OJ trials and errors

Our man in Washington
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Like many Britons, I find Santa Monica in California peculiarly attractive - and for some inexplicable reason keep returning to its run- down seafront, its pier, its spectacular Pacific beach. But poor old Santa Monica has become a zoo - with OJ Simpson on trial again, this time in a civil action for damages by relatives of his alleged victims.

Even if Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki proves half as tough and disciplined as the weak and vain Lance Ito - (both chosen, of course, because they are neither black nor white) - the defence says there will not only be 2,000 pieces of evidence and 250 witnesses but that the proceedings will last well into 1997. And, of course, being a civil rather than a criminal trial, a) OJ himself will be forced to take the stand (probably for at least two weeks) and b) only a "preponderance" of guilt against him is required to find him liable to pay out millions to the relatives.

The cast of lawyers, at least, will be different this time. Like most who actually watched the trial, I can say with utter certainty: had I been on the jury, I, too, would have voted for acquittal. The case against Simpson was weak and confused, whatever the press cuttings and sound-bites may have led people to believe. Juries, of course, are always instructed to decree guilt or innocence solely on the evidence that has been put before them, not on some vague notion on whether the person before them is guilty or innocent. Simpson may well have been as guilty as hell, but Ms Marcia Clark (the lead prosecutor) and her colleagues distinctly failed to prove it, whatever impression the media may have given. (The British media, for some reason, seemed even worse in its sensationalistic racist reporting than its American counterparts - but that's another story.)

We now know more about Ms Clark, 42, than we did at the time of the trial. Besides fighting for custody for her two children by her second husband shortly before the trial, she had arbitrarily cut off communication with her parents; even when word was left that her mother was going into hospital for a serious operation, she simply ignored the news - and her ailing mother. Ms Clark herself suffered from bulimia. Though supposedly motivated solely by a desire to see evil men put behind bars, she has now signed a contract for a book worth no less than $4.2 million. She now receives a cool $20,000 per speech to talk about how unjust the world is, particularly to women.

Her opposite number for the defence, Johnnie Cochran, 57, commands an even cooler $35,000 per speech and is being paid much the same for his book. He has recently taken on the monumental case for relatives of those killed in the Oklahoma bombing - where damages could end up as much as $1 billion. Robert Shapiro, the lead defender who was ignominiously pushed out of the way by Cochran (and, during the trial, had a nasty and still- unresolved row with the legendary F Lee Bailey), received $1.5 million for his book - while Chris Darden, Clark's black prosecutorial colleague, received S1.3m. The moral for all lawyers: get yourself on a really high- profile case, then write a book about it.

The symbolic tragedy for America is how perceptions of this case divides down racial lines. Blacks, still beaten down by their history of slavery - four out of 10 black American men between 20 and 30 are convicted criminals - instinctively take the side against the police; and, of course, as the psychotic, fascistic ramblings of Detective Mark Fuhrman showed (he, too, will be forced to give evidence in Santa Monica, being unable to claim the Fifth Amendment in civil proceedings), blacks are often right in their belief that police both look on them and treat them like animals. Middle- class whites, whose sole contact with the police has been when their car has broken down, support the cops - and the divide perpetuates itself and fails to heal.

With one cast of lawyers laughing all the way to the bank, an entirely new group move in. For various reasons, they are far less likely to obtain such star status. Robert Baker and his son Phil are leading the defence for Simpson, with Baker Sr a man who rarely hides his disdain and disgust over something unfair. The main lawyer for the other side is one Daniel Petrocelli, who will probably be the lawyer chosen for the crucial task of questioning Simpson. Much of the ground covered will be the same as in the infamous trial last year, except that there will be fewer legal restrictions and, therefore, more opportunity to explore hitherto-banned areas.

There is one overwhelming reason why Baker Sr, Baker Jr and Petrocelli are unlikely to emerge during 1997 with multi-million book contracts. Ito was a star-struck egomaniac whose idea of important people to have to his chambers were guests such as TV's Barbara Walters and Larry King. There will be no such nonsense from Fujisaki, who has already - wait for it - banned television cameras from the court. Dear old Santa Monica will still be flooded with hacks trying to cover every word said by Simpson et al, the hotels will be full - but with any luck we shall avoid the kind of circus led by Ms Clark, and Messrs Darden, Cochran, Shapiro, and Ito. And who in their right mind can complain about that?

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