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.

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