Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Simpson Case Is a Compelling Civics Lesson

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Simpson Case Is a Compelling Civics Lesson

Article excerpt

Some years ago, I stood behind a teacher with a gaggle of students who had approached a court officer at the Criminal Courts Building in lower Manhattan to ask how she could arrange to observe a trial. The officer told her what he later said many people failed to understand: Anyone can watch.

It's that simple: The public usually has a right to be present at the process by which we find our fellows guilty or not of some infraction of law. Today, as the O.J. Simpson case has made clearer than ever before, we even have the right to watch from the comfort of our living rooms.

Despite an orgy of hand-wringing about pretrial publicity, nothing in this case, no nonexistent ski mask, no car chase, not even the damning and surely inadmissible 911 tape of Nicole Simpson begging for help as her enraged ex bellows in the background, has been as compelling as the preliminary hearing and the public scrutiny it inspired.

Those who watched the proceedings, televised in their entirety day after day, listened to a slow accretion of circumstantial evidence: the sales clerk who sold a knife, the limo driver who got no answer at the house, the police officer who found blood on the driveway.

Some viewers found the argument of police that they had scaled the wall of the defendant's property because of their fear of an emergency compelling; others thought it was a flimsy excuse to circumvent a search warrant.

Ordinary people argued about the testimony, just as someday jurors may do the same. They learned about the Fourth Amendment and the tedium of trial procedure. "It was a tremendous civics lesson," said Jeanine Pirro, the Westchester County, N.Y., district attorney.

It's important not to forget that it was the defense, in what was clearly a monumental miscalculation, who solicited this wholesale exposure.

The hypothesis was that the preliminary hearing would force the prosecution to show its hand; the reality is that much damaging evidence became public knowledge to millions of viewers.

But the notion that all this forecloses Simpson's ability to get a fair trial is a simplistic reaction to a complex process.

Countless small towns have seen trials in which evidence, gossip and innuendo were bruited about across every back fence. …

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