Getting sentenced is a drag. One time, when I got sentenced, a conjuncture of highly unlikely events occurred that made the whole thing rather more scary, and more of a circus, than usual.

My sentence was unfair, of course, as I was innocent. I was convicted on the strength of planted evidence. The fact that my arrest involved a high speed chase and that I was arrested along with a convicted felon didn’t help either. But that’s another story, for another time.

But nonetheless, I ended up standing in front of the judge in the courtroom listening to a sentence of probation. Routine, no jail time, in fact no criminal record (for various legal reasons), but a sentence nonetheless. Then the judge waved me off and pounded his gavel. I was supposed to turn around and walk out of the court room. But I could not.

When I turned around, the gallery of the court was full. A glass wall separated the gallery from the where the judge sits and the prisoners (like me) stand and so on. And when I turned around the gallery, almost empty moments earlier, was jammed full of spectators and press. Cameras were rolling. I recognized several of the local news reporters. Lights flipped on and flooded the courtroom, nearly blinding me.

“It was only a joint!” I thought. “And it wasn’t even mine!”

But the cameras continued rolling, and I could see the reporters speaking excitedly and quickly into their microphones, and spectators of all sorts were pressed against the glass and some were even standing on the benches, craning their necks to see … me?

So, with the obvious way out not an option, I considered an alternative exit. For various reasons I knew my way in and around the court and chambers a little better than the average prisoner. I knew the tank (where prisoners were held) and a hallway leading to a fire exit was to my right, and the court officer’s foyer and the judge’s private office were to my left. Better go right.

So I turned right and ran smack into a gentleman I happened to vaguely know named J.K. He was the proverbial large black man, shackled at the moment, arm and arm with a state trooper on each side. Following were a few well known city detectives. J.K. was the ex boyfriend of my ex girlfriend’s older sister. Two days earlier, he had taken up residence in a bank with a shotgun and a pistol, as well as one or two hostages.

I guess they got J.K. sometime while I wasn’t paying attention, being in court and getting sentenced and all. I felt great relief that the reporters and the crowd were there to see J.K.’s arraignment and not my sentencing. I also felt a bit of pain in my left arm as one of the detectives grabbed me and escorted me around the prisoner and out of the zone of interest.

So, what does this have to do with OJ Simpson’s sentencing to a minimum of six or so years in prison?

Well, consider this. The felon I was arrested with got probation had broken into a drug store (or so I heard) and stolen all the good stuff. The cops were on to her when her trail and mine crossed, and they busted her. She was eventually given probation but was never seen again by the authorities. She wasn’t from this town anyway, so she probably just went back to where she had come from. I was convicted on planted evidence and despite my protestations this was never investigated or even considered an issue by the police, my lawyer, the prosecutors, or the judge. J.K. … bank robber and kidnapper … spent about five years in prison. Why only five years? First, this was many years ago when sentencing was less tough than it is today, but mainly because he, like almost every other convictee in that court room that day, that year, that decade, or ever since, copped a plea.

Everybody cops a plea. OJ Simpson’s shenanigans … as obnoxious as they certainly were … in that motel room in Vegas were the kinds of shenanigans that happen in cheap motel rooms a hundred times a day across this country. And when someone is arrested, which hardly happens, they always cop a plea. This is how the criminal justice system works.

The difference between a person who is does a crime than does the time and a person who does the crime and does not do the time is that someone was watching the former and the latter was ignored like everyone else.

I don’t know, really, if OJ’s sentence was racist. But it was not the usual. And that means, like it or not, it was not fair. The dozens and dozens of people who, in the same month Simpson and his low life friends were nabbed in Vegas were also busted on similar sorts of charges are all walking around free right now, or serving light time.

By making the real difference between one person and another’s sentence all about what happens before a trial (and thus before a sentencing) … and by this I mean who is being looked at by the cops, who is being busted by the cops, what a person is actually charged with, what evidence is added to the mix, what charges are continued (vs. not) by the prosecutes, what charges are dropped by the judge, and what plea is made … the severity of sentencing, or even if someone is tried or convicted or sentenced at all, is all in the hands of individuals who work for the state but are not judges. And certainly not juries.

Based on what people say about crime and punishment, and based on what the press says when they are reporting these things, I’m pretty sure that very few people are aware of any of this.


  1. #1 Joshua Zelinsky
    December 5, 2008

    You don’t need racism to explain the results with OJ. He was a highly controversial celebrity who many in the judicial system thought had walked away from murder. This isn’t a defense of the result, only an alternative explanation. You might very well be right that there was a racist element in this result but it isn’t the only possible cause.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 5, 2008

    You don’t need racism to explain the results with OJ. He was a highly controversial celebrity who many in the judicial system thought had walked away from murder.

    Absolutely. Impossible to really tell.

  3. #3 sailor
    December 5, 2008

    Racist, maybe, but also surely linked to his previous trial and non-conviction, which should not of course have been legally consdidered.

  4. #4 Scote
    December 5, 2008

    “Absolutely. Impossible to really tell. ”

    If that is so then your thread title “Is the OJ Simpson Verdict Racist? Almost certainly” is invalid.

    But, I agree there is a tremendous amount of racism in our justice system and that it is overwhelmingly stacked against minorities. I also think it is stacked against poor people–as I would expect most people agree. Steal a car? Go to jail. Steal one hundred million dollars as a CEO? You’ll probably get off, and if you do get jailed, the sentence will in no way be proportionate to the economic value of the crime.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    December 5, 2008

    If that is so then your thread title “Is the OJ Simpson Verdict Racist? Almost certainly” is invalid.

    No, it is my guess. Totally valid as a guess. But yes, the deck is stacked but it is hard to say exactly how it is or is not stacked against a person in OJ Simpson’s situation.

    Sailor: Did you see the verdict? I totally agree with you, but the judge actually went out of her way to say that nothing like that is happening!

  6. #6 the real me
    December 5, 2008

    Here is the reason I read greg Laden’s blog “The fact that my arrest involved a high speed chase and that I was arrested along with a convicted felon didn’t help either. But that’s another story, for another time.”
    Who knew that an academic could actually be a real person with stories similar to those of the little guys that routinely get shit on by pedantic perspectives (like so many other sciblogs do, for instance.)
    Greg, BTW, I beat the ‘getting shot in the back’ by security guards bum rap…
    Did you ever notice how the cops always chain the skinny, long haired or politically vocal white guys to the biggest, angriest black guys in the cells and shuffle lines? Institutional racism at its finest. Too bad for cops that they are generally too stupid and fearful to realize how much the two stereotypes have in common…

    I say it is definitely a racist conviction, because every time the media bandies the picture of the uberwhite Nicole in front of the cameras, or pops the name “Goldman” into a story, the racist do listen. Those racists form the core of voting blocks who elect judges, who scren juries, etc…

    The flip side of that racism is the expectation that white people–ala gary Condit in the Chandra Levy disappearance, or the notorious Mark Peterson-Laci Peterson murder mysteries–should not be associated withj murder, or in the very least should get away with it (Condit, versus Peterson).

    In the original OJ case, we have a guy who looks bloody-guilty, a body(ies), and tons of circumstantial evidence, complete with solid police theories (did I say that??!), whereas in the case with white guys,the evidence was thin at best, with no immediate crime scene evidence.
    One white guy convicted-“he shoulda done a beter job of hiding hios crime”, and in the other, a senator unseated “white guys should be LILYwhite”.

    The whols system is racist, but it is always a question of which race dynamic is playing out.

    re: “the judge actually went out of her way to say that nothing like that is happening!”
    One fatal flaw in our so-called justice system is that we allow judges to manipulate the trial records with such asides and political soapboxing in court, while editing from the record things that are said by defendants, which utterly corrupts the notion of an untainted record.

  7. #7 sailor
    December 5, 2008

    I did not see the verdict and I am sure the judge said it was all impartial, but the publicity from the Simpson first trial was so enormous it is hard to believe anyone in the judicial system would not be affected by it.
    So the question really is if it was not OJ but another man of the same hue and equally articulate who was immensely rich who did the same thing, would he have have got the same 6 years? Impossible to be sure, but I doubt it.
    By the way Greg did you have a court appointed lawyer? It does not sound like he was really going to bat for you.

  8. #8 SLC
    December 5, 2008

    1. Dr. Laden is obviously unfamiliar with the justice system in Nevada, which is a law and order town. Miscreants there usually have the book thrown at them. I can cite a case of a previous colleague of mine who was sentenced to a long term in the slammer for picking up a young woman in front of a casino and taking her to his motel room. Although nothing happened there and he girl went alone voluntarily, he was charged and convicted of several felonies, all of which were greatly overstated. He was only let out of jail when it was discovered that he had a brain tumor which did him in some 6 months after his release. Given that, Simpson got off fairly leniently as he could be out if he’s a good boy in as little as six years. However, as with the case of my former colleague, the charges themselves were probably greatly overstated, especially the false imprisonment charge.

    2. The insinuation that former Representative Condit had something to do with the murder of Ms. Levy is totally without foundation. At the time of Ms. Levys’ disappearance, he was in a meeting with Vice-President Cheney and his time for the entire afternoon and evening is accounted for. There is not a shred of evidence that he was ever anywhere near the location where the body was discovered. It is highly likely that the actual killer is in jail for another crime.

    3. The death sentence handed down to Mr. Peterson is a miscarriage of justice of monumental proportions. There is no evidence as to how his wife died and there is no evidence that the crime was a first degree murder under California law. I think he probably was responsible for her death but, a fair assessment of the evidence could have concluded that, for instance, she fell down and suffered a fatal head injury (the head was never recovered). He was essentially convicted and given a death sentence because of the testimony of Amber Fry and his stupid attempt to cover up the incident by dumping her body in San Francisco Bay (i.e. he was sentenced for the coverup, not for the crime).

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    December 5, 2008

    I have personally never seen a court appointed lawyer do anything worthwhile. Yes, I had a court appointed lawyer. I might as well have had a stick and a marshmallow

  10. #10 becca
    December 5, 2008

    Actually, one could theoretically bribe many judges with an expertly toasted marshmallow.
    mmmm marshmallow.
    Perhaps this is why I will never be a judge.

  11. #11 tinman
    December 5, 2008

    Come on. Use just a little criminal common sense. O.J. was video taped committing every act of the crimes he was tried for. I am really surprised racism, and contempt for this less than human, didn’t give him the maximum allowed by the law.

  12. #12 Andrew
    December 6, 2008

    tinman: I think Greg is not talking about what happened at the scene of the crime. He is talking about what usually happens in the criminal justice system.

  13. #13 josh
    December 7, 2008

    I think Racism had more to do with him getting aquitted of murder than him getting convicted for that stupid stuff he pulled in Vegas…Any one of us, black or white, would have gotten about the same sentence…He is where he belongs now, and now that Barack Obama is President, it will be harder to play the “poor me” race card….If race relations dont get better after Obama is elected president and OJ is convicted, I dont know what will….We are all on equal ground now, so drop the racism stuff and just start considering yourself an American, and less a minority…Now “The Man” is black….Is a black man keeping a brutha down?…Sorry to go off…I’m just bein real..

  14. #14 anne
    December 7, 2008

    All I will say is that, you Josh,” hit the nail on the head”. No more, I’m black or they are black so it must be racial. We are on the same standing ground as of now.

  15. #15 STEVEN
    December 11, 2008

    OJ will now have to stop looking for the ‘killer’ on the golfcourse… Perhaps he could find him in pison…where he will rot…