O.J. Simpson Trials Leave Indelible Mark On US Justice System
In a surreal juxtaposition of events, the verdict in the O.J. Simpson civil trial came even as President Clinton was concluding his generally upbeat State of the Union address Tuesday night with a preacher-like celebration of racial diversity.
In contrast, the Simpson case once again offered a disturbing view of the "state of the union" between black Americans and white Americans.
Many whites are hailing the unanimous verdict by 12 jurors that Mr. Simpson is responsible for the June 1994 murder of his ex-wife and her friend as vindication for what they view as an unjust outcome in the criminal trial in 1995. Many blacks view the verdict in the four-month civil trial as the legal equivalent of a lynching, a version of "white justice" refusing to allow a black man to win in an American court.
But if the new verdict does little to change the widely polarized way in which whites and blacks view the nation's justice system, some analysts question just how much insight the case provides on the state of race relations.
"The case has been one way of talking about race," says Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of African American studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. But using it as a window on race relations "is like trying to read the currents by watching a single floating stick."
Still, the Simpson case has spawned more than 20 books, created a national cult of court watchers, and the left an indelible mark on American justice.
For one, it has raised serious questions about the system of selecting juries for trials, and whether the racial composition of a jury can be a key to the outcome of a case.
The jury that found insufficient evidence to convict Simpson of murder in 1995 comprised nine blacks, two whites, and one Latino. The jury that found Simpson responsible for the killings comprised nine whites, one Hispanic, one Asian and one juror of Asian and black heritage.
One black who was part of the second jury was later thrown off during the deliberations after it was learned that her daughter worked as a legal secretary for the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, the same office that prosecuted Simpson in his murder trial.
The jury composition will likely be included in a Simpson appeal; blacks represented 40 percent of the original pool of prospective jurors for the civil trial. But after the black woman was dismissed, only the black with mixed parentage was involved in the final deliberations.
Legal experts say other issues likely to be raised in Simpson's appeal will be whether trial Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki erred when he barred the testimony of former Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman. The detective was accused in the murder trial of being a racist rogue cop who planted incriminating evidence to frame Simpson.
Lawyers for the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson countered that there was no proof that Mr. Fuhrman planted evidence, and thus no reason to call him to testify. The judge agreed.
Another appeal issue, experts say, is the judge's decision to allow information about Simpson's failing a lie detector test to be heard by the jury. The judge later instructed the jury to ignore the information, but defense attorneys will argue that you can't unring a bell. Once the jury has heard the damaging information it is too late.
Many legal experts say that while the issues raised in the Simpson civil case are substantial, they probably won't rise to the level necessary to convince an appeals court to overturn a unanimous verdict.
"There are wonderful grounds for appeal in this case but I predict the appeal will be lost," Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told ABC's Nightline. He said California judges wouldn't overturn such a popular verdict.
Johnnie Cochran, Simpson's lead trial lawyer in the murder case, agrees with the assessment that appeals courts are very reluctant to overturn a jury verdict unless they are sure that the mistake was enough to change the verdict. Otherwise, Cochran said on Court TV, the courts are likely to rule that any mistakes were "harmless error" by the trial judge.
Although the jury has already awarded $8.5 million in compensatory damages to the family of Mr. Goldman, the panel must still decide whether to assess punitive damages. That aspect of the trial is set to begin today with witnesses called to testify about Simpson's ability to pay damages. Then the jury will begin a second round of deliberations to decide how much more, if any, Simpson should pay.
Time magazine reported recently that Simpson has a net worth of $3 million, with at least $2.5 million in other funds sheltered in retirement and offshore accounts. "Given the fact that punitive awards are typically a multiple of the compensatory, I have serious doubts about Simpson's ability to pay even the [$8.5 million] compensatory damages, given the assets he has available," says Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern School of Law in Los Angeles.
* Monitor staff writers Kurt Shillinger, Daniel B. Wood, and Robert Marquand contributed to this report.