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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power