“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”
– Bryan Stevenson from his book “Just Mercy”
By the time the verdict in the trial of OJ Simpson for the murder of his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, was read in Superior Court in LA on October 5, 1995, he had spent upwards of $9 million on attorneys. His “Dream Team” of defense attorneys included stalwarts like Johnny Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Robert Kardashian, and Alan Dershowitz. If he was not a former NFL star and actor, there was no way he would have afforded that defense team and without that team, his chances of getting off were slim.
When the verdict was announced that day, one saw two very different reactions in the American public. I lived outside the US at that time and watched the coverage on CNN. While white America was stunned, black America was jubilant. The difference was marked and very telling and for someone from the outside looking in, quite disturbing.
Many an analyst attributed that to the fact that blacks felt for that for once, one of them had beaten a system that had oppressed them for centuries. It did not matter that lives had been lost. All that mattered was that one of them had one-upped “The Man”. Knowing the history of the US and its tortuous racial history, half of me could relate.
Two years after the verdict, I moved to the US and was thrown into the culture, life, and politics of this nation. I started forming my own opinions about things. An impression started growing about the justice system in this country. Then in 2016, I read an amazing book by the attorney Bryan Stevenson, titled “Just Mercy”.
In his work with the poor and condemned, he noted the disparity in justice for the wealthy versus the poor; even the white versus the non-white. Even more importantly, he noted that the most important color in whether one obtained justice or not was the color green – that of the almighty dollar.
In short, the wealthy could buy justice, the poor, not so much!
Recently, the resurgence of the Jeffrey Epstein story made me think of the OJ verdict. This also brought Stevenson’s book, the numerous reports of unfair treatment of minorities and the poor in our criminal justice system, the levels of incarceration in the US to mind.
For those not conversant with the Jeffrey Epstein – he is a 66-year-old white man of near infinite wealth, who was found back in 2005 to be sexually abusing teenage girls and sex-trafficking in his Florida home. About 40 girls were found to be involved at that time. By 2008, with investigations in full swing, he faced a 53-page federal indictment that could have landed him in federal prison for life. A man of his means was not going to go down without a fight. With the help of his own “Dream Team” of heavyweight attorneys like Ken Starr (yes, the Ken Starr!), Alan Dershowitz, Roy Black, Jay Lefkowitz, Gerald Lefcourt, and Martin Weinberg and by pulling strings at the Justice Department, he got a sweet deal that saw the federal charges dropped for much lesser state charges.
Most of his attorneys worked for the law firm Kirkland & Ellis. Interestingly, the US attorney in Florida who was prosecuting the case and agreed to this deal was called Alex Acosta, now the Labor Secretary. He had also worked at Kirkland & Ellis before entering public service.
Suffice it to say, Mr. Epstein went from possible life in prison to a 13-month jail sentence and registration as a sex offender. Most of his jail sentence was not spent in a cell though – six days each week, he got to work in his office! That is the kind of justice you get when you are wealthy.
However, that was not the end of the story. After an investigative journalist called Julie Brown did an expose on the case last year in the Miami Herald, it rekindled interest in it among law enforcement in New York City. Mr. Epstein was re-arrested last Saturday for sex crimes.
Contrast that with say the case of Eric Garner, killed for selling cigarettes illegally by the road or Tamir Rice, for playing with a toy gun or the over 8 million people arrested for possessing marijuana between 2001 and 2010 and it slowly clues you in to why a lot of blacks in America cheered when the OJ verdict was announced in 1995.
Most blacks know that, with our skin color, one is not assured justice. They also have learned that wealth buys one justice and historically, only wealthy whites enjoyed this reprieve. Then comes along OJ with his “Dream Team” and for the first time, they see a black man with money buy justice. Now is that not a cause to cheer, even if lives were lost?
Even though minorities are the ones often ensnared by this unjust system, a lot of poor whites fall victim to it too. A lot of poor whites who end up at the mercy of public defenders do not get justice either. Without cash to hire a good attorney, there is no justice and that is the sad reality. That is why the Jeffrey Epsteins of the world get sweetheart deals because they can hire “Dream Teams”.
Unfortunately, with a racial animus that makes a lot of whites think blacks deserve the treatment they get from the criminal justice system, they fail to realize that one day, they could fall victim to this unjust system too. Note – almost all Jeffrey Epstein’s victims were white teenagers and the justice system failed them because they did not have the wealth Mr. Epstein had.
As long as this racial animus exerts this power over American society, there will never be a concerted effort to fix things. Even though recent changes supported by the President and Congress are encouraging, there is still so much work to be done.
Bryan Stevenson was right when he wrote:
“…I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned…”
Until then the Epsteins will get off with murder while the poor get thrown into jail for being unable to pay traffic tickets.
Dr. Nana Dadzie Ghansah is an anesthesiologist who practices in Lexington, Kentucky
Mar-a-lago picture of Trump and Epstein – Davidoff Studios/Getty Images
Eric Garner photo – Getty images
Feature photo: “Unequality” by blmurch is licensed under CC BY 2.0