Simpson's Two Trials: Civil, Public Opinion

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Two O.J. Simpson trials are underway in the United States.

A civil trial for damages against Mr. Simpson is being submitted to a jury in Santa Monica, Calif.

The other trial is taking place in the courtroom of public opinion where pollsters rather than jurors render the verdicts. In that courtroom, Simpson appears to be fighting an uphill battle, although his support in the African-American community remains strong.

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As the emotions of the criminal trial fade, some Americans are reassessing their conclusions about the case. The subtle shifts are important because they reflect larger feelings about the fairness of the US justice system.

"The public has taken a second look and is coming closer to a consensus between white and black," says Bill D'Antonio, a sociologist at Catholic University in Washington. "That doesn't mean they will meet in agreement on the case, but they are closer as the emotional side of this has gone down."

Recent polls suggest that the number of Americans who support Simpson's acquittal in his murder case has fallen from levels recorded following the October 1995 verdict.

An Associated Press poll released last week compares recent responses with those recorded in a CBS News poll taken shortly after that verdict. The comparison shows that while 86 percent of blacks supported Simpson's acquittal in 1995, 58 percent of blacks polled now say they support his acquittal in the murder case.

While some African-Americans appear to have changed their minds about Simpson's guilt, the poll suggests that more respondents are now saying that they are not sure whether he should have been acquitted or convicted. In 1995, only 6 percent of blacks said they weren't sure about whether the verdict was right or wrong. By 1997, that number had increased to 26 percent.

Milton Kleg, director of the Center for the Study of Ethnic and Racial Violence in Denver, says he does not see a major shift in attitude among blacks concerning the Simpson case. "The change is more related to the intensity of publicity [about the case]," Mr. Kleg says. "There is less intensity now."

He says additional evidence presented at the civil trial, such as photos of Simpson wearing the same kind of rare shoes that left bloody footprints at the murder scene, doesn't seem to have swayed many opinions.

The primary difference between 1995 and today, he says, is that "not that many people are following the trial with the intensity they were the first time. It was on television everyday."

In 1995, 33 percent of whites polled said they felt the Simpson acquittal was the correct verdict. By 1997 that number had dropped to 18 percent, according to the AP poll. As in black public opinion, most whites who no longer agree with the verdict now say they don't know whether it was correct.

Overall, roughly 60 percent of all whites questioned said Simpson's acquittal was the wrong verdict. That number has remained almost constant since 1995, the two polls show.

In rough terms, the latest AP poll shows the inverse relation between black and white opinion.

Approximately 60 percent of blacks and 18 percent of whites agree with the verdict, while roughly 60 percent of whites and 16 percent of blacks disagree with the verdict.

Howard Ehrlich, a sociologist and director of the Center for the Applied Study of Ethnoviolence at Towson State University in Maryland, says he isn't surprised by the disparity between black and white perceptions of the Simpson case.

"The differences of perception between black and white are so old and so well documented, as a sociologist looking at it my initial reaction was why are people surprised?"

Mr. Ehrlich says, "Forty years of survey results show almost total unanimity with a black and white difference on issues such as justice, housing, race, health care, and police."

"Perceptions are grounded in people's reality," Ehrlich says. "The differences in perception really reflect the different life experiences of blacks and whites."

He adds, "If you accept the differences as having some basis in reality then you are forced to accept the fact in white America that there really is some bias [in favor of whites and against blacks] in the justice system."

In the 1980s, Ehrlich says, pollsters launched a barrage of surveys measuring the attitudes of blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans. "The differences between black and white on questions relating to justice were between 30 to 40 percent with whites believing that blacks could achieve justice in the system and blacks in almost a majority believing that that was not the case."

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