LAS VEGAS — As testimony in O.J. Simpson's trial on robbery charges gets underway this week, one thing is already abundantly clear: When the former football star enters a courtroom, so does a debate about race.
In jury selection last week, defense attorneys repeatedly tried to dismiss the mostly white jury pool and accused prosecutors of systematically excluding blacks. The allegation prompted Clark County Dist. Atty. David Roger to insist that his choice of jurors had "nothing to do with race."
The 12-member panel chosen Thursday includes no African Americans, though one black man and one black woman will serve as alternates.
What effect, if any, the absence of African Americans on the jury will have remains to be seen. The charges Simpson faces have no obvious racial overtones. Few prospective panelists, black or white, mentioned the issue during intense questioning about Simpson. But some experts say race is sure to play some role in the jury room.
"If it's just a simple robbery case, then it really doesn't matter if the jury is all white," said Osvaldo Fumo, a Las Vegas criminal defense attorney who has been monitoring the case. "But the problem is it's O.J. Simpson. And then it does matter."
Legal observers said it was hard for people to look at Simpson without remembering his past legal troubles, which polarized black and white America.
Simpson's 1995 trial over the slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman was televised and watched by millions -- leaving enduring, racially tinged images, including that of a handcuffed Simpson and of Los Angeles Police Department Det. Mark Fuhrman getting caught using racial slurs. The defense turned on allegations of discrimination by law enforcement and possible evidence-tampering, and a predominantly black jury acquitted Simpson.
Do jurors want 'payback'?
A mostly white jury, however, found him civilly liable for the deaths in 1997. Polls since have consistently shown the public divided as to the former football great's role in the stabbings -- with blacks more likely than whites to champion Simpson's innocence.
In Las Vegas, "the defense might be worried that white jurors want payback," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor. "That's because of how the world divided up after the '95 verdict. . . . I was at the courthouse and remember blacks on one side cheering and whites on the other side stunned."
In his current case, Simpson, 61, faces a dozen charges -- including kidnapping, which carries a potential life sentence. His codefendant, Clarence "C.J." Stewart, 54, is also black.
Simpson's defense is not expected to be as racially charged as in past cases. His attorneys, experts say, will probably target the character and motives of four former codefendants who are cooperating with authorities. The defense is also expected to attack the veracity of audio recordings of the alleged robbery at Palace Station Hotel & Casino on Sept. 13, 2007.
Jurors won't "convict O.J. because he's black," said Robert Hirschhorn, a Texas trial consultant. "They're going to convict him if they think he was acting like a thug."
Nonetheless, Simpson's lawyers last week made a big issue of the jury's composition. The court had used a questionnaire to whittle 500 potential jurors down to 248. One of Stewart's attorneys said that only 5% of them were African American, though Clark County's population is about 10% black.
But an overwhelmingly white jury pool is typical for Las Vegas, said Fumo, the local defense attorney. He usually warns nonwhite clients that they should not expect a jury of their racial peers.
On Thursday, the final day of jury selection, Judge Jackie Glass said she had pulled the controlling Supreme Court case on using race in picking panelists -- "just on the off chance I might need it." She did.
Defense attorneys clearly believed that seating at least one African American would help Simpson. They vigorously protested the prosecution's removal of an African American woman from the pool. At one point, Simpson attorney Yale Galanter said he wanted to make an official record of the race of his client, prompting a few people to laugh.
When Roger said he had exercised a peremptory challenge on the juror because her position as a church pastor suggested a forgiving nature, one of Stewart's lawyers scoffed that the reason was "pretextual at best."
During questioning about their views on Simpson's double-murder trial, few prospective jurors mentioned the racial undercurrents. One white woman wrote on a jury questionnaire that she disagreed with the criminal verdict, but when pressed to explain why, she struggled.
"It was more like, 'Oh, that's too bad,' " the woman said, her voice trailing off. She was not selected as a juror.
An African American hospital administrator had checked a box on her questionnaire indicating that she felt black defendants received unequal treatment in the criminal justice system.
Quizzed about the answer by a defense lawyer, the woman said she knew of cases in which black defendants were sentenced more severely than white defendants who committed similar crimes.
"I'm not saying it happens all the time," she said. She added that four days of jury selection had given her "a new respect for the legal process."
But when the attorney asked if she wanted to change her answer on the questionnaire, she hesitated and then said no. "I would probably put the same thing," she said.
The woman was seated as an alternate.