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It's Public Perception That's Skewed : Simpson verdict: The jury decided on the facts; it didn't see the sideshow that convinced the TV audience otherwise.

October 10, 1995|GERALD F. UELMEN | Gerald F. Uelmen is a professor of law at Santa Clara University. He was co-counsel for the defense in the Simpson trial.

Juries are not empowered to deliver "messages." They are given only two choices: guilty or not guilty. If they follow the judge's instructions, they must deliver a verdict of not guilty unless they have been convinced, by the evidence, of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The verdict delivered by the 12 jurors deciding the case of People vs. O.J. Simpson, however, is being read by millions of white Americans as the delivery of a preposterous message: This is "pay-back" for the centuries of injustice meted out to blacks in America. Certainly, nothing the jurors said or did can be identified as the source of such a message.

This false message is apparently not emanating from the courtroom at all, but from the public reaction to the verdict. Black America greeted the verdict with cheers; white America greeted the verdict with tears. Therefore, white America tragically reads the verdict as a "message" from black America. No verdict can withstand the weight of such extraneous baggage.

The public nature of the trial may account for the apparent willingness of so many Americans to value the verdict of public opinion over the verdict rendered by the jurors. What we overlook is that the sequestered jurors saw a different trial than the television viewers. The jurors missed the heart-wrenching tears of the victims' families in the corridors and the tabloid headlines with computer-simulated photos. It became impossible for those who were exposed to all three rings of the circus to purge their minds and remember only the evidence being admitted in the center ring.

One of the most horrific moments of the trial was a moment the jury didn't even share: the public exposure of the racist rantings of Detective Mark Fuhrman. Ironically, the attribution of false motives to jurors for their verdict may emanate from the public reaction to something the jurors never even saw or heard.

Nor is the verdict of public opinion sanctified by an oath. Only the jurors swore that they would render a verdict on the evidence, unswayed by passion or prejudice. The verdict of public opinion is that Simpson is "probably" guilty. The jurors were told that "probably" isn't good enough. They had to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.

Every indication is that the jurors took their oath seriously and understood the crucial difference between probability and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The quickness of their verdict does not undermine that conclusion. Twelve individuals pondered every aspect of the evidence for nine months, suspending final judgment until it was all in. The unanimity of their conclusion was immediately manifest. Should they have continued to sift through evidence out of concern for the public credulity of their conclusion? Isn't that precisely what the judge ordered them not to do, when he said they were not to be swayed by public opinion or potential public reaction to their verdict?

The inappropriate trashing of the jury that rendered the first verdict in the Rodney King case offers no precedent to justify the trashing of the Simpson jurors. The evidence in the King case was a videotape of the crime itself. No more direct evidence could ever be presented in a courtroom. The case of People vs. Simpson was a complex web of circumstantial evidence that had to be sifted and analyzed.

Centuries ago, we bought into the principle that the burden of proof in criminal cases should be proof beyond reasonable doubt. We knew there was a price tag. Some who were "probably" guilty would escape punishment. The mantle of innocence could not be confined only to those whom the public was willing to embrace. Acceptance of that principle was an important step toward a just society. The alternative takes us back to the roar of the crowd in the Roman Coliseum.

Twelve citizens, at great personal sacrifice, gave us precisely what the law demanded: a verdict announcing their unanimous judgment of the evidence. That verdict should be accepted at face value as a vindication of the principle that guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. To read it as a vindication of an oppressed minority is an insult to the jurors and a tragic example of the divisive gulf that still separates black and white America. What needs to be "reformed" is not our system of trial by jury. We need to reform our system of baggage-handling. We need to reform our system of judging the color of each other's faces in order to choose up sides.

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