TOPICS > Politics

Oppression and Malice: The O.J. Simpson Civil Trial

February 5, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, the verdicts in the O.J. Simpson civil trial. Another chapter in the long-running saga came to a close last night. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles has the story.

JEFFREY KAYE: Hordes of camera crews and curious onlookers camped outside the courtroom in Santa Monica last night as the verdicts were read inside. (applause outside) The Goldman family had filed a wrongful death suit in civil court asking for damages to compensate them for the loss of their son. The verdicts were unanimous. The jury found O.J. Simpson willfully and wrongfully caused the death of Ronald Goldman. They also found that Simpson committed battery against Goldman, and that battery was committed with oppression, which means cruelty, and malice. The panel ordered Simpson to pay $8.5 million in compensatory damages to the Goldman family.

MAN: Ron would have been proud.

WOMAN: Ron is proud.

MAN: Ron is proud.

WOMAN: We did this for Ron. I want to go tell him.

JEFFREY KAYE: The family of Simpson’s former wife, Nicole, did not sue for wrongful death or seek compensatory damages. Instead, they filed a survivorship claim. The jury found that Simpson committed battery against Nicole Brown Simpson and that battery was committed with oppression and malice.

SPOKESPERSON: We, the jury, in the above entitled action find the defendant, Orinthal James Simpson not guilty of the crime of murder–

JEFFREY KAYE: The former football star was acquitted of murder charges in October 1995 in a criminal case, but there were big differences between the two trials. First, the standards of proof were different. In a criminal case prosecutors must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but in a civil case the standard is lower. In order to prove their case, plaintiffs must show only a preponderance of evidence. Though blood evidence was important in both trials, the civil case introduced evidence not entered in the criminal trial, and unlike the criminal case, where Simpson was not forced to testify, this time he was. Also, attorneys in the civil trial introduced 39 photographs of Simpson wearing rare, expensive shoes which matched footprints from the crime scene.

SPOKESMAN: Please. Just toss it out. You’re scaring everybody, man.

MAN: I’m not going to hurt anybody.

JEFFREY KAYE: The famous Bronco case in which Simpson evaded police was also introduced into evidence for the first time at the civil trial. Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki in the civil trial instructed the jury not to focus on race. Racist allegations were a big part of the criminal trial, as the defense suggested that Simpson could have been framed by a racist police officer. In the criminal case the mostly black jury was sequestered. In the civil trial the predominantly white jurors were permitted to go home at night and on weekends. Millions of Americans tuned into the criminal trial, carefully watching every twist and turn. The judge in the civil trial barred cameras from the courtroom and put a gag order on all the participants, keeping them from talking to the press, a gag order which is still in effect.

JEFFREY KAYE: For more analysis of the verdicts we turn to two law professors. John Wiley of UCLA is a former federal prosecutor. He observed parts of the Simpson criminal and civil trials. And Patricia King of Georgetown University teaches civil and family law. Welcome to both of you. Mr. Wiley, what does it say about our justice system, that someone can be acquitted of–acquitted of murder in one trial and then made to pay for that murder in a second trial?

JOHN WILEY, UCLA Law School: (Los Angeles) It says that a trial is a show, and a show always plays better after a dress rehearsal, which is what the criminal case turned out to be for these civil plaintiffs. They had a dry run that was in criminal court and did a much better job the second time around. That’s quite common in our system.

JEFFREY KAYE: A trial is a show? Some might take that as an indictment–we’re talking about justice here, aren’t we?

JOHN WILEY: It’s not just a game, but there is a definite dramatic element to a trial. The party with the burden of proof has to put on a production that is persuasive, and the persuasive power of the second production here was much greater than the first. We’ve seen that happen before the Rodney King beating case, where the second prosecution got conviction where the first one didn’t. That was true also with the Menendez prosecution. It’s not unusual.

JEFFREY KAYE: Ms. King, does it devalue the criminal justice system to have two completely different outcomes, when essentially many of the same facts are in evidence?

PATRICIA KING, Georgetown Law School: No, I don’t think it devalues the justice system. I think we have to remember that a criminal trial and a civil trial serve entirely different purposes. And the fact that he was tried criminally and found that he was innocent or acquitted has nothing to do with the fact that he may have to pay compensatory damages. It served an entirely different purpose. It’s not always done. It’s expensive to have the second trial, but it’s not atypical to see two trials. I think that this trial was particularly confusing for people, however, because there was so much attention to the first trial; it got to be shown. People got some understanding of it. That wasn’t present in the second trial. But we have to remember two different purposes and in that sense this was justice. He was acquitted in the first, and he was found liable in the second. It seems right to me.

JEFFREY KAYE: What about that point Mr. Wiley made that the first might be a sense, a dress rehearsal for the second, is any side given an advantage in those circumstances?

PATRICIA KING: Well, I certainly think that you’d have an opportunity to see the strategies and how they play out if you are the second trial. That’s certainly the case. But I–and I understand that trials are plays in some ways, and they have lots of drama, but they are also very, very serious, and it is important that the American people have some faith that our system works appropriately and well. They were benefitted from that, but the second trial was different, and I think this has been hard for people to understand, and I think that we need to keep emphasizing that. A different burden of proof is a significant difference. And it really means was he–was it probable that he killed Mr. Goldman and Nicole Brown? And that’s very different than beyond a reasonable doubt.

JEFFREY KAYE: Mr. Wiley, going back to this dress rehearsal, does that–does one side have more of an advantage over the other side since both sides could take advantage of the evidence, the material presented in the first trial?

JOHN WILEY: Well, Prof. King’s very correct that standard of a burden of proof gives a heavy burden to the prosecution side and an advantage to the defense in the sense that the defense in a criminal setting can come up with some unexpected developments. That was especially true in this particular criminal case, where there was an extremely unexpected development for the prosecution, and that was Mark Fuhrman. Mark Fuhrman was presented initially as a star witness. The prosecution then had to take him back and reject him before the jury, a very dramatic thing to do, and in the second case, the plaintiffs had the advantage of knowing about the Fuhrman problem and could steer far clear of it.

JEFFREY KAYE: Ms. King, much has been made about the racial issues and a racial divide. Do you think too much has been made?

PATRICIA KING: That’s a very tough question. I think that the racial divide has always been there. Black Americans experience race in this country in a radically different way than do white Americans. I think that the O.J. Simpson trial, what it did was to make more Americans aware of the fact that there was this gulf. Some of us have always known it. So in that sense, the publicity around–surrounding the trial was a good thing, I think, in that it helped put things on the table that had been very hard to get there before. But this was a very unlikely forum, I should add, to surface the race question and the differences in the ways we perceive the justice system.

Simpson is not your typical criminal defendant. For that matter, he’s not your typical defendant in a civil trial either. He had money to spend on lawyers that most Americans don’t enjoy, certainly most black Americans don’t enjoy. So it was a little odd, I think, that he got to raise the issues, and it was good that it was on the table. The press, I think, once it got out on the table have certainly overreacted. And what I’m hoping is that we will be able to pull back from that and actually move on to get to some more important issues about why this gulf exists. And I haven’t seen much of that yet.

JOHN WILEY: But you seem to be suggesting the gulf, if there is one, is more a class issue than a racial issue.

PATRICIA KING: No. It’s a race issue. There are class issues, and, in fact, in this particular trial there are also gender issues. And we haven’t paid a great deal of attention to those class and gender issues because we haven’t focused on the race issue, which is fine. Now that we have surfaced, I think, issues that have long lain dormant, it seems to me that it’s really time to examine them more carefully. And by that, I mean that African-Americans have a very complicated reaction to the Simpson trials and proceedings. Yes, we are suspicious of the criminal justice system, but, on the other hand, we too have an interest in seeing that criminal defendants are prosecuted. We too suffer from crime. So the kinds of complications and subtleties with respect to the race issue, I think, have not gotten the attention that they deserve.

JEFFREY KAYE: Let me move on to Mr. Wiley to what’s going to happen next. The next phase of this trial is the punitive damages phase. Could you explain what that’s going to mean.

JOHN WILEY: Sure. That’s the stage at which the jurors have to reach an agreement on a number–how many dollars do they want to punish Mr. Simpson with, how big a fine, in essence, do they want to levy on him? Already, the jury has said that Mr. Simpson owes the Goldman family $8.5 million to compensate in dollar terms for the loss of their son. In the punitive damage case there’s a number fixed that’s added to the $8.5 million.

JEFFREY KAYE: And there’s also a mini-trial, as I understand it, into what–into Mr. Simpson’s assets, is that right?

JOHN WILEY: That’s right, because under California law, as is typical throughout the country, punitive damages can take into account the net worth of the defendant. That’s an issue.

JEFFREY KAYE: Okay. So, Ms. King, I know you–you’re an expert in family law. Mr. Simpson has custody of the children. But now, given this, this finding by the jury that he’s liable for at least the battery and the death of one person, the death of one person, the battery of another, could custody, could it be a whole separate trial over custody?

PATRICIA KING: Well, as you know, there is an appeal in the custody case. Whether the California appellate courts will reverse I think depends on whether they’re willing to change their stand. He is, in fact, the genetic parent, and this is not a fight between two parents about custody of a child. This is a dispute between grandparents and a parent, and that kind of dispute, the parent is clearly advantaged. He is not going to be in prison. He will be able to spend time with his children. And trial court judges have a lot of discretion in the area of custody, so we should not, I think, expect a successful appeal, but it can happen.

JEFFREY KAYE: But my question, Ms. King, is: does the finding by the jury yesterday affect the pending custody appeal?

PATRICIA KING: Well, I guess what I’m saying is that it is unlikely to affect the appeal because the custody standards and issues are quite different than the question of whether he committed this murder or not. The fact that he did according to the civil trial won’t affect the custody issues unless we can show that it somehow has an adverse impact on the children. And it’s unlikely that we can show that without something that we haven’t already heard about. For example, if there were indications that some of this beating took place in front of his children and the kids were witnesses, that would be a significant event, but I assume that if that were an issue, that would have emerged in the custody proceedings, and that would have been taken care of by the trial court judge, or considered at that level.

JEFFREY KAYE: Finally, Mr. Wiley, I understand that you think there may be a whole separate mini-trial on the potential of juror misconduct?

JOHN WILEY: That’s a possibility. One issue that the defense may wish to try to bring up on appeal is the issue of the excused juror last week, a juror excused for misconduct. It is a defense tactic that the defense may wish to pursue to try to argue that that one juror infected or poisoned the jury deliberations. To make that record, the defense will have to, in essence, put the jurors on the stand. Whether the judge will allow that we’ll see.

JEFFREY KAYE: Mr. Wiley, Ms. King, thank you both very much.