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Friday, June 11, 2004

SPORTS SCOPE

Verdict in O.J. criminal trial still a divisive issue


I have been waiting a long time to write this column.

Jack Gallagher

Saturday will mark the 10th anniversary of the murders of the ex-wife of NFL Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in Brentwood, Calif.

The brutality of the crime was shocking. Nicole Simpson had her throat slit so forcefully that her head was practically cut off. Her friend Goldman was stabbed more than 30 times. Both were found dead lying in massive pools of blood.

It was a classic case of overkill. Somebody so passionate about one of the victims seemed to have gone berserk and committed a savage double murder.

The police were pretty sure, pretty quickly, that O.J. was the perpetrator, and so was a large majority of the American public.

It was great theater. Ex-football superstar turned TV personality suspected in the murder of his former wife and another man.

The case was going to be high-profile, without question. When a camera was allowed in the courtroom, interest in the case went through the roof.

But in the end, the trial turned out to reveal a lot more about the American public than O.J.

I am still amazed at how, 10 years later, a mere mention of the case can provoke such passions. In our office, your office, just about any office.

It seems just about everybody has a strong opinion on this one.

What has always bothered me was not the case itself, but the aftermath and how it became a crusade for so many people. I'm not talking about the families of the victims -- clearly their grief and frustration were understandable.

I'm talking about the people who seemed to create a new pastime in trashing O.J. over and over. The only thing more pathetic than O.J. -- if indeed he was the killer -- were the people who benefited from the cottage industry that sprung up to vilify him.

What always struck me about the verdict was the outrage of the people who thought he was guilty.

The truth of the matter is that 99.9 percent of these people knew neither O.J. or either of the victims. But they sure acted like they did.

Why?

Because they saw the trial develop on TV and felt all of those involved were like a next-door neighbor.

Guilt beyond a reasonable doubt was what the jury in the criminal case involving O.J. was asked to prove. On the surface it did seem that the evidence against the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner was overwhelming.

The problem with the prosecution's case, as I always saw it, was placing nearly everything on the DNA evidence. Remember, 10 years ago, the general public's knowledge of DNA was not as great as it is today.

The anti-O.J. forces wondered, how could the jury deliver the verdict that it did?

A quick analysis of the jurors who came to the controversial decision might give you an idea.

Nine of the 12 jurors -- like O.J. -- were black. There were also two whites and one Hispanic. Ten of the jurors had no more in the way of education than a high school diploma.

None of the jurors regularly read a newspaper. Five of them -- nearly half -- reported that they or a family member had encountered a negative experience with the police.

Present them with a bunch of complicated DNA evidence, but no murder weapon, a racist police officer who lied in court under oath and found one of the key pieces of evidence, and no one who could place the accused at the murder scene at the time of the crime, and people wonder why O.J. was acquitted?

That has always perplexed me.

How about when O.J. tried on the gloves the murderer allegedly wore and they didn't fit?

I don't care who you are, if you are sitting in the jury box and see that, what are you supposed to think?

Some of the comments I heard in the days following the verdict are still with me.

"O.J. killed two people and didn't have to serve any time for it."

Hang on a minute. He actually spent 444 days in jail, before his acquittal, and lost just about everything he had, except for his NFL pension.

His many endorsement contracts, TV job, money and almost all of his friends vanished quicker than you could say "touchdown."

His prospects for future employment were also history.

What I think white America didn't understand -- and probably still doesn't -- is how difficult it is to be a black American. They just have no concept.

I once read a quote that stated: "If you want to know what it's like to be black in America, move to Japan."

Many years ago, when I read that, I didn't understand it. But I do now.

As a foreigner in this country I occasionally get strange looks -- which is sometimes understandable -- because the society here is, for the most part, homogeneous.

But that is in a foreign country. Imagine how it would feel in your own country to be looked at like that?

Not too good, I would bet.

The point is, that a lot of black folks -- and many others -- in the U.S. have a difficult time just trying to survive.

When O.J. was acquitted, a great many of them saw it as a victory over the establishment.

I don't think it was a surprise that they reacted accordingly.

On the other side of the ledger, white America was outraged.

Honestly, that is the part I have never been able to understand.

In the history of U.S. jurisprudence there have been many cases where the innocent were found guilty and the guilty found innocent. That is irrefutable.

But was there ever a case where the bitterness lingered so long?

O.J. had a trial before a jury of his peers, just as the U.S. law stipulates, and they found him not guilty. There were two whites on the jury and the verdict was unanimous.

O.J. was facing life in prison and assembled the best legal defense team he could.

Is that something to resent?

I would think that anybody in his position would have done exactly the same thing.

At any rate, the entire saga was a fascinating study in human behavior.

How people react when they get, or don't get, what they want.

Who would have ever thought a football player -- no matter what he may have done -- could have triggered that kind of national and international reaction?



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