As we shall see, the O.J. Simpson criminal murder trial turned out to be a complete circus. From the “Dancing Ito’s” on Jay Leno to the wall-to-wall coverage of the ten million defense attorneys, all vying for attention in front of the cameras. It was a joke.
But the impact of the trial on the actual real world, the one off-camera away from L.A., was no joke. To this day I tell people that it changed the face of criminal law forever.
Gone were the days of Domestic Violence (DV) cases being dismissed just because the chief witness didn’t show up. You see, it used to be that when you had a DV case, literally half the time you got to trial and the complaining witness (or victim, depending on how you look at it) was a no-show. No witness, no case, no trial, case dismissed. Simple as that.
Enter Nicole, stage right, with her nearly decapitated head, a truly horrific image.
Suddenly, the pendulum swung 180 degrees. Now everyone was guilty. This is simply the other side of the same simplistic coin. Instead of instantly dismissing cases that probably should not have been dismissed, thanks to O.J., now everyone is presumed guilty. Where Defendants appear reasonable or charming, as O.J. did to most of the world before he killed Nicole, this is now seen as proof of their deceit and guilt.
The fact is that DV cases are complex. Unfortunately, too many people see the world in black and white, not shades of grey. I realize that last sentence is one giant double entendre, with both racial and DV overtones. It’s not my fault; the phrase is not new or original, but it is really, really important. Because we need to remember that it is not always easy to figure out the best way to deal with complicated human situations.
The world is never that simple.
THE EXTREME CASES
The problem is that neither extreme view is helpful to understanding the way these cases work.
It was wrong to simply dump the cases when the witnesses did not show. Why? Because the victim might be tied up in a basement somewhere when she does not come to court. Or threatened, or beaten up. Or worse.
However, it is important to remember that DV accusations can actually be false – hard to believe, I know, but there’s this thing called the Presumption of Innocence. It’s kind of critical in our legal system. It’s what trials are all about, or should be. The FACT is that now everyone is presumed guilty the minute an accusation is made. The police know this, and so do the alleged “victims”.
Here’s an example of one extreme of a DV accusation: if you are living for free in some guy’s house, and he is cramping your style, it is a quick ticket to freedom. Freedom to live in his place for free, at least for a little while, or get him out of your hair. We criminal defense attorneys call it “Eviction by 911 Call.” Call it in, the cops arrive, you make your claim, the guy is carted off to jail.
Even if he is released, in most cases the judges will order him not to return to that address. Even if it is his house, in his name, and he is paying the mortgage or rent.
On the other extreme side, some partners who have been horribly victimized are in precarious positions, both mentally and physically, when they come to court. They may act out of fear and altered mind-states and be unable to make choices that can help themselves in the long run.
This is why domestic violence advocates can be helpful. Most of these advocates are very well intentioned and want to help, and for all those poor victims who would have been left to rot while tied up in basements prior to O.J. they are a godsend. They can save lives.
However, women aren’t necessarily in need of rescue from themselves just because it is a DV case. They may actually be the best person to understand what their family needs.
I cannot begin to tell you how many times I see these women in court, beseeching the judge to allow them to have contact with their husbands, trying to work out their problems, only to be told NO! It is as if they are small children, incapable of understanding or working out their own problems. We don’t do this to smokers, or people who overeat, even though those types of behaviors can lead to death. The government might tell you where to smoke, but they don’t issue court orders preventing you from smoking. It is your choice.
But here? No way are you “allowed” to go it alone. You are deemed incapable of sorting out your own problems from the start. Unfortunately, too often advocates are former victims themselves, who see themselves in the victims they work with and lose their objectivity.
Sorry. But, it’s true. They can dominate the women they are supposed to be helping, manipulating them and controlling them in a way that is uncomfortably similar to the abusive behavior of the batterers they are supposedly protecting the “victims” from, thus causing further problems for them.
ALL THE REST OF THE CASES
The real problem does not lie in the extreme cases. The real problem is often more nuanced. In these cases the system designed to help DV victims can sometimes cause more harm than good.
Recently I had a typical DV case; something bad had clearly happened. However, whatever happened was between a husband and wife with zero prior DV problems. The husband was under enormous stress at work and he messed up – maybe. Exactly what crime he committed remained to be seen – another part of the problem.
You see, criminal charges do not grow on trees. Charges are arbitrarily decided by prosecutors. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to what crime to charge someone with when bad stuff happens. What one prosecutor might see as a basic misdemeanor assault another might view as attempted murder. Don’t laugh. This happens every day; I know, because I have to come in and clean up the mess.
Which is my point: thanks to O.J., some monster who likes to beat on women and small children after having a few drinks might be stopped. Gone are the days when some good looking banker in a nice suit can smile at the sexist male judge and wink and walk out the door a free man, only to go home and have a few martinis and wale on his wife one more time. Believe me, that used to happen. A lot.
Now those poor women are more protected. That’s because O.J. showed the world that the charming guy with the killer smile (literally) up there in first class signing autographs was secretly only days away from slitting the throat of that beautiful strong woman standing by his side. Suddenly the whole world was calling B.S. on the charade.
And that was a good thing. A great thing. Lives have been saved.
But what is not so great is that the pendulum has swung way too far the other direction. Now instead of giving batterers a free ride whenever they are able to smile and wink, all of the accused are presumed guilty from the get go. Every time. And the wives and girlfriends? Once again, no one listens to them. They have no power over their lives and are at the mercy of the courts and prosecutors and victim advocates. Victims can come into court and beg and plead until the cows come home to be allowed to be with their boyfriends or husbands and it does no good, despite what the actual circumstances are.
Ironically, the same people trying to empower them have removed their power. To speak for themselves or control their own lives. Suddenly the government knows best. Every time.
MOVING TO CENTER
Which is why I was amazed in my recent case when I made this very argument and the judge actually listened to me. The wife was a very strong woman and wanted to try to work on her marriage. She was begging to be able to be with her husband.
And incredibly, the judge agreed.
Maybe this means we are finally finding a way to place the pendulum in the middle, which is where the scales of justice are supposed to be after all. At least until some actual evidence is elicited in an open courtroom with the benefit of full constitutional confrontation.
O.J.? He made things this way the minute he attacked Nicole. Which again, has been a great thing for so many people. It would be extremely interesting to be able to figure out just how many lives have been saved as a result of his murderous rampage that beautiful spring evening, so many years ago.
But, as I have tried to explain here, nothing is ever that simple.
This is why everyone really needs to watch the recent TV shows about his cases, one criminal, one civil. If you do you will see precisely how complicated and nuanced these cases are. And, above all, how the legal system can actually be used in a productive and positive way to bring out the truth. This is really what it is all supposed to be about, isn’t it? More on that next time, when we explore the unlikely hero of this whole story, Dan Petrocelli…
If you would like Craig Platt’s help with a legal issue, you can find his contact information here or fill out a confidential, easy form about your case.