Angela Poe Russell: O.J.’s death reminds America of its persistent judicial problem

Apr 17, 2024, 6:21 AM | Updated: 9:14 am


O. J. Simpson sits in Superior Court in Los Angeles 08 December 1994 during an open court session where Judge Lance Ito denied a media attorney's request to open court transcripts from a 07 December private meeting involving prospective jurors. (Photo: Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

(Photo: Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Ever since O.J. Simpson passed away, we’ve been inundated with news around the infamous trial, his famous attorneys and the big question of whether he really did it.

While this certainly is a fascinating water cooler conversation, the whole thing just made me angry. It brought to the forefront the criminal justice systems in our country and how every single day there are different tracks — one for the haves and one for the have-nots. And the kind of legal representation, or “justice,” you receive often depends on what’s in your bank account.

More on O.J. Simpson: Fallen football hero acquitted of murder in ‘trial of the century,’ dies at 76

It’s estimated that O.J. Simpson paid more than $6 million for his dream team of attorneys. But most people who stand accused of something, regardless of guilt or innocence, can’t afford such a dream, much less the standard attorney fees.

What happens to the accused when they don’t have the resources?

If someone accused of a crime is declared indigent, meaning extremely poor, the court will appoint an attorney through public defenders. It sounds like a great system to support this right that everyone is supposed to have, according to our constitution.

But in reality – according to the American Bar Association – 42 states, including Washington, allow courts to charge fees for court-appointed attorneys. Sometimes they are up front or are assessed later. And it can vary from county to county.

And we can’t guarantee the quality of that representation. A new landmark study revealed public defenders have three times the caseloads that would be considered standard.

Regardless of someone’s guilt or innocence, the right to a fair trial is foundational to our democracy and is a cornerstone of justice. And the two tracks in the justice system are especially painful for those later found to be innocent.

Bring this issue to light

The Sixth Amendment Center is a nonprofit that focuses on this issue by offering support to federal, state and local policymakers and stakeholders who want to improve their indigent defense services. Other organizations dedicated to this issue are the locally-based Northwest Justice Project, the Equal Justice Initiative and the Innocence Project.

Reaching out to your state legislator is also an effective strategy.

More on OJ Simpson: Saga was a unique American moment. 3 decades on, we’re still wondering what it means

Look I get it, money buys access. Cases like O.J.’s shine a light on this. It’s been almost 30 years though and the problem persists. It’s time to change it.

The preamble to our constitution establishes the idea of justice as a way to form a more perfect union. While I never expect perfection, I am confident we can do better.

Angela Poe Russell fills in as a host on KIRO Newsradio and has been around Seattle media in different capacities for a number of years.

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Angela Poe Russell: O.J.’s death reminds America of its persistent judicial problem