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THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Obsession: DID THE MEDIA OVERFEED A STARVING PUBLIC? : CHAPTER SEVEN: DIFFERENT COLOR, DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE? : 'The reason anyone will care about this case five years, ten years from now is because of what it illuminates about race in America.'

October 09, 1995|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

When four LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney G. King were acquitted on most charges in the first trial, many African Americans attributed the verdicts to the jury in Simi Valley being all white. Those jurors didn't have the same kind of experience with police as do many African Americans, they said, so they couldn't believe that police would wantonly beat someone.

African Americans and other minorities have made similar (and equally valid) arguments in urging the hiring of more nonwhite reporters and editors in the nation's news media. They say that most minorities have a different life experience than most whites, so they often have a different perspective that can both broaden and sensitize media coverage.

Given all this, it is not unreasonable to suggest that many African Americans might think differently than many whites about any legal case, especially a case in which a black man is accused of murder and in which a racist police officer played an important role.

What upset many African Americans, though, was not the media's suggestion that race might be a factor, even a significant factor in jury deliberations, but the assumption that it would be the most significant factor, perhaps the only factor.

The police, the coroner's office and the prosecution unquestionably made serious mistakes in this case. Those mistakes-- combined with several evidentiary inconsistencies, a timeline that left Simpson a relatively small window of opportunity to commit the murders and rid himself of any incriminating evidence, and the absence of a murder weapon or any witnesses--could have raised reasonable doubt among jurors, even without the racial issue. But when the media covered the final arguments made by the defense, the emphasis was generally on Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and his appeals for racial justice; most of the media ignored or marginalized Barry Scheck's argument, which ticked off all the weaknesses in the prosecution's case and told jurors there was more than enough reasonable doubt to warrant a not guilty verdict

Apparently, the jurors agreed, black and white alike. The jurors who have spoken out so far say it was the flawed prosecution case, not race that determined their verdict.

"I think a lot of these reporters really do think that black people are so mindless as to vote based solely on the color of their skin," Andrea Ford said. "It's absurd. . . . It's insulting to say that black people have some kind of race loyalty. . . . There's an underlying tone of 'These [black] people are irrational. They're ignoring the evidence.' Well, what was so rational about all those white people in those early polls deciding he was guilty before they'd heard a scintilla of evidence? I have seen no stories on that."

Several white journalists were equally outraged.

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Steven Brill of Court TV called the assumption of a strict black-white split on the jury "the worst kind of racism" and pointed out, "In every single major city in this country, a significant percentage, or even a majority of the jurors are nonwhite. . . . [And] every single day of the week . . . African American jurors are unanimously convicting African American defendants."

But Darnell Hunt, an assistant professor of sociology at Simpson's alma mater, USC, said that while there is "no such thing as a monolithic black point of view," blacks do tend to be "more race-conscious" and more prone to "ethnic solidarity" than do most whites. Historically, this has not been uncommon among oppressed minorities and ethnic groups.

Hunt, an African American, is conducting a study of how race affects the way people interpret media coverage. He set up two focus groups earlier this year--one black, one white--to discuss how their perceptions of the Simpson case formed, developed, differed and got passed on. Although Hunt has not yet completed analyzing his data, he said it is already apparent that blacks and whites have diametrically opposed views on many aspects of the case.

Interestingly, he said, he found that media coverage of the case had little effect on people's views over the course of the trial. For the most part, those who thought he was guilty when the focus groups first met in March (mostly whites) still thought he was guilty when they met again in August, and those who thought he was innocent at the first meeting (mostly black) still thought he was innocent at the second meeting.

Hunt said that what his survey subjects saw in the media only confirmed what they already thought. Based on their respective life experiences in our still largely segregated society, blacks and whites often perceive the same event or individual in different ways.

Many journalists, black and white, cited coverage of the testimony of Ron Shipp as a prime example of these differing perceptions.

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