On the 20th anniversary of the killings of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife, very little has changed in terms of how Americans view race and the criminal justice system. Shortly after the murders on June 12, 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested and placed on trial. As everyone in the world knows, he was found not guilty of the murders. Depending on one’s race is the lens through which the OJ trial was viewed. For most white Americans, O.J. Simpson got away with murder. For most African Americans, the prosecution did not do its job and O.J. was not guilty. As a former prosecutor, I did not find that the prosecution proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt—the criminal standard for a conviction.
Those sentiments on the OJ case remain the same some 20 years later. As President Obama stated about the Trayvon Martin killing and ultimate acquittal of George Zimmerman, most African Americans see the criminal system through a different lens than white America. Those words could have been said 20 years ago at the conclusion of the O.J. trial verdict. In the O.J. trial, many minorities believed the system worked for O.J. Simpson the way it had worked for many white Americans accused of a crime committed against a black man. The jury found him not guilty.
Equal justice under the law has been elusive for many African Americans who enter the criminal justice system. Michael Jackson sang the lyrics that “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”. But whether you’re black or white matters in the criminal justice system. It matters in terms of how the justice system treats people and how Americans view the criminal justice system, in terms of race.
In 20 years, not much has changed in the criminal justice system. O.J.’s trial and verdict was an aberration in so many ways. The norm is what we are experiencing today and in many past years. In the cases of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn, both were not found guilty of killing a black teen. In Dunn’s case, the jury was hung on the murder charge of Jordan Davis so there is still hope for a conviction there. In Zimmerman’s case, he got off with what many blacks believe as getting away with murder. And ironically that was how most white Americans saw the O.J. verdict.
The O.J. Simpson trial left as many questions as answers. It opened the way for America’s obsession with court trials. It did little to explore the issues of race and the criminal justice system. That is a conversation that Attorney General Eric Holder says Americans are too coward to discuss. But until we have the discussion, African Americans will continue to see the criminal justice system for what it appears. It appears as one where equal justice depends, in many instances, on the color one’s skin. It appears as if the scales that Lady Justice holds are bent against minorities. In many cases involving blacks and a white victim or a white or non-black defendant and a black victim, it appears as if Lady Justice and her scales of justice pull open or peep under the blindfold and dispense justice according to race.
One need only to look at the statistics that send many African Americans to jail to realize something is wrong when it comes to equal justice and criminal law. African American youth are 4.5 times more likely than white youths to be detained for the same crime. While African Americans make up less than 14% of the U.S. total population, they make up over 40% of the prison population. Perception appears to be everything. But these facts speak to an unequal reality.
In the 20 years since O.J. Simpson verdict, there has not been much change in the criminal justice system. Race still matters in the criminal justice system, how we view it and how it is dispensed. And O.J.’s verdict still remains an open race discussion and an aberration.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a practicing trial lawyer and former prosecutor who has tried murders, rapes, burglaries, robberies and narcotic crimes. She founded LegalSpeaks to address issues in law and politics affecting race, gender and class. She frequently appears in the media as an on air legal analyst.