Guilty? Innocent? A Racial Divide The O.j. Simpson Trial.

Posted: October 01, 1995

A month before Christopher Darden delivered his somber, emotive closing argument in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, the young prosecutor met privately with ministers at First A.M.E. Church of Los Angeles and told them that he often feels alone, isolated by other African Americans who view his efforts to win a conviction of the Hall of Famer as a betrayal.

Pastors at the influential church reassured Darden that regardless of the trial's outcome, they were proud of their congregation's most visible member.

But last week, during a summation that included powerful evocations of the gruesome murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and the alleged guilt of the former running back, Darden seemed to hint at unabated personal pressures when he told jurors: "I would rather be somewhere else."

If the torturous racial dynamics of the Simpson trial have made Darden a man in the middle, they have also underscored the deep chasm separating blacks and whites and their divergent visions of American justice.

The majority of white observers insist that DNA evidence linking Simpson to the crime scene, blood in the white Bronco, and Simpson's history of abusing ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson erase any reasonable doubt of guilt.

Most African Americans counter that the lack of a weapon or eyewitness, possible flaws in prosecutors' timeline, and former Detective Mark Fuhrman's taped boast that he and others had beaten, intimidated and framed black people leave plenty of room for doubt.

In survey after survey since the start of the trial nine months ago, a majority of African Americans have consistently held that Simpson is innocent, while most whites have maintained that he's guilty.

In a Gallup poll conducted in the days immediately leading up to the start of the trial in January, 61 percent of blacks surveyed said the charges against Simpson were not true. By comparison, 76 percent of whites said the charges were true. After months of testimony, whites and blacks apparently remain convinced that their initial impulses were on target. A poll released Thursday by ABC News found that 77 percent of whites think Simpson is guilty, while 72 percent of blacks think he's innocent.

And nothing - not DNA evidence or frame-up theories, glove shrinkage or barking Akitas, domestic abuse or the lies of a racist cop - has altered the wide disparity between how whites and blacks view Simpson's chances for a fair trial.

A poll by Peter Hart & Associates, commissioned Sept. 16 by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, found that only 17 percent of blacks thought the Simpson trial was fair. Forty-two percent of whites responded that the trial was fair.

From start to finish, the trial has pushed enough racial hot buttons to start a bonfire, from the interracial marriage of Simpson and his blond ex- wife, to lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran's comparison of Fuhrman to Hitler.

The comparison sparked an outraged response Thursday when Goldman's father, Fred Goldman, denounced Cochran's statement, calling the attorney ''the worst kind of human being imaginable" and verbally lashing him for comparing "racism of the worst kind in this world to what's going on in this case." Simpson's family - without naming Goldman - fired back, saying it was ''shocking" that Cochran's summation could not be completed without rocking "somebody's world."

So even as the case goes to the jury and the evidentiary tit-for-tat of defense and prosecution becomes the basis for the closed-door deliberations that could free or convict the sports legend, the nation remains a hung jury.

"People have a tendency to see their view as the objective truth," said Peter Arenella, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. ''But all of our experiences are different. And since black people and white people have different experiences of the police, the courts, they will view this case differently. It's unavoidable."

Unlike the mostly female jury of nine blacks, two whites and one Hispanic, which Judge Lance Ito has charged to review the case based solely on facts and evidence, blacks and whites outside the courtroom aren't obliged to be objective or fair in their assessment of the trial.

Different perspectives certainly seemed to be the case for a multiracial group of workers digging plumbing trenches on a North Philadelphia street last week.

Standing ankle deep in muddy water, his muscles flexing with each turn of a spade, Charlie Cey, a 34-year-old white man from Manayunk, said that Simpson is guilty and that African Americans have failed to see the case in its totality.

"They think Fuhrman set it up," said Cey of the disgraced officer, centerpiece of a defense theory that Simpson was framed and a prosecution witness discredited after tapes revealed him to be a racist liar.

"I don't think so," Cey said. "There would have been too many people involved. Even if the guy is a racist, I can't believe he could have pulled it off."

Cey's black coworker, Charles Wilson, 37, had no trouble believing.

Wilson, who lives in Philadelphia's Feltonville section, believes police routinely abuse the rights of African Americans and said black men accused of a capital crime involving white victims can't get a fair shake.

"O.J. supposedly killed a white woman and a white man," Wilson said. ''You think white people aren't going to try and get him?"

Blacks and whites can't even seem to agree on the role that race plays in their personal views of the trial.

At the West Texas public television station where Marilyn Smith is the lone black employee, everyone talks about the O.J. case . . . but not to her.

Smith, 29, says she and her coworkers avoid talking to each other about the trial because they disagree, not only about Simpson's guilt, but about the influence of racism on the trial.

"Everyone says it isn't a black-and-white thing, but I don't believe that's true," said Smith, a video technician. "I think black people are for black people and white people are for white people, and that's true with the O.J. trial. It's always been a matter of race separation."

Racial injustice is real, but that doesn't mean Simpson is innocent, said Tracy Lee Taylor, one of Smith's coworkers.

"I think a lot of blacks have had bad experiences with the establishment, the police, and hearing the unfortunate comments of Mark Fuhrman, say: 'I've been in that position, too,' " said Taylor. "But I would hope that we can forget about race and weigh the case on its own merits."

Not likely, says the chairman of Temple University's African American studies department.

Not only do blacks and whites view the trial through different experiential prisms, but the differences are so dramatic and so consistent that for many African Americans, Simpson's guilt or innocence is secondary to simply assuring that he gets a fair trial, said Molefi Kete Asante.

"If you don't have a fingerprint, then you have to go with the DNA people, and that's a problem because African Americans know a police lab can frame O.J. Simpson or any black person," Asante said. "White people haven't had the same experience, but almost every black American family has been touched by the police in some negative way. I don't know if O.J. Simpson is guilty or not. I do know that it's possible to be framed."

Such talk infuriates whites like Randy Brown, 42, a computer database manager from Fort Worth. The only color that has really mattered in the grid star's trial, said Brown, is the color of Simpson's money.

"If it had been anyone else, the police would have shot him in the Bronco when he ran," said Brown. "Look at (convicted child killer) Susan Smith. She has already been tried, convicted and sentenced."

Asante suggested that the veiled antagonisms and unspoken resentments that often characterize race relations provide plenty of subtext for white resentment against Simpson.

The physical prowess that fills white people with admiration when it's paraded for their pleasure on the gridiron becomes unnerving and fear-invoking when it's encountered on a closed elevator or a dark street corner, Asante said.

The old-boy egalitarianism extended to a sports hero erodes when the athlete's romantic longings are directed at a white woman, Asante said.

The pride and dignity that serve the leader of a team become worrisome and distracting when they repudiate the desires of the majority.

And the wealth showered on a favored gladiator is viewed as dirty and undeserved when it buys the services of high-powered attorneys.

"I had someone say to me: 'Look, he was one of theirs. He belonged to them. And look at what they do to him,' " said Asante. " 'If they'd do it to an O.J. Simpson, wouldn't they do it to anyone?' "

Even whites who don't believe Simpson is guilty wince at the idea that no African American can get justice.

On the sidewalk outside the small Kensington factory where she works assembling briefcases, Kathy Staley said she deeply resented being lumped with the majority of whites who think Simpson committed the double murder on June 12, 1994.

"I'm white and I don't think he's guilty, but I also don't think race has anything to do with the trial," said Staley, 44.

Simpson isn't the only person on trial in that Los Angeles courtroom.

The associate pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles said Christopher Darden has faced a gauntlet of criticism from blacks who view him as a Judas who sold out an African American hero for the career equivalent of 30 pieces of silver - criticism the minister says is unfair and unwarranted.

"I think he's an unsung hero," the Rev. Leonard B. Jackson said of Darden. "When you talk to him, you have to listen between the lines to hear how he validates his cause. He's very dedicated. But you know the pain is there. You know he realizes that he's standing, sometimes alone."

A day before he railed against Cochran, Fred Goldman had embraced Darden following the prosecutor's summation.

It's unlikely that there will be any hugs in the jury room.

Most people don't leave their racial imperatives behind when they go to work, and Arenella, of UCLA, says it's unlikely that Simpson jurors will do so when they begin deliberations.

"I don't think they will, and I don't think they should," said Arenella. ''What's the point of having a diverse jury pool if everyone brings the same experiences to the process?"

Arenella doesn't believe that black jurors will invariably support Simpson or that white jurors will invariably find him guilty.

"The jury, hopefully, will see through the false dichotomy between the two obvious options: He's not guilty or the police framed him. There is a third option," Arenella said. "He's guilty and the police framed him. I don't think many people have talked about that. The middle road requires a more complicated set of assumptions. The grays are harder to accept than the blacks and whites."

comments powered by Disqus