America and the Simpson Trial

America and the Simpson Trial

This article originally appeared in the March 13, 1995 issue.


There was a story some years ago about a penitentiary in Texas where state prison officials asked inmates to volunteer to help train their tracking dogs. The inmates would be dressed up in padded clothing, given a head start, and then the hungry hounds would be loosed, with the prison officials riding on horseback after them. It became quite a sport, the chasing of what they called the “dog boys,” and it eventually embarrassed (though scarcely enough) quite a number of politicians (who had joined in the frolic) when the degree to which it had become a jolly pastime, like fox-hunting, came to public light.

The degree to which official exercises of power become major-league sports events gives me a lot of pause these days, as I cautiously turn on the television from time to time, searching for the weather report while trying to avoid the swamp of O.J. Simpson mania. Sooner or later, I fear, it will sweep me away too, in the excruciatingly slow, molasses-motioned displacement of afternoon soap opera by the industrial-strength suds of Court TV Opera.

Although I had promised myself that I would be the one lawyer in the United States to refrain from writing about the Simpson case, I’m increasingly troubled by the way it severely pushes the limits of whatever justice was supposed to be afforded by the notion of a public trial. The unprecedented eclipse of trial by theater–rivaled only perhaps by the coverage of Dr. Sam Sheppard in the 1950s–bas whetted a public appetite for lurid speculation as well as spectacle. It is an appetite, I fear, that will be satisfied by neither a guilty nor a not-guilty verdict, for surely so much melodrama is building to a better denouement than that. The public wants great pulp fiction: say, for Marcia Clark to have Johnnie Cochran’s baby while O.J. and Detective Fuhrman commit suicide in a double homosexual interracial love pact, and just for good measure Judge Ito is discovered to be heading up an international cocaine cartel whose operations he directs from his chambers during the commercial breaks.

Of course, this is why juries get sequestered–it’s a way of limiting not the public viewing of the trial but the mob’s metaphoric climbing-into-the- witness-box and influencing the outcome by noisy, string-’em-up gladiatorial rhetoric and rumor-run-amok.

Still troubling to the unsequestered of us, however, might be the extent to which the public airing of the Simpson trial is being used to divert political attention from some very great divisions rending this nation. “Maybe the Simpson trial will undo the misperceptions created by the Rodney King thing,” said one commentator on a morning news show–barely two days after publication of the Mollen Commission report, which detailed police excesses in Harlem and the Bronx, including racketeering, narcotics dealing and even attempted murder. This seemingly pervasive sentiment astonishes me for a number of reasons: It reduces black anxiety about the justice system to superficial and singular television encounters–the Rodney King “thing” may have “created” a bad impression, but look, “the system” is apologizing, by making up for it with O.J. Simpson. It trivializes or ignores the day-to-day experiences of blacks who are treated as “suspect profiles” at best and suffer a range of abuses in contacts with the justice system that go from negligence to outright brutality. And it dangerously misreads the discontent of a significant population that is not merely disaffected but enraged, whose fury is barely reflected in the staggering rates of black criminalization and imprisonment.

The O.J. Simpson trial bears very little resemblance to the circumstances–in courtrooms or elsewhere–that occasion so much black distrust of the justice system. But the self-congratulation proceeds apace: Now maybe they will see that justice is color-blind, say so many of the high- priced pundits who crowd the airwaves. Yeah yeah, except all sides agree that this trial is hardly typical. How many black or white people can afford a team of defense lawyers like O.J.’s? How many black or white people could command the audience that he does? How many black men could lead the Los Angeles Police Department on a slow chase around the city and survive to spawn a publishing industry of True! Inside! stories, all sure to be best sellers?

The Simpson coverage takes a singular trial–possibly one of the most bizarre of the century–and mythologizes it into the mundane. The simultaneous failure to cover the Mollen Commission report with anything like the same spotlight allows such mythologizing to trump empiricism in dangerous ways. And when the empirical becomes so thoroughly disconnected from political belief structures, it’s a formula for social tension.

“Do you think blacks will riot if O.J. Simpson is found guilty?” a reporter asked me during the preliminary hearing. The question made me laugh. “Are you serious?” I asked before I realized that he was. Of course, the last laugh may turn out to be on me, but it still seems preposterous that anyone could think that angry black crowds would storm the streets–of what, Brentwood?–just because a black man was found guilty. The question struck me as revealing a total lack of understanding of the riotous passion that caused the infuriated, blind eruptions in Los Angeles–as though the reporter expected that anytime any black man is convicted, no matter what he does, black communities will scream foul. ‘What a total lack of under standing of the seething social desperation that the Simi Valley verdict blew open.

Even acknowledging that there are plenty of blacks who don’t believe that any black man can get a fair trial in the United States, those beliefs alone hardly cause riots. How random and shallow the discontent must seem if O.J. Simpson is made the measure of black oppression, just another example of playing the race card.

If O.J. Simpson is believed by many whites to be enjoying the typical trial of a black man (you know, mired in the indulgences of due process, time-consuming and more expensive than the national budget), then Colin Ferguson, the man who opened fire on a crowded car on the Long Island Rail Road, has been figured as the typical black man (you know, always complaining, always blaming, paranoid). I don’t know how to say this gracefully, but there’s paranoia and there’s paranoia, and Colin Ferguson is insane. He thinks there are ninety-three counts against him because the year of the shooting was 1993. He was sleeping at the time. Mario Cuomo is part of a plot to set him up. The witnesses are all lying and the dead aren’t really dead. Yet a judge found him competent to stand trial and all the headlines self-righteously proclaimed his raising of that old defense, The white man did it. That’s what they all say! Well, he’s crazy if he thinks we’ll believe that one! Isn’t there something completely upside down about ruling an insane man sane so that society can waggle their heads and call him insane? The oft-paired but fundamentally contradictory logic is: He’s just acting this way to convince the court that he’s crazy. That is, he’s plot ted and planned his insanity. Doing insane things just proves the demonic rationality of his warped but “normal” paranoid black mind. What is the function, one must begin to wonder as he babbles and soars in a world of his own, of “normal”-izing Ferguson as the quintessential black mind?

Meanwhile, in the not-too-distant background, Susan Smith, who confessed to killing her children after precipitating a nationwide manhunt when she told authorities a black man did it, is figured as someone who is guilty as sin but simultaneously filled with pluck and remorse, ready to shoulder her full “responsibility” by stepping right on up to the electric chair like a pitcher to the mound.

What are these stories we are telling ourselves? We can’t sequester the public imagination, but shouldn’t we be just a little more careful in how we rush to mythologize our fears, our demons, our mental inventions? Shouldn’t we be a little more careful about digging ourselves deeper into the entrenchment of our division?

Would it help to make a reality checklist? A scorecard of sorts, just to keep the myths trimmed, like fingernails, every so often, so they don’t get dangerous or poke someone s eyes out or just plain paralyze us?

§ The Simpson trial is hardly the normal trial of a black man, even though it symbolizes the domestic abuse of many “normal” citizens, black and white.

§ Colin Ferguson is not your average black man, even though he expresses fears of the white world that are familiar to many blacks.

§ Blacks who talk a lot about social inequities are not per se insane, even though I appreciate that there are many white people who find them very annoying.

§ Colin Ferguson is not your average urban American terrorist. In fact, until Ferguson, the suspect profile of those who went into public places and shot randomly was the lonely, reclusive or recently divorced, troubled, middle-aged white man.

§ If Susan Smith does die in the electric chair and O.J. Simpson doesn’t, perhaps we as a nation could refrain just a moment before intoning that white women die for their crimes while black men who commit double homicides don’t. Perhaps we could just make room for a host of competing considerations such as: A woman who kills her children is always more abhorred than a man who kills his wife in the so-called “heat of passion” and/or kills a man he thinks is his wife’s lover. The death penalty is administered variously by state governments, differently in South Carolina and California. Seeking the death penalty is a matter of prosecutorial discretion. O.J. is a star, dadgummit, and nobody likes to see American heroes executed. If O.J. were “Willie” Horton, he’d fry. And if Susan Smith had murdered almost anyone but her own children, she probably would not.

§ Blacks and Latinos form a solid majority of our national prison population. They are convicted more frequently and sentenced for longer terms than their white counterparts. Blacks end up on death row in numbers vast ly disproportionate to whites who commit the same crimes.

Now that all the boxes are checked off, are these factors really a source of comfort to those who think that black men are out there “getting away” with things while white women, even murderesses, are out there doing their bit to uphold the social order? Or shouldn’t this complicated play between exceptionalizing trends and normalizing extremes give us a frisson of a decidedly more sinister sort? How does a democratic order rationalize the craving for catharsis that countenances this savage running of the bulls, this chasing of the dog boy, this stoning of the one marked village idiot? These are not times for easy prescriptions, but when the executives of Entertainment Tonight are this exuberant, one has to wonder if Justice hasn’t been just a wee bit seduced by the thrill of the hunt.

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