O.J. Simpson’s legal woes – cultural, legal expert available

Case highlights the "pitfalls and possibilities of celebrity justice"

“It is unlikely that a dispute over proper ownership of sports memorabilia would receive this sort of attention if it did not involve O.J. Simpson,” says Christopher A. Bracey, associate professor of law and of African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “If the past is prologue, his celebrity status may also prove to be his ‘get out of jail free’ card, reinforcing his reputation as a man who operates ‘above the law.’ On the other hand, recent celebrity cases suggest that celebrated athletes and entertainers will no longer receive a free pass when it comes to the criminal justice system. In the case of Michael Vick — and perhaps OJ — one might argue that celebrities are now, in some sense, being targeted for prosecution.” Bracey is following the Simpson case and is available for interviews. His current comments on the case follow.

Las Vegas court’s decisions:

Christopher Bracey
Christopher Bracey

“Despite what most folks think, there was nothing wrong with the Court’s initial determination to detain Simpson until a formal bail hearing,” Bracey says.

“Under local law, a defendant must appear in court within 72 hours of his arrest. The Court’s preliminary findings that Simpson lacked sufficient ties to the community and, in light of the seriousness of the charges, may be a flight risk provided a proper basis for his detention prior to Wednesday.”

The prosecution’s discretion:

“The charges Simpson faces are no laughing matter,” he says. “With the exception of Count One conspiracy to commit a crime, all of the other charges are felonies. The first degree kidnapping charge carries the possibility of a life sentence.

“In this case, the prosecutor seems to have thrown in just about every available charge. Prosecutors enjoy broad discretion when making a charging decision. This discretion has multiple dimensions. Prosecutors not only decide who will be charged, but at what level of seriousness. Furthermore, because a single act may violate more than one criminal law, prosecutors decide which of the available charges, if any, should be filed against the defendant.

“Here, the prosecutor has elected to charge multiple defendants with multiple counts. This elevates the cost of prosecution and necessarily complicates the case. But it also greatly increases leverage in plea-bargaining, and maximizes the available grounds for conviction should the case eventually go to trial.”

Can O.J. Simpson get a fair trial?

“This is the most important, but, trickiest question of the day,” Bracey says.

“After all, in his previous criminal trial, most observers concluded that Simpson was, in all likelihood, responsible for the deaths. This is the reason why he was found liable in the civil trial. At the same time, most observers thought the police, prosecutor, and judge were sufficiently unfair to him during the criminal trial that it was appropriate for Simpson to be acquitted.

“What is both ironic and unsettling is that, by now, Simpson may have figured out that a fair criminal trial might not be in his best interests. But a fair process is the one thing that everyone — defendants, victims, prosecutors, police and the public — should want and is constitutionally entitled to expect.”

Managing celebrity status:

“Here again, we see an African American celebrity brought low by poor decision-making,” Bracey says.

“O.J. must know that his life is under perpetual scrutiny, and that his behavior — good or bad — will be magnified by the press.

“Let’s just assume, for the moment, that the sports memorabilia in question was indeed stolen from him. Given his past run-ins with the law, why indulge in behavior that, when viewed unsympathetically, constitutes a criminal offense?

“It seems particularly tragic that pride, arrogance, and perhaps even rage, eclipsed the wisdom and judgment that one would expect a 60 year old man to possess. O.J. may have flouted the law as a younger man. But given his life experience, it is difficult to be sympathetic in this case. Simpson, more than anyone else, should have known better.”

Editor’s note: Bracey is available for phone, e-mail and broadcast interviews. Washington University has VYVX and ISDN lines available free for news interviews.