America and the Simpson Trial

By Williams, Patricia J. | The Nation, March 13, 1995 | Go to article overview

America and the Simpson Trial


Williams, Patricia J., The Nation


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 Shepherd in the 1950s-has 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 gr-eat 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 selfcongratulation 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. …

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