Ronald Mason | OJ, class and Jamaica
Some 22 years ago, my relationship with a radio station obliged me to watch every televised moment of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I was obliged to give a daily two-minute commentary on the proceedings. I had to follow very keenly the evidence presented in the case where O.J. Simpson, a prominent sports persona in the USA, was charged with the murder of his ex-wife and her friend.
The trial was by jury, a predominantly black jury in the suburbs of Los Angeles, California. The trial was to last for nine months, which proved long enough for white America and black America to have hard-set positions on the question of guilt. It also gave America the opportunity to wrestle with their own special interpretation of the phrase 'guilty beyond a reasonable doubt'. In the pursuit of justice reasonable doubt encompasses the benevolence that states it is better for 'nine guilty persons to be acquitted than one innocent person convicted'.
Every deep-felt emotional taboo had a role in that trial. A black man from the wrong side of the railroad track had grown and blossomed into an icon. He did so at the University of Southern California with the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers, also of the NFL. He parlayed his fame into being official spokesperson for major US companies like Hertz. He made millions.
O.J. married an attractive, bright white woman and established a fairy-tale life. When they ultimately got divorced, it came with the public display of raw emotion, but he was still a rich black man cavorting with white women. The trial exposed these emotions, prejudices, anger and outrage. Here was a black man charged with a most serious offence, but he had the wherewithal to spend more than US$6 million in his defence.
"If the glove does not fit, you must acquit," and acquitted he was at the end of this circus that passed for a trial and which exposed racist police, prosecutors of questionable competence, new fields of evidence in DNA analysis, and a judge who spent his time stargazing at O.J. Simpson.
This was to result in a great national divide. White America felt that justice was not served and black America rejoiced that there was at least one black man capable of beating a crooked system at its own game. The events of the July 20, 2017 Parole Board hearing in Nevada shows that the divide is still raw, stark and emotional.
There is a lesson to be learnt by Jamaica in all of this. Play down the race element and insert socio-economic class instead. You can take long odds that the overwhelming majority of Jamaicans do not believe the new clear, hold-and-build crime policy will ever be applied in a rich, uptown community, yet there is no evidence, data or anecdote to show that illicit drugs and illegal guns are any less prevalent in these communities.
Our judiciary exists in an economy that leaves very little room for hope, as judges can threaten to sue over their salaries, with remuneration of the chief justice and Court of Appeal president reported to be in the region of J$16 million per year, inclusive of benefits. This averages $307,000 per week. The poor must live on a minimum wage that is currently less than $7,000 per week, or some $364,000 per year.
The income equality in Jamaica produces as wide a gap as the O.J. Simpson trial has shown us in the USA. If you think it is only income disparity, try health care at the Tony Thwaites Wing versus what is available at a public hospital.
The fees contributed by parents of name-brand schools and the amenities these schools provide to enhance learning and well-being, compared to the facilities and opportunities provided at the perpetually failing schools, are miles apart, yet social mobility is praised and appreciated in the society at large.
Some rich and famous families rave about the start and progression made on their life journeys, but think how obscene it must be to live in a failing inner-city community located just before reaching these affluent communities and see and read of the society's extravagance that start in cost at more than your whole week's wages just for a ticket to one of these social events. No shoes, clothes, accessories.
This must be addressed. If it is not, the hope of reinstalling social order, civic-mindedness, uniformity of effort to build a just society is destined to fail. 'Out of Many, One People' only applied to those in your social circle. If you are in the top echelons, the world is available to you; if you are at the bottom, continue to live in squalor and degradation.
But there will come a time when a social-climbing Jamaican as president of the PSOJ will happen. Bill Clarke did not make it.
- Ronald Mason is an attorney-at-law and Supreme Court mediator. Email feedback to columns