Public Sympathy for O.J. Simpson: The Roles of Race, Age, Gender, Income, and Education

Article excerpt

I

Introduction

Race has always played an important role in America's history. It has shaped and sometimes divided the political, educational, and legal systems. Not long ago, the Rodney King trial verdict brought with it race riots and a growing sentiment among the black population that the legal system was unjust. (Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted by an all-white jury of charges for the beating of King.) Indeed, many blacks have felt that they have been unfairly prosecuted and attacked by police and the justice system, simply because of the color of their skin. The statistics show a disproportionate number of blacks in prison: 6.8 percent of black adult males were in prison in 1994 compared to 1 percent of white adult males who were in prison (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1995). Some feel this proves that blacks are justified in their distrust of the American judicial system.

The O. J. Simpson trial is one that will no doubt go down in history as a landmark case in which race played a key role. In Simpson's criminal trial, a mostly black jury found him innocent. In the civil trial, a mostly white jury found him liable of the wrongful deaths of Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson. Of course, the standards of guilt were different in the two cases, but still there was speculation that race was an important factor in the two different outcomes. On October 3, 1996, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll showed that after the criminal trial only 20 percent of whites thought that the jury was right to acquit Simpson, while 62 percent of African-Americans agreed with the decision. It looked as though opinions were split along racial lines. The problem with such an analysis, however, is that other social, demographic, and economic characteristics, are not being controlled for. In other words, after accounting for differences in income, education, age, and gender, does race still affect how one views the fairness of the justice system and, if so, to what degree? If race is of paramount importance in how one views the justice system, then the composition of the jury will certainly affect the outcome. During a trial's jury selection process, both the prosecution and defense in a trial have access to jury consultants. These consultants give advice about how sympathetic (or not) specific individuals from the jury pool will be towards the defendant. Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor for the district attorney's office in the O. J. Simpson case, has stated that their office used the services of DecisionQuest, a jury consulting firm. Clark (1997) also stated that the defense hired its own jury consultant, Jo-Ellan Dimitrius.

Some jury consultants have the lawyers present their arguments before a mock jury. Clark found that black females seemed to be more sympathetic to O. J. Simpson. Clark reasoned that it was not so much a matter of race, but it was race together with Simpson's celebrity status that resulted in certain sympathies towards him. Other factors were also considered by both the prosecution and defense in jury selection. Clark stated that more educated individuals with steady jobs would be excused from jury service when questions of hardship arose. Other potential jurors could be excused by the prosecution and defense through the use of peremptory challenges. These allowed the lawyers to excuse anyone from being a juror for any reason, including race. Clark stated that the prosecution received twenty peremptory challenges. Both the prosecution and defense could also try to get certain jurors excused on the basis of just cause. In that situation, there must have been a reason why the juror was excused, although race was not to have been considered.

Clark further believed that the defense did everything possible to eliminate those potential jurors who were not black and who were educated. After all was said and done, the jury consisted of six black females, two black males, two Hispanics, one half-Native-American male, and one white female (and twelve alternates). …