in Justice System Drops : The decline focuses more on the courts than police, for whom support remains strong. The chasm between blacks and whites in the county is painfully clear.

October 08, 1995|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

As Los Angeles County residents grapple with the lingering reverberations of the O.J. Simpson trial, a new Times poll has found that one of the victims of the long-running saga has been the criminal justice system itself.

In the county, and particularly among whites who comprise the largest bloc of county residents, confidence in the justice system has slumped as a result of the trial. Ironically, given the criticism focused on law enforcement officers throughout the trial, people's views of the police have not dropped as dramatically as their perceptions of the courts.

But, in part, that is because the public perception of the courts had already been tarnished by the host of controversial trials that have occurred here in recent years.

"This is striking a bruise for a lot of people," said Times Poll Director John Brennan. "There were already a lot of doubts about Los Angeles' court system out there."

The law enforcement figures underscored that for many the Simpson case may not be seen as an indictment of all institutions. Even among blacks, most of whom believe that police planted evidence against Simpson, 61% countywide approve of the way their local law enforcement agencies handle their jobs.

In the city of Los Angeles, support for the LAPD declined, but only about 10 percentage points overall.

"There's been less change in the overall view of the system than you might expect as a result of this trial," Brennan said.

The chasm between blacks and whites in the county was painfully clear, as it had been for the duration of Simpson's 16-month imprisonment and trial. And now there is evidence of increasing polarization. Whites are far more negative about key elements of the criminal justice system than before, and blacks are in some cases more positive--but not always.

There was unity of thought on one topic, however: the vast impact that wealth is believed to have on priming the judicial pump. Whites and blacks alike believed that O.J. Simpson's wealth was a larger factor in the outcome of his case than was his race.

Overall, 87% said wealth was the most important, or an important, element in the trial. Asked separately, 68% described race in the same way.

The belief that Simpson's wealth was the major factor explains why, even though they largely agree with the verdicts, blacks remain unenthusiastic about the criminal justice system in general.

"It's clear . . . that blacks say there is a lot of entrenched racism and one trial will not overcome that," Brennan said. "Like everyone else, they realize that this was a very special trial, and he had a defense team not likely to be replicated in most Los Angeles courtrooms."

The polarization between blacks and whites--with Latinos in the middle--was unmistakable throughout the poll of 760 Los Angeles County residents, interviewed Oct. 3-5. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is four percentage points in either direction.

Asked whether justice was served in the Simpson case, 51% of whites said that was "very doubtful," while 50% of blacks described themselves as "very confident" that justice had been served.

Overall, 69% of blacks described themselves as very confident or somewhat confident that justice was served, a posture adopted by 40% of Latinos and a slim 22% of whites.

Separately, 60% of whites said the conduct of the Simpson case has decreased their confidence in the criminal justice system, a view shared by half as many blacks. Latinos were precisely in the middle, with 45% saying their positive views had ebbed as a result of the high-profile trial.

Overall, including Asian Americans and other groups that are too small to measure independently, 51% of county residents said their faith in the system had declined; only 9% said it had increased.

While that measured the Simpson-inspired dip, another question illustrated the low levels of support for the criminal justice system overall. Asked whether they had a "great deal, quite a lot, only some or very little" confidence in the system, all races focused most of their answers in the negative categories.

Thirty-four percent of whites, 39% of blacks and 41% of Latinos said they had "very little" confidence, and the responses of men and women in that category were an equally dire 36%. In total, 26% said they had a great deal or a lot of confidence, and 70% said they had some or very little confidence.

Asked if the court system was sound, respondents were split--46% said it was and 47% said it was not. Among whites, Latinos and the population overall, that number was about the same as the responses given in a Times poll taken in September, 1994.

This time, blacks were more likely to declare the system sound--up to 38% from 27% in the September, 1994, poll. But still more than half of blacks described it as lacking.

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