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Star-spangled banner of justice

The OJ case has overshadowed America's great commitment to its system of law, says Gary McDowell
The past year has seen intense scrutiny placed on the criminal justice system of the United States, from debates over the morality of the death penalty to the trial of OJ Simpson. For the most part, commentary has been less than favourable; the acquittal of Mr Simpson now seems to have confirmed the worst suspicions of a good many people.

It would be foolish to suggest that the system is flawless; thus does it merit two, rather than a rousing three cheers. But it is as good as any, and better than most, and deserves a great deal more respect than it has been getting.

The OJ Simpson trial is a case in point. The combination of the high profile of the defendant, the extraordinary legal defence team his wealth allowed him, the never-blinking eye of television coverage and, of course, the jury's conclusion after only four hours of deliberation that he was not guilty as charged, has obscured more about the criminal justice system than it has revealed.

The fact is, the system worked pretty well. But it has been nearly impossible to see that because of the inordinate attention given to the racial aspects of the case. Throughout the often mind-numbing twists and turns of the process, one had the impression that racism in America was on trial, not a man accused of two counts of murder.

The seemingly endless delays and procedural detours, the side-bar conferences between legal counsel and Judge Lance Ito, and the various motions on this or that minute and arcane point, were a constant source of irritation to most people. Such details got in the way of the big questions: did this rich and famous black man kill his attractive white ex-wife and her male companion or not? Perhaps more important, would a predominantly black jury in racially torn Los Angeles ever convict such a man? Drama, not due process, was what caught the attention of a worldwide public.

But in truth, it is precisely those mind-numbing twists and turns, the delays and detours and the obscure questions of process that make the American legal system worthy of admiration. It is the commitment to due process of law, even in a case as unusual as that of OJ Simpson, that makes America shine.

The process was such that even with his wealth and fame, Simpson was charged and jailed; he got little, if any, special treatment, returning to his cell every night in shackles and prison garb. The public aspect of the trial itself was such as to ensure no stone was left unturned. And even the most disquieting part of the process - the compelling evidence of the noxious racism of the detective Mark Fuhrman - was found out and brought to bear on his testimony. He may well face criminal charges himself for perjury.

In the end, a jury of American citizens found that there was reasonable doubt as to Simpson's guilt. That is all it takes, or should take, to preclude a verdict of guilty. And that was not necessarily a matter of racism on the part of the jury; not all blacks thought him innocent, nor did all whites think him guilty.

What has been lost in the emotional shuffle surrounding the Simpson spectacle is how, every day, in courthouses across the United States, hundreds of trials work their way to sound conclusions. The routine business of the American judicial system is one that consists of a constant attention to a defendant's rights - including legal counsel being provided, writes of habeas corpus being issued, and countless other procedural niceties that, in sum, serve to see that justice is done.

Even those cases most horrific to some, those of convicted murderers spending years on death row while endless appeals are undertaken on their behalf, are the result of constitutional protections worthy of any civilised society.

No one would dare to say the system works perfectly. But it would be hard to think of any other system where one would be likely to do better if arrested for a serious crime than in the United States. Its abiding dedication to political liberty and the rule of law -however frustrating it may be - assures that. The extraneous issues of the Simpson trial should not be allowed to overshadow that fact.

The writer is director of the Institute of United States Studies at the University of London.