OJ saga puts American justice in dock

The trial gripping the nation has left the legal system defenceless, writes John Carlin in Washington

"DO THEY take us all for morons?" was the question of the week at the OJ Simpson trial. "They" were Mr Simpson's celebrity lawyers, the Dream Team. The "morons" were the American public or, at any rate, the vast percentage thereof who will remember 1995 as the year not of Oklahoma, not of Newt Gingrich, but of OJ Simpson.

The man who asked the question was Fred Goldman, father of the largely forgotten second victim Mr Simpson is accused of murdering. The other is Nicole Brown, his wife.

Until last Wednesday, Mr Goldman Sr and his family had sat through the courtroom proceedings in silent, dignified anguish. Then the penny dropped. The trial had ceased to be about the guilt or innocence of one man. The defence had widened the scope of inquiry to such a degree that suddenly the entire US legal system was in the dock.

Events in the Los Angeles County Court last week concerning not Mr Simpson, but police detective Mark Fuhrman, have shaken Middle America out of its complacency, forcing reassessment of the truth hitherto held to be self- evident that all are equal before the law.

Detective Fuhrman, who testified four months ago, was one of the prosecution's star witnesses. It was he who found the bloody glove on Mr Simpson's property that matched one found at the scene of the killings. During cross-examination, the defence sought to portray him as a racist who might have planted the most incriminating piece of evidence the trial has yielded.

Mr Fuhrman did a convincing job of rebutting the allegations, but then last week, with the jurors out of the courtroom, the defence revealed a collection of taped interviews in which Mr Fuhrman used the word "nigger" 30 times. He is also said to have admitted to framing and "torturing" suspects. Less important on the surface, but a bombshell to proceedings, was the revelation that the detective had also spoken abusively on tape about police captain Margaret York, who happens to be the wife of the judge in the case, Lance Ito.

The issue became whether the tapes should be admitted as evidence. Panicky prosecutors sought to argue that the question of Mr Fuhrman's character was immaterial to the case. Judge Ito declared that his love for his wife was such that for him to rule on this matter would be inappropriate. So he passed on the decision to another judge, who is yet to convey his findings. Marcia Clark, the chief prosecution lawyer, caused a sensation when she flirted in court with the idea of seeking Judge Ito's recusal from the trial, but later, rather meekly, she changed her mind.

Amid all this, Fred Goldman summoned a press conference outside the courtroom and, trembling with rage, asked: "Do they take us all for morons? Ron and Nicole were butchered by their client! This is not the Fuhrman trial! This is a trial about the man who murdered my son!"

Mr Goldman is right, of course, but he is also wrong. For the OJ trial has become Americans' defining cultural experience of 1995. The audiences of the TV networks' daytime soap operas have nose-dived since January. Meanwhile CNN, which has carried the trial live daily, has seen ratings increase seven-fold.

Never mind politics, or even baseball. The one subject of conversation you can raise with a stranger in America and get an informed and lively response is the OJ trial. A poll in April showed Judge Ito was twice as famous as Newt Gingrich. Ms Clark and Chris Darden - the prosecutors - and defence team Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran are names as well- known in US homes as Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone.

The single undoubted benefit of all this is that millions of Americans have been transformed from couch potatoes into learned legal critics. After nearly eight months of intense scrutiny, during which 10 books have been published on the Simpson drama, the callers who flood the airwaves are no longer debating whether OJ did it or not. To the immense distress of Fred Goldman, who has only one thought on his mind, it is occurring to some white callers, for example, that black Americans' historic distrust of the police might have been warranted all along. Others are wondering whether the jury system is all that it is cracked up to be, vulnerable as ordinary citizens untutored in the law are to the calculated histrionics and crafty insinuations of the best defence lawyers money can buy.

Mr Darden, echoing Mr Goldman's disgust, lamented in court last week that, in pursuit of a "reasonable doubt" verdict, from the jury, the strategy of the defence had been to reduce the trial to a circus.

The battalions of lawyers who have been summoned by the TV networks to provide expert play-by-play commentaries on the trial have been embarrassed, but also alarmed, at the thought that when it is all over the public will clamour for the legal system to be reformed. Not least because, as caller after caller to CNN said last week, the most troubling issue raised by the trial concerns not race but class - the simple but largely ignored truth, laid bare for all to see, that in America there is one law for the rich and one for the poor.

It is estimated that Mr Simpson, the former American football star and Hertz television spokesman, will spend $5m (pounds 3.2m) on his defence. The average Joe accused of murder is poor, uneducated, and depending for his life, in many cases, on whether he has the good fortune to find an able public defender.

The question that has not yet entered American public consciousness, seemingly, concerns the death penalty. If the legal system is so manifestly flawed, how can it be entrusted with a decision as absolute as taking a life?

Mr Simpson's lawyers have already seen to it that if he is found guilty he will not join 3,000 inmates on Death Row. If he is found not guilty - as most legal observers are betting - Fred Goldman may have cause to consider, once his outrage abates, that Mr Simpson always had the odds stacked his way because he realised the American Dream.

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