MAXWELL:  What wasn’t won in O.J.’s trial

2/11/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


O. J. Simpson will not go away. After all of these months, he is showing up for interviews and is calling in and interrupting television talk shows. He is a desperate man, a pariah who needs work. Most of all, though, he wants to tell his story _ on his own terms.

But O. J. has a problem as he tries to reinvent himself: Most people, especially whites, are not listening. They want some real answers to the lingering questions those “not guilty” verdicts raised. And they want some closure to the enduring specter of racism that the trial reawakened.

When the O. J. verdicts were read, I was in my boss’ office, along with the paper’s associate editor. Both men are white. We heard the words “not guilty” and stared at one another, stunned. The newsroom, filled mostly with transfixed white writers, let out a collective groan.

Some of the whites I know stared into my eyes briefly and looked away. In their faces, I saw more than incredulity. I saw the pain of betrayal. In the faces of a few blacks, I saw restrained satisfaction, perhaps the release of welled-up vengeance. After all, our newsroom is a microcosm of larger society. The whole experience _ especially the cheering Howard University students on television _ sickened me.

I left the building and went for a walk. Outside, I passed black and white people. I sensed that blacks stood on one side of the racial abyss and whites on the other. I looked in the eyes of an older white man and realized that we are strangers.

If I had been on the O. J. jury, I thought at the time, how would I have voted? Would I have voted to acquit? Not because I believe that O. J. is innocent but because of Judge Lance Ito’s constraints and instructions and real evidence? Would I have voted based on real evidence or based on lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran’s tricks?

I never believed that white racism per se should have been made the driving force in the trial. The charge of white racism was a cynically successful hoax invented by Cochran. Blacks instinctively and overwhelmingly fell for the hoax.

When I began to pay attention to the O. J. affair, I was in Gainesville watching TV in the waiting room at my mechanic’s. A Los Angeles police officer, apparently having been told that the department had acted too quickly to arrest O. J., removed the handcuffs from the football great. I watched the screen in amazement as O. J. rubbed his wrists and walked away from the scene.

My mechanic, a white man, said: “Bill, that’s what money and fame can do for you. Common people like us would be thrown in jail, and the bail would be so high we would be locked up forever.”

I agreed. Sure, I had learned a few days before that O. J.’s wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, was white. But race did not occur to me in any serious way, especially as a consideration of O. J.’s guilt or innocence.

When attorney Robert Shapiro was the lone defense spokesman, race was not an issue. With Cochran’s appearance, however, race soon framed everything. No longer was the case about murder. Time and again, Fred Goldman reminded the court and the nation that O. J. was on trial for murdering his son and Nicole, that the smothering presence of race was the result of Cochran’s legal shamanism.

And those black jurors who deliberated? I believe that their verdicts, despite Ito’s guidance, were pay-back for more than 300 years of real and perceived racial injustice. They and Cochran were joined at the hip in the desire to free O. J. They shared a common language, the same biblical allusions, the same emotion, the same ancestral voices.

Many black opinion leaders are defending the black jurors who claim that race did not influence their decisions. These leaders are lying both to themselves and to their followers. As O. J.’s ubiquity attracts more voyeurs on both sides, the effects of the race conflicts that his trial unleashed continue to do harm, further dividing the races. Now, young children are being affected.

Because they see the verdicts as a miscarriage of justice, whites cannot forgive. And they damned sure will not forget. Ironically, many blacks, who initially cheered O. J.’s acquittal, now are having second thoughts about a “brother” who is trying to resume the role of being an honorary white man. The false premises of their stance, however, have pushed these people into a corner, and they are forced to defend both themselves and a bad cause.

Yes, O. J. beat the criminal case. But he and his attorneys, by playing the race card, may have destroyed for many years to come any chance of blacks and whites coming together _ or even discussing race in a civil manner.

For me, the most disturbing aspect of race in the O. J. trial is that many blacks, because of generations of injustice and suffering, can justify crimes such as those of O. J. Granted, all-white juries, for generations, freed and winked at white men who lynched and shot black men. Naturally, such atrocities have created in blacks a desire for revenge.

But where does it all end? Vengeance makes losers of everyone. Who won in the O. J. trial? Did he? Did the nation? Did race relations?