THE FIRST QUESTION many Americans asked about the second O. J. Simpson trial was: Why? The Constitution prohibits double jeopardy -- trying a person twice for the same crime. If Mr. Simpson was tried for first-degree murder and acquitted, how could he be tried again for the deaths?
The catch is that the second trial involved civil charges, not criminal charges. The penalties are different -- imprisonment or even death for guilt in the criminal charge of first degree murder, but only financial penalties for the civil charges of being found liable for a death. Those distinctions have always been part of the American system of justice.
The second trial came about because the families of the victims sought some official recognition that he was guilty, even if the state could not prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that O. J. Simpson had committed the murders. They strongly believed the preponderance of the evidence, the standard used in a civil trial, pointed to Mr. Simpson as the killer. Even though a guilty verdict in the civil trial required agreement among only nine of the jurors, all 12 of them agreed with the families.
Yet the two Simpson trials have produced two different verdicts and, unfortunately, public reaction has tended to polarize along racial lines. In both cases, it is important for Americans to respect a jury's decisions. Most of all, it is important for the country to move on from a spectacle that threatened to upstage the president's State of the Union address Tuesday night. The Simpson verdict carried less importance for the nation than the policies and plans set forth by a newly re-elected president.
The O. J. Simpson trials have created both divisions within the nation and diversions from broader issues. Racial tensions exacerbated by the case shed light on real problems within police departments which need serious attention. They also reminded the country that, despite progress in racial relations, the issue of race continues to gnaw at America's soul. In too many cases, African-Americans have good reasons for skepticism about the justice system.
But except for hearings about financial awards to the families and the inevitable appeals, this saga should be over. Two juries have spoken. It is time for closure in this case, time to look ahead.
Pub Date: 2/06/97