I have been teaching criminology at the university level for 24 years. If I had a dollar for every time I heard the term “broken” to describe our criminal justice system I would be so wealthy I would not have to have to teach anymore. Of course, with the news that O.J. Simpson will be released on parole I am hearing another barrage of declarations that the system is “broken.” These self-proclaimed experts don’t know the facts of the Simpson case. If they did, they would not blame Simpson’s release on the “system.” They would blame it on Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti.
I understand the anger over Simpson’s release. I watched the parole hearing and was appalled by the jocular demeanor of my former sports hero turned criminal. Furthermore, when I heard the board explain that their reasons for releasing Simpson included his “lack of prior criminal convictions” it made me angry. It raised old memories of the profound miscarriage of justice that occurred in 1995. There was much blame to go around for those casually acquainted with the case. Some possible targets included:
The defense attorneys. Simpson’s attorneys played the race card from the bottom of the deck. What was perhaps worse was their decision to lie about the definition of reasonable doubt – telling jurors that the law required them to acquit if only one piece of prosecution evidence was called into question.
The judge. In addition to losing control of the courtroom, Judge Ito allowed the false definition of reasonable doubt to be given by Johnnie Cochran to the jurors without correction. If nothing else, it is the judge’s job to make sure the law is applied correctly while lawyers argue facts instead of re-writing instructions for the jury.
The prosecutors. In his interrogation, Simpson admitted he had been cut at exactly the same hour his wife was murdered. Worse still, he provided no explanation for the cut and no consistent alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the murder. But Marcia Clark was so incompetent she declined to introduce the transcript of Simpson’s interrogation because he “asserted his innocence” in the interrogation. Newsflash Marcia: The jury already knew he was asserting his innocence because he pled “not guilty.” That’s why you had a trial.
The jury. Few if any of the Simpson jurors had an IQ above room temperature. One even said that O.J.’s blood at the murder scene was “not an issue” at the trial. Another admitted she just didn’t understand the DNA arguments. Yet another said she never read books or magazines. She did say she read the “racing form” but admitted that she “didn’t understand it.”
We would not be talking about any of this if the first Simpson trial had taken place in Santa Monica instead of downtown Los Angeles. If it did, there would have been no parole hearing for Simpson in regards to armed robbery. In fact, there would have been no robbery. He would still be in prison for two counts of murder in the first degree.
Why did Gil Garcetti move the trial from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles? His reasons were numerous but all equally inane. For example, he said it would be more convenient for his prosecutors to drive only 15 minutes to the downtown courtroom as opposed to 45 minutes to Santa Monica. Putting convenience over jury composition is a losing strategy.
Garcetti also asserted that the Los Angeles courtroom was bigger and would better accommodate the media. But what kind of fool would rather lose a case in front of a large group of reporters as opposed to winning it in front of a smaller group?
So why does all of this matter? Because the case was lost as soon as Garcetti fumbled the ball and moved the trial, which assured that a highly educated emotionally detached jury would be replaced with an uneducated jury seeking revenge for Rodney King.
Educated Santa Monica jurors would not have bought the lie that “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Having not been deceived, or even remotely inclined to believe such nonsense, they would not have needed a Judge Ito to re-educate them. Nor would they have needed the transcript of the interrogation, as they would have had the education to comprehend the DNA tests that proved Simpson’s blood was at the murder scene. Intelligent people know what it means when the blood of three people is found at a murder scene and only one of them walked away alive.
Understanding why Gil Garcetti made such bad decisions requires an understanding of the climate he created during his tenure at the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. Years ago, one of his calendar attorneys by the name of Ceballos criticized the department for knowingly relying upon evidence obtained from warrants based on affidavits secured through perjured testimony. Rather than addressing the problem, Garcetti demoted Ceballos for talking about it. Ceballos then sued Garcetti in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Gil Garcetti won a narrow 5-4 ruling when the Supreme Court ruled on Garcetti v. Ceballos in 2006. The legal ruling was shocking to defenders of the First Amendment. It said that public employees had no right to comment on matters of public concern (including police perjury and prosecutorial use of illegally obtained evidence) if it was part of their “official duties.” That is how Garcetti legally insulated district attorneys from internal criticism. So the only remedy for the likes of Gil Garcetti is external: by voting them out of office.
The fact that voters did not fire Garcetti after the Simpson verdict does not mean our democratic system is “broken” – any more than occasional outrageous acquittals mean the justice system is “broken.” The fact that many “citizens” avoid voting – sometimes in order to avoid jury service – suggests something else is broken.
Perhaps it’s our view of civic responsibility.