Short Relief: 'Justice for all' works, but only if all of us believe in it

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It feels like the criminal justice system is under siege these days.

Law enforcement officers are being vilified. Prosecutors are portrayed as unprincipled. People are questioning whether incarceration is an effective means of controlling crime.

In the midst of all this, OJ Simpson was back in the public eye with the FX series “The People versus OJ Simpson,” and the ESPN documentary “OJ: Made in America.”

I remember the 1994 murders of Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, starting with the surreal, low-speed chase of the white Ford Bronco along a California highway, with OJ inside, threatening to kill himself, and ending with his acquittal after “The Trial of the Century.” Every step of the process was televised at home and abroad.

I was a homicide prosecutor in Washington, D.C., at the time. The district had about 600,000 residents and was about 60 percent black. It was the murder capital of the country, mostly because young black men were killing other young black men, in black neighborhoods, over drugs. My office handled thousands of cases, and hundreds of homicides, every year.

It may be hard to remember now, but OJ was an enormously popular figure. He was a Heisman Trophy-winning running back at USC and an NFL Hall of Fame running back for the Buffalo Bills, who parlayed that fame into TV sports broadcasting, movies, and ads for Hertz Rental Car. He was widely adored and a prime example of how a black man could make it big in America.

I was at work on Oct. 3, 1995, when the acquittals were announced on TV. The country’s reaction to the verdict divided along racial lines. The witnesses in our waiting rooms all stood and cheered. On the other side of the walls, we slumped in our chairs, demoralized by what seemed such an obvious miscarriage of justice.

The Los Angeles district attorney’s office got outmaneuvered from the start. Prosecutors were goaded into giving up the grand jury and charging Simpson by public, adversarial, preliminary hearing. They called a key witness, Mark Fuhrman, whose racism bolstered the defense theory. They conducted a demonstration that was destined to backfire, inviting Simpson to try to put on a blood-stained glove. They over-tried the case, taking more than eight months to get it to the jury. By the time they got to closing arguments, the prosecution was on the defensive.

The defense, led by Johnnie Cochran, played the race card by making the case a referendum on a criminal justice system rushing to judge black men. The jury acquitted OJ because of a combination of his celebrity, the sense that the system was prejudiced, and wariness about the 1992 acquittals of the officers who beat Rodney King and the riots that followed.

No one was served by the result, including OJ. His life spiraled down. He lost his family, his good-natured image and his fortune. In 1997, he was found civilly liable for the deaths and ordered to pay millions in damages. In 2008, he was convicted of burglary, robbery, kidnapping and assault for stealing sports memorabilia. He is serving a 33-year prison sentence.

The Black Lives Matter movement certainly doesn’t believe that OJ’s acquittal 20 years ago cured the system.

One of my former colleagues at the Office of the U.S. Attorney in D.C., law professor Paul Butler, is back in the news, too. Butler has reprised his argument that black jurors should acquit young black men in drug cases because the criminal justice system is racist. He also says jurors should acquit in any case where they think the police or prosecution “have crossed the line.” Butler even traces his argument back to current founding darling, Alexander Hamilton.

The Cochran-Butler models of criminal justice don’t make sense. They don’t do justice and they don’t control crime. Race (much less celebrity) is no more proof of innocence than it is proof of guilt. You can’t rectify one injustice by committing another. You only perpetuate the cycle.

I prefer the traditional model for controlling crime with individualized responsibility. It starts with the assumption that if a person understands right and wrong and can control their own behavior, then it is fair to expect them to obey the law and to hold them accountable for their actions. If they commit a crime, they should be punished.

And the punishment should fit the crime. That vindicates the rights of the victim and restrains people from taking the law into their own hands. It sets an example that encourages others to abide by the law. Meanwhile, the criminal’s acceptance of responsibility for their crime is the first step toward their own, personal rehabilitation.

If we apply those principles to everyone – black, white, civilian and law enforcement – then we will have a relatively peaceful, orderly and fair society.

Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.

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  • jack bauer

    The justice system is vitally important to American life. It often sets the standard for what is right and fair. And yet, as Mr. Frank’s column illustrates, it feels like the justice system itself “is under siege.” And no wonder. From comments by the President himself to the Attorney General many folks who should know better are piling on. It is so lamentable that the core rational for our justice system, as so clearly spelled-out by Mr. Frank, is becoming obsolete.

  • truther

    The problem with this column is that it only presents half the story. Yes, of course, the OJ trial was a debacle. And yes, of course, there are similarly-minded people out there who are openly antagonistic to police and prosecutors and whose rhetoric erodes our faith in the rule of law.

    But Mr. Frank conveniently ignores people like that Stanford swimmer who just got a slap on the wrist for raping an unconscious woman, because a harsher sentence would have been rough on him. On him! Or that Texas kid who got away with killing and maiming people in a drunk driving accident because he convinced a judge he was so affluent he didn’t fully appreciate right from wrong. Their victims were weaker, poorer, less powerful people whose rights were ignored by incompetent judges more interested in not rocking the boat than in administering justice. And let’s not even get started on bailouts for Wall Streeters or other double-standards that benefit the 1%.

    Funny how Mr. Frank never worries about those cases. Only the ones where the downtrodden catch a break. Or where the wealthy and privileged, like OJ, just happen to be different somehow.

  • Just Sayin’

    I cannot believe how naive this article is to gloss over so much of the equation. Look how far back you’re going to grasp at OJ straws again. Yes, the OJ case was handled badly and shows some of the problems with the justice system, but the reason police officers and justice officials have no respect more is because of the unequal application of the rule of law. As mentioned by truther here, the Affluenza case makes a perfect example. We could also consider how little if any prosecution has taken place against Wall street execs for tanking the economy, for BP for fouling the gulf coast. I could point fingers at cases of young black men shot in the back in police custody and then later ruled a suicide. Police officers using civil forfeit asseture laws as a form of legal theft. The list goes on and on.

    In order for the officers of our law and justice system to be seen as good, to earn respect, the rule of law has to be applied with equal force to people in all walks of life. The rich, the powerful, the police themselves; all need to be held accountable every bit as staunchly as anyone else. THAT is justice, and until we start showing serious strides to make that a reality people will continue to view our justice system as the farce that it is.