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.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?