Tuesday, September 16, 2008
No Race Card This Time for O.J.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
O.J. Simpson and his attorney loudly complained that the jury in his Las Vegas robbery trial has no blacks on it. But there was never much doubt that it would. That’s the kind of jury that most minority defendants get in Clark County courts. He’s fortunate though that he did get two black juror alternates. Only 5% of the potential jurors among the 500 in the Simpson juror panel were blacks. African Americans make up about 10 percent of Clark County's population.
But even if blacks were on his jury, it wouldn’t much change the fact that this time around there is no race card to play. In the first trial, black and white tongues endlessly wagged and fingers furiously pointed about whether Simpson was a victim of racial persecution in his double murder trial. Polls taken immediately after Las Vegas prosecutors hit Simpson with multi charges showed that the racial divide was a marginal issue.
Oh, there were still more than a few African-Americans who complained that an African-American can’t get a fair trial in any court in America. They even said that was the case with Simpson in Las Vegas. However, there is no hint that blacks are willing to expend an ounce of emotional capital railing that Simpson is a victim of a racist system. Virtually none of the prospective jurors, blacks and whites, uttered anything about race during the jury selection process.
Too much has changed in the decade since the ill-fated trial of the century for that to happen. At the center of that change is Simpson himself; or rather his antics. He hasn’t exactly been the picture of the humble, empathetic, fade into the woodwork former sports icon, and much vilified double murder suspect. Simpson has had multiple encounters with the police and courts, been sued, and has appeared to take every opportunity he could to thumb his nose at the civil court that found him liable for the death of Ron Goldman and his ex-wife and slapped him with a multi-million dollar judgment.
This hardly does much to win Simpson friends let alone convince anyone that he was indeed the victim of a malicious, racist prosecution. Then there are the Las Vegas charges.
There's absolutely no evidence that Simpson was framed or that Las Vegas police licked their chops at the thought of getting him back in a legal noose. He was at the hotel, the goods were taken, and a robbery complaint was filed. There is no evidence that police in any of the cities that Simpson traveled to peddling sports cards and memorabilia routinely subjected him to a special get-Simpson profile. The best or worst that can be said is that Las Vegas prosecutors have taken great pains not too give any hint that they are giving him any special treatment because of his celebrity status. If anything they may be piling the extra heavy felony charges on him precisely not to give the impression of celebrity favoritism.
But then again Simpson of all people should have known that any allegation of his involvement in a crime he'd get the fast collar. That still has everything to do with his murder trial acquittal. Polls still show that a majority of the public think that he is a murderer who skipped away scot-free, and that the trial and his acquittal were a farce and a blatant travesty of justice.
Simpson didn't invent or originate this sometimes ugly divide in public opinion about celebrity guilt. It has always lurked just beneath the surface. But his case propelled it to the front of public debate and anger. The horde of Simpson media commentators, legal experts and politicians that branded the legal system corrupt fueled public belief that justice is for sale. His acquittal seemed to confirm that the rich, famous and powerful have the deep pockets to hire a small army of high-priced, high-profile attorneys, expert witnesses, experts and investigators that routinely mangle the legal system to stall, delay, drag out their cases and eventually allow their well-heeled clients to weasel out of punishment. Even when prosecutors manage to win convictions against celebrities such as Paris Hilton or Lindsey Lohan, their money, fame, power and legal twisting often guarantee that they will get a hand slap jail sentence, if that.
Whether the police did rush to judgment as Simpson claims -- and there's some wiggle room to debate the magnitude of the charges -- the chatter from most is that a killer is finally getting at least some of his due. Others will say that even Simpson can be a victim of a vindictive and unforgiving criminal justice system. The truth as always may lie somewhere between the two views.
But one thing is certain; race isn’t on the table of public opinion this time around. That’s not a bad thing.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote Beyond O.J.: Race, Sex and Class Lessons for America. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).