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Not guilty The O. J. Simpson case: Jury decision, will not, should not, eliminate reasonable doubts


TWELVE JURORS in Los Angeles have now decided O.J. Simpson is not guilty, as charged, of a double murder. Millions of their fellow citizens must feel relief that they did not have to make that decision. One might think it was not so difficult, given the stunning swiftness of the jury's deliberations. But that would ignore what those jurors have gone through -- almost nine months of sequestration, the fierceness of media focus, the obsessions of a nation, the blandishments and manipulations of top criminal lawyers.

As is the case with the most famous trials of the century -- Sacco and Vanzetti, Scopes, the Lindbergh baby, the Rosenbergs -- this case will be rehashed and argued with a passion that does not reflect the finality of the verdict. But final it is for the defendant and for the victims' families. Mr. Simpson is free to go his way, perhaps the only human being who really knows if the jury was correct. The Brown and Goldman families will be left to mourn, torn perhaps with some of the shreds of uncertainty those less involved might feel.

In the midst of Hollywood glitter, the Simpson case seemed to have all that titillates -- sex, celebrity, money, mystery, brutality, cops, and the race issue that resonates throughout the American experience. Of all these many elements, race in the end was paramount -- even though the man in the box was an African American who had made the transition to a life where ethnic divisions did not seem to matter.

By the time the trial was coming to an end, public opinion polls showed blacks overwhelmingly thought Mr. Simpson was not guilty and whites thought he was. Since the jury was three-fourths black, this instantly became an explanation by experts for the verdict. The legal term is "nullification," meaning jurors "nullify' a guilty act because they do not like the law, the police or the prosecution's behavior.

Yet verdicts require unanimity. One juror can hang the whole process. That this did not happen may reflect the fact that Mr. Simpson had some of the smartest lawyers money can buy. But more persuasively, perhaps, were the many flaws in the state's presentation: the sloppy handling of evidence, the racial bias of a key detective, the lack of a murder weapon. Similar shortcomings are often seen in criminal trials based on circumstantial evidence. They might not go to the essential truth a jury is supposed to determine, but they often prevail under a criminal justice system that requires guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Now that the verdict is in, some jurors may feel inclined to let the public in on the reasons and the internal debate, short as it was, that led to their decision. This will be an important part of the long process of digesting the societal overtones of "the O.J. Simpson Murder Case."

Like similar trials of great notoriety, whether the focus is on religion, or ideology, or sedition, or immigrants, or race, or whatever, the Simpson case will raise questions that rightly need examination. But not too much right away.

This is a time to pause, to regain perspective, to accept that justice is not always perfectly served in an imperfect world and to give those 12 jurors the presumption that they did their honest best under difficult circumstances.

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