Understanding the Law
November 24, 2006

Is the justice system on trial?

Last week we received the astounding news on television that Orenthal James Simpson, better known by his initials OJ, who was tried and acquitted for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, had written a book entitled “If I did it”. It is said to be a hypothetical description of the murder in which OJ is saying that if he did it this is the way it would have been committed. A two-part interview was scheduled for the 27th and 29th November, 2006 on Fox television in preparation for the release of the book. Curious enough Simpson maintains his innocence while Judith Reagan, editor, said that she wanted him to confess his sin. On Monday, 20 November the owner of the publishing Company announced it would no longer publish the book or air the interview.{{more}}

The book brings back sharp memories of the murder in 1994, the criminal trial in 1995 and the civil trial in 1997. The jury found him not guilty in the criminal trial but he was held liable in the civil trial for the wrongful deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. OJ was ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages.

OJ, a celebrity of football fame charged with two gruesome crimes attracted tremendous interest. The criminal trial was broadcast on television for 133 days and during that time millions of people inside and outside the United States were drawn to their television sets to watch what was regarded as the “trial of the century”.

It brought racial issues to the fore and questions as to whether a white dominated justice system could give justice to a black man. OJ had 12 lawyers representing him while the state had some 25 lawyers prosecuting the case.

Beyond a reasonable doubt

In a criminal court the jury has the duty of looking at the facts and determining whether or not the accused is guilty. It must decide on the basis of the facts that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt not beyond the shadow of a doubt. Reasonable doubt is any doubt which would be in the mind of a reasonable person. This is a higher standard of proof, so much so, that if on the basis of the evidence there are reasonable doubts in the mind of the jury then it must acquit the accused in the dock. In the Simpson’s case there were numerous irregularities and discrepancies which might have given reason for doubt. The burden of proof is also a crucial element in criminal cases. It rests on the presumption of innocence. The prosecutor must have evidence to prove his case. If he does not then the accused could walk free.

Balance of probabilities

OJ did not escape the civil court where the standard of proof is lower. A case in civil court is proven on a balance of probabilities or by a preponderance of evidence. In other words, it is more likely than not that the accused did the act and is liable. Unlike our system and except for libel matters (although it is rarely done here) the United States system affords a jury trial in civil matters. The civil court is concerned with whether or not the defendant is liable for the wrongful death of another. It compensates the victim’s family rather than punish the defendant.

OJ cannot be tried twice in a criminal court for the same crime because of the system of double jeopardy in the American justice system, It is similar in our system under the doctrine of autrifois acquit/convict.

• Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.
E-mail address is: exploringthelaw@yahoo.com