Out of America: Unless O J stares death in the face, the US never will

WASHINGTON - Let me confess at once. Like every other person living in this country within range of a television set, I am hooked on the O J Simpson story. Like them, I have very firm views.

First, the prosecution should seek the death penalty at the forthcoming trial. Second, if Mr Simpson is found guilty of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, it should be imposed. Third, the former football superstar should join the hundreds of individuals (383 as of yesterday) already on California's death row, to await his fate.

Do not misunderstand me. I am an unwavering opponent of capital punishment. My wish stems simply from the opportunity offered by this most extraordinary of cases to force America to confront the reality of state-administered death. And there's barely a chance it will be granted.

Every 10 days on average, a person is executed in the US. With very few exceptions, the pattern is the same. A day or two beforehand, the impending execution makes the national press - usually because of last-ditch appeals to the courts, occasionally thanks to some other newsworthy aspect: because the convict is to be hanged rather than lethally injected or gassed, say, or a television station has filed a First Amendment request to televise the event. The next day there are reports of the execution, in some detail if the notoriety of the criminal or a botched procedure so warrant. And that's it, until the next week and the next case.

After living here a while, I drew the obvious conclusion that America's fondness for capital punishment reflected a mixture of primal Biblical values and the traditions of the old West. But the O J Simpson spectacular casts a different light on things. The death penalty only works because those to whom it is meted out are first dehumanised, presented either as monsters (for example, the serial- killer, John Gacy, whom Illinois lethally injected a couple of months ago), or as individuals whose only defining feature is their crime. Tell us about the precise mechanics of the gas chamber by all means, public opinion demands, but please, nothing about the human beings who will die there.

But with O J, no way. As a black man accused of killing whites, he may belong to the population group most likely to be charged with capital murder (of the 240- odd executions in the US since 1976, only one has been of a white man for killing a black). Hear the prosecution tell it, and the crime certainly sounds like first-degree or premeditated murder, qualifying for the death penalty. Interestingly though, race has thus far had precious little impact on the case. O J's trump card is his celebrity. He cannot be dehumanised. We know far too much about him, good and bad. For many he was an idol, and even flawed idols do not end up in the gas chamber at St Quentin prison.

Equally pertinently, nor do the rich. One of the strongest objections to the death penalty is the unfair and random fashion in which it is employed, and the Simpson case provides a perfect illustration. Capital punishment is a lottery. A dozen US states do not have it. In those which do, no satisfactory guidelines have yet been devised to decide which types of murder are heinous enough to merit it: why one killer should be executed and another receive life imprisonment. Money, however, does decide.

Clinton Duffy, a former warden of San Quentin who watched more than 150 executions, observed a quarter-century ago that capital punishment was 'a privilege of the poor'. Today, that dictum holds truer than ever. How many penniless people, blacks especially and in the South, have been doomed by having to rely on incompetent defence attorneys appointed by the state and paid a mere pittance? Not so Mr Simpson, who can afford the finest lawyers in the land. The pounds 260-an- hour skills of attorneys like Robert Shapiro and F Lee Bailey may not have stopped him being committed for trial. But at the crunch they will leave no stone unturned, even if their client's reputed dollars 10m ( pounds 6.5m) fortune is drained dry in the process. Add the difficulty of finding a Los Angeles jury which does not include at least one irredeemable O J fan, and it's easy to see why the District Attorney may conclude that his best means of securing a conviction is not to ask for the death penalty.

Almost certainly therefore, my wish will not be granted. Quite possibly the Simpson defence will negotiate a plea bargain, meaning there will not even be a trial. The death penalty has never been more popular. Congress is about to pass a crime bill expanding the federal death penalty to scores of new offences. For 12 straight years Governor Mario Cuomo of New York has vetoed legislation reintroducing capital punishment, but no longer. Faced with a tricky re-election battle this autumn, he has now announced he will put the matter to a referendum. In the Empire State too, it seems, the tumbrils will be rolling once again. Just as long as they don't know whom they're executing.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Sport
Luke Shaw’s performance in the derby will be key to how his Manchester United side get on
footballIt's not a game to lose, writes Paul Scholes
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music
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

Teaching Assistant for Year 4

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: A Teaching Assistant is requ...

Nursery Teacher in Sherwood

£100 - £145 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Teaching job available wor...

Senior IP Opportunity at Major Firm

vary Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - AN OPENING AT A VERY HIGH Q...

Nursery Manager

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes