Case Against Simpson Intensifies Death-Penalty Debate in US

Women's, black groups clash over society's harshest punishment

AMID all the maneuvering over DNA, blood spots, and mystery envelopes in the O.J. Simpson case, another issue looms in the background that will resonate well beyond the wood-paneled walls of courtroom 103: Should prosecutors seek the death penalty in the case?

A decision is expected soon from Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, and the prevailing view all along among legal experts has been that he would not make it a capital case.

The argument is that a jury would be reluctant to send a celebrity to the gas chamber. A contrary view does exist, however.

According to this line, prosecutors could improve their chances of winning a conviction by eliminating any juror opposed to capital punishment. A pro-death-penalty jury might prove more sympathetic to the prosecution.

Whichever way Mr. Garcetti goes, it will, like everything else in the ``trial of the century,'' carry symbolism beyond just the fate of one man.

The decision is raising emotional questions of race and equity in applying society's ultimate sanction - issues being closely watched by various interest groups across the country.

Already, black leaders are urging the DA not to seek the maximum penalty, while some women activists are pushing for just the opposite.

The decision could even trigger a broader debate over capital punishment in a state and nation where little ambivalence seems to exist on the issue now. Polls show three-quarters of Americans support capital punishment.

``I do think the Simpson case is going to provide a forum for debate,'' says Leigh Dingerson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

``Clearly in California it may raise the issue in a different light,'' adds Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif.

In making his decision before the Sept. 26 start of the trial, Mr. Garcetti will listen to an eight-member panel of top staffers that advise him on the death penalty. They will be looking at the defendant's background and other factors to see if it warrants seeking such a sanction.

Under California law, Mr. Simpson would be eligible for capital punishment because the murder charges carry the ``special circumstances'' that more than one person was killed, in this case his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.

Some legal experts believe the case warrants seeking the maximum sentence not only because it involves a double murder but also because of the violent nature of the crimes. But others note Mr. Simpson doesn't have a history of serious violence beyond past spousal abuse.

More than just legal considerations will likely go into such a high-profile decision, however, and even though Garcetti vows not to be swayed by outside interests, that won't stop them from trying.

Several Los Angeles civil rights leaders have already met with the district attorney to suggest ways to ensure Simpson receives a fair trial. They urged him to seek a diversified jury and to add minority members to his death-penalty review panel, currently all white.

More to the point, they asked him not to seek the death penalty, in part because they don't believe Simpson's background justifies it and because, in the words of Los Angeles Urban League President John Mack, ``death rows are already crowded with too many African American men.''

They hope the case will refocus debate on the disproportionate number of blacks sentenced to death - a cause they have had only limited success in pitching. A provision was dropped from the recently passed federal crime bill, for instance, that would have required courts to take race into account in capital cases.

The issue for some women is getting society to take domestic violence and female victims seriously. Thus feminist Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred and local anti-abortion activist Susan Carpenter McMillan - two ideological bookends - recently teamed up to demand a meeting with Mr. Garcetti.

Ms. McMillan says her interest is not to get Garcetti to make it a capital case but to give women the same access in the decisionmaking process that black leaders have had. She wants to be sure that Nicole Brown Simpson ``not be the one to be found guilty'' and that Mr. Simpson not be given special treatment.

Ms. Allred goes farther, arguing Garcetti should seek the death penalty. She points out the DA recently sought the maximum penalty in two cases where women were prosecuted in murder-for-hire schemes against their husbands.

``I think it raises the issue of whether a battered woman's life is as important as a celebrated man's life,'' she says.

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