Thursday, November 27, 2008

More Than a Sentence for O.J. Simpson

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The instant O.J. Simpson was found guilty of robbery, kidnapping and weapons charges in a Las Vegas court, a lusty on line debate ensued between legal experts and bloggers over whether the judge would or should throw the book at Simpson at his sentencing on December 5. The debate was tinged with more personal feeling, rage, and loathing about and toward Simpson than about the court’s legal options. Judges, of course, can slap sentence enhancements on a convicted felon based on their prior record, and in some cases their bad behavior. But Simpson has not been convicted of any crimes prior to his Las Vegas conviction. His behavior may have been boorish and repellant but that’s hardly legal grounds for doubling down on his sentence. Nevada legal experts say that the judge could hit Simpson with a maximum sentence of twenty-five to thirty years. If so, he would be eligible for parole in 8 years.
The sentence will satisfy the court of law. It won’t totally satisfy many in the court of public opinion. The reason is simple. Simpson’s acquittal on double murder charges thirteen years ago still sticks in the craw of much of America. The bloggers and legal pundits who furiously debated Simpson’s pending sentence needle was stuck hard on that point. They reflect the feeling of millions more. If Simpson served every day of a lengthy sentence with even the faint possibility of walking free that will not be good enough for many.

From the day that he beat the double murder rap and walked out of a Los Angeles court, he has gone wherever he pleased and done what he pleased. He's been trailed by a pack of doting former fans, and celebrity gawkers. There was no hint that police in any of these cities ever routinely subjected him to a special get Simpson profile. Yet, Simpson's ill gained notoriety and perverse celebrity virtually guaranteed that the legal hammer would drop especially hard on him at the first whiff of criminal wrongdoing. There was no chance that given the savage public mood toward him and with the one person truth squad of Fred Goldman continually wagging the guilt finger at him that Simpson would get the benefit of the doubt on any future charges against him. He, of all people, should’ve known that.
A poll taken after Simpson’s Las Vegas bust found that a majority of the public still seethed that he was a murderer who skipped away scot-free, and that his trial and acquittal was a blatant travesty of justice. Even many of Simpson’s one time black supporters who passionately screamed that he was the victim of a biased criminal justice system in the L.A. murder trial cut and run after the Las Vegas verdict. There was not even a bare peep from them that the conviction had any racial taint to it. Simpson and his attorney’s complaint that prosecutors massaged and twisted jury selection to insure a non-black jury drew barely a yawn in press and legal circles.
Simpson didn't invent or originate the oftimes 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 who branded the legal system corrupt and compromised also fueled public belief that justice is for sale. Simpson's 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 who routinely mangle the legal system to stall, delay, and drag out their cases, and eventually allow their well-heeled clients to weasel out of punishment.
Even when prosecutors manage to win convictions of or guilty pleas from celebrities, their money, fame, power, and legal twisting often guarantee that they will get a hand slap jail sentence, if that. The hung jury after months of legal finagling and manuevering in the Los Angeles murder trial of one time record kingmaker Phil Spector drew the same public tongue wagging about how a washed up celebrity with a few bucks can play the system.
Whether Las Vegas prosecutors did indeed as Simpson claimed grossly overcharge him, it didn’t stop the chatter that a killer was finally getting at least some of his due. Few others rushed to his defense and blamed the steep charges on a vindictive and unforgiving criminal justice system. In any case, Simpson did his best to try to convince a hostile and doubting public and jury that he was a victim. It worked once, but not a second time. With Simpson it was always more than just a mundane criminal case, and so is his sentence.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).