• U.S.

What Americans Won’t Do

5 minute read
Michael Kinsley

They will never execute O.J. Simpson. They will never strap O.J. down in the gas chamber, seal the door, and drop the poison pellets (California’s chosen method). Even putting it in these terms proves the point. It is unimaginable. We will not allow it — “we” being the same American citizenry that supports capital punishment by a wide margin in every poll, the same citizenry to which politicians promise ever more executions for an ever greater variety of crimes.

Simpson, of course, is innocent until proven guilty. He may be telling the truth when he says, through his lawyer, that he was at home two miles away when his ex-wife and her male friend were murdered. Furthermore, as a rich man, he is entitled to the true blessing of American justice — which isn’t a fair trial but an unfair trial. Top criminal lawyers don’t get $500 an hour or more to supply justice no better than a run-of-the-mill public defender. Even if he’s guilty, he may get off, or get off lightly.

But O.J.’s real guarantee against capital punishment is his celebrity, not his wealth. Imagine that the scenario we’ve all had running through our head actually happened: that O.J. Simpson drove his Ford Bronco over to his ex- wife’s town house, donned a pair of gloves, confronted her and a man he at least thought was her boyfriend, inflicted “multiple sharp force injuries and stab wounds” (the coroner’s report) on both and slit her throat to boot. Two deaths. Premeditated. Gruesome. No obvious complicating or mitigating circumstances.

Is that the kind of thing advocates of the death penalty have in mind when they say that some crimes are deserving of the ultimate sanction? Undoubtedly yes. Would society be able to impose it on O.J. Simpson? Undoubtedly no.

Why not? Because O.J. Simpson’s celebrity means that for most Americans he is a flesh-and-blood human being. We comfortably call him “O.J.,” even though we’ve never met him, because in our mind he’s a friend. Even if convicted of murder, he’ll never be an abstract symbol of evil like the typical death-penalty customer with three names — Robert Alton Harris, Rickey ; Ray Rector, John Wayne Gacy et al. For once, in the competition of humanization between the murderer and his victims, the murderer would have an unbeatable edge.

O.J. Simpson is not just a famous former football star. Through his sports commentaries, his Hertz Rent-a-Car commercials and his movie roles, he has created a persona: manly and likable, the classic good-guy jock. Whatever actually happened last week, we now know that this persona was not entirely accurate. Good guys don’t beat their wives until the police have to be called, as apparently happened more than once in the past.

But however much our image of O.J. Simpson may have to be revised, his celebrity will continue to protect him. This is only partly because the impression of O.J.’s likability — stamped into our brain by hundreds or even thousands of media moments over the years — will never be completely destroyed, even by the most compelling of contrary facts. More important is that likable or unlikable, O.J. Simpson is and always will be a real person in other people’s mind. And all but the most hardened death-penalty enthusiasts will quaver at the thought of this real person — O.J. Simpson! — gasping for breath as the cyanide begins to do its fatal work.

So if it comes to the crunch, people will be understanding and compassionate. They will look for excuses: a troubled childhood, uncontrollable rage, the pressures of his high-powered winner’s life. They will stress his remorse. They will point to his orphaned children. They will say the whole thing’s a complex tragedy. They will argue for mercy. They will, in short, become liberals — at least for this one case.

As a liberal softy, I oppose the death penalty, but I’m not a sentimentalist about it. There are many other circumstances in which the state sanctions the death of its citizens for policy purposes. The decision to go to war is the most obvious example, but even the less dramatic decision to build a major tunnel or bridge contains the statistical probability of deaths in the process. We live with it. Furthermore, a quick and relatively painless end strikes me as preferable to echoing decades in the typical, miserable state prison with no hope of parole — the death-penalty opponents’ favorite alternative. (Of course, most of those who actually face the choice disagree with me about this.)

But, as retired Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell belatedly concluded after a career of upholding death sentences, the death penalty cannot be administered fairly. Nothing illustrates that better than the thought experiment of trying to imagine O.J. Simpson in the gas chamber. It’s just not going to happen, no matter what he may have done. And rightly so. After all, this is a guy we’ve shared beers with — at least in our mind.

So, does that mean we should perhaps spare some human empathy even for the low-powered losers who are the usual murderers in our society? Is their tragedy, perhaps, also complex? Does their remorse count for anything? Should we hesitate to demand death for death in their cases?

Heck, no. What are you — soft on crime?

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