Whites' idol becomes black hero

The issues: Questions remain at close of a trial in which American justice was put in the dock


If every person who stood trial in the US had OJ Simpson's money, America's jails would not be as packed as they are. Mr Simpson spent more than $8m (pounds 5m) on his defence, securing the services of a "dream team" of lawyers and investigators who succeeded in sowing sufficient reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors to win him a unanimous, and surprisingly swift, not guilty verdict.

Fully half of the population, three-quarters of them white, delivered a verdict of guilty, according to the polls. And this, in millions of cases, on the strength of having watched the proceedings on television as closely as the jurors themselves. The evidence compiled by the prosecution, notably samples of Mr Simpson's blood and hairs found at the murder scene and a bloody glove found at his home, would have convicted many an ordinary criminal depending for his life on the services of a regular public defender. This is not least because Mr Simpson, who did not take the witness stand, failed to provide an alibi. It is still not known, after a trial that lasted nine months, what Mr Simpson was doing at the time of the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

The only conclusion the jury could have reached was that the police investigators in the case, motivated by racial hatred, had planted the evidence. Or, at any rate, that sufficient suspicion existed to believe they might have done so as to render impossible a verdict of guilt without reasonable doubt.

It was due to the dogged resourcefulness of the private investigators recruited by Mr Simpson's defence team that evidence came before the court revealing that Detective Mark Fuhrman had lied to the court when he testified that he had not used the word "nigger" in the previous 10 years. It was due to the skill of Johnnie Cochran, who led Mr Simpson's defence, that three-quarters of the way through the trial the man in the dock became, effectively, not Mr Simpson, but Mr Fuhrman, who on the night of the murders found a blood-spattered glove on Mr Simpson's property.

From the word go Mr Cochran presented the trial as a race drama. "Do the right thing," he urged the jurors, nine of whom were black, during his concluding arguments last week. Explicitly, he told them that a victory for the prosecution would be a victory for the Los Angeles police department and, by extension, a defeat for the black civil rights movement.

Chris Darden, the black prosecution lawyer, pleaded with the jurors to see through Mr Cochran's "smoke" and concentrate on the facts of the case. American racism was not on trial here. Mr Simpson was.

The jurors listened to Mr Cochran, exposing at least two of the major ironies the trial yielded. First, before the trial, Mr Simpson was viewed by many black Americans as black in appearance only. He was what is known dismissively in the ghettos as an "Oreo", the name of a popular biscuit that is chocolate on the outside and white inside. He lived in a big estate in a white neighbourhood; he drove a Bentley; he played golf with white big shots; he exchanged a black wife for a white one; he was an all-American sports hero who reassured whites' wishful notions that racism in America was dead, that there was nothing of substance for blacks to whine about.

Mr Cochran's magic was to transform "OJ", the creation of establishment media hype, back into Orenthal James, his mother's son.

The second irony that still has to be played out concerns Mr Fuhrman, who may end up in jail for perjury, while the man he tried to jail goes free. The one thing both men may have in common is that, whatever happens, their reputations among vast sectors of the American population have been destroyed.

But the biggest loser of all is likely to be America's criminal justice system. Right or wrong, Middle America's complacent belief in the constitutional notion of equality before the law - for rich and poor, famous or unknown - has been shot to pieces. The lesson of the OJ Simpson trial that many millions of Americans will absorb is that as with politics, so with the law: money talks.