Justice or Entertainment?

Wayne Hanson


We humans have a long history of converting "justice" into entertainment. Beheadings, whippings and hangings were once public events. And since Hollywood is the entertainment capital of the world, perhaps the recent O.J. Simpson circus was inevitable.

In "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" version of events, O.J. Simpson was found "not guilty" of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in a court of law. But in the subsequent civil action he was found "legally responsible" -- to the tune of $8.5 million -- for their deaths.

Then, in the "Network News" version, a pack of legal analysts explained to puzzled television audiences that this was not a violation of double jeopardy -- the concept that no person shall, in the words of the Constitution "... for the same offense ... be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb ...." The criminal trial was for a crime, said the analysts, but the civil trial was for a "civil offense."

These experts explained that a "not guilty" verdict in a criminal trial does not mean "innocent," only that there was insufficient evidence to prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." In a civil trial, they said, only a "preponderance of evidence" is necessary to convict.

And finally, said the learned attorneys, Simpson's children were restored to his custody following the earlier "not guilty" verdict. However, since the civil court found him "responsible for the death" of the children's mother, custody will undoubtedly be reconsidered.

So it appears that losing one's children and being fined millions of dollars for a "non-crime" is not seen as jeopardizing "life or limb." Perhaps only a lawyer would understand how murder can be a civil offense. And when did "innocent until proved guilty" expire?

To compound the sense of unreality, the latest Simpson case is only a Hollywood remake of an earlier two-act drama. Millions of Americans witnessed the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. Even though it was blatantly evident that the officers were out of control, the first jury found the officers "not guilty." Then -- in the inevitable Hollywood sequel -- the officers were charged in a separate action of violating Rodney King's "civil rights." This time, convictions were obtained.

But even a graphic beating on television could not compare to the "Hard Copy" version of the first Simpson trial. Spattered blood, racism, wife beating, charges of police conspiracy and planted evidence as well as book deals, jury tampering, pictures of a topless Marcia Clark, suspicions of love affairs, and all the other accouterments of a sleazy potboiler. DNA evidence -- poorly understood by the jury and vigorously attacked by the defense -- was ignored.

While all of this may have been compelling, few mistook it for justice.

So, aside from its entertainment value, of what use is justice? Justice creates a predictable sense of order and certainty -- not only that the guilty will be punished, the innocent freed, and all people will be treated equally under the law, but that the structure of government itself is basically rational, if somewhat flawed.

However, Ripley's Believe it or Not would be hard-pressed to come up with some of the absurdities that enter our courts. The woman, for example, who spilled hot coffee on herself at a McDonalds restaurant and sued for millions. Or the woman who drank a bottle of whisky each day during her pregnancy and sued the distillery for her child's fetal alcohol syndrome. People who fall off ladders and collect millions from the manufacturers, criminals injured in the commission of a burglary who sue the householders, and penitentiary inmates who file daily lawsuits against the correctional system for such things as broken lunch cookies.