O.J. Lessons

The O.J. trial took just as long as the human gestation period, and its culmination was just as painful. Unlike birth, however, the result is not nearly as clear and does not give nearly as much cause for celebration.

When the O.J. trial began, we tended to ignore it, passing over the coverage for news of Bosnia or welfare reform. Unfortunately, America (and maybe our own morbid curiosity) would not let us forget it, plastering the former football star's face across every magazine, television set and Web site known to humankind.

But the media circus was simply a reflection of what Americans wanted to see: a sensational trial that brought into play the fate of a man who was famous only because he could carry a football. Events of much more significance went largely ignored, as important news was pre-empted for the latest DNA results and as network after network scheduled its days around the trial.

The blitz hurt not only the media's credibility but the productivity of the workers who sat around TV sets each night, enraptured. Billions of hours were wasted as O.J. captivated watercooler conversations and dinner-table discussions alike. In the future, we hope Americans will spend those hours contemplating more serious issues--such as those raised by the trial itself--and that the media will guide them in that pursuit.

First, during the trial, O.J. emerged before many as a victim rather than the proven wife-beater he was and is. Admittedly, he was on trial for killing Nicole Brown Simpson and not for beating her, but we worry that his acquittal will help bury the disturbing issue of domestic violence. As one Harvard student remarked in his euphoria over the acquittal, "My first-born will be named O.J." That's not a legacy we want to see carried on.


Second, although money can't buy you love, the trial proved that it can help buy your acquittal. In an imperfect world, money will always be able to skew the outcome of a trial to some extent, but in this case, the effective "dream team" defense was obviously a product of O.J.'s fortune. Had he been a blue-collar worker from south-central L.A., would his defense have been as competent? We think not.

Many would argue, however, that his acquittal was due not to a brilliant defense but to the color of the jury, nine of whose members were black. In the future, attorneys screening juries will look even more closely at skin color, a result of the trial that bodes poorly for the impartiality of the justice system and for race relations in our society. You are supposed to be tried by a jury of your peers, but we do not think that "peers" should mean people solely of your own race.

Did the color of the jury affect the outcome? Polls during the trial showed that blacks have a suspicion of the police, and the police testimony was vital to the prosecution's case. Bringing in Mark Fuhrman as a star witness didn't help: regardless of whether you're black or white, it's obvious that Fuhrman is a despicable racist.

Fuhrman aside, the trial raised even larger racial issues: surveys consistently showed that 70 percent of whites though O.J. was guilty, while an equal percentage of blacks though he was innocent. After the decision came in, six of 10 whites said they believed the wrong verdict was reached, while nine of 10 blacks said they believed the jury had come to the right conclusion.

Part of this discrepancy may be due to blacks' experiences with police, but we worry that it also stems from a fundamental racial schism in American society. All the photos from the minutes after the trial showed blacks shouting for joy and whites dropping their mouths in outrage. We feel this reflects the dangerous yet prevalent view of whites that blacks are more likely to be criminals and of blacks that they themselves are more likely to be treated unfairly by a "white system."

This leads us to the most significant question raised by the trial: Did the legal system work? Its effectiveness was questioned from the start because the excessive media attention tainted the thoughts of practically every potential juror in the country. We continued to wonder about the suitability of the jury and the efficacy of sequestration as the number of jurors dropped faster than Mark Fuhrman's credibility, by the end leaving only 14 of the original 24. And Judge Ito's dramatic grandstanding didn't help the situation.

Against all odds, however, in the end the American justice system survived. The system is biased toward the defendant to protect American citizens from arbitrary government and police power--take Mark Fuhrman. We are prepared to accept that a guilty man might go free as the price of the caution inherent in our judicial system.

And white or black, the American public agreed that the trial was aboveboard: A majority of whites had said the trial was fair in a CBS News poll the week before the verdict, and the number rose after the decision was announced. For blacks, the number doubled over the same time period, from four in 10 to eight in 10.

Even though the system generally held up, the trial should be taken as a warning that if we don't soon deal with the racial and cultural problems it highlighted, we may not be so lucky in the future.

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