A decision by prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson murder trial not to seek the death penalty - no surprise to most veteran criminal lawyers - has nevertheless stirred some contro- versy.
Like nearly everything else in the case, some people are using the decision to make publicity points about one cause or another.Black leaders who have argued about the death penalty being applied disproportionally to minorities are cheered by the district attorney's choice. But feminists are protesting, saying the decision smacks of gender favoritism. Some had urged prosecutors to seek the death penalty because of Simpson's record of spouse abuse. Others complain that Simpson's wealth is buying him a different brand of justice.
Yet such views probably had little to with the ultimate decision by prosecutors. The first duty of a prosecutor is to win the case, not carry ideological baggage. Most legal experts believe the decision not to seek the death penalty was simple and straightforward. The only criticism of some was why it took so long to arrive at the obvious.
Despite Simpson's reprehensible history of wife abuse, that is not grounds for the death penalty. He had no criminal convictions in his background and is a well-known and previously admired public figure. Going for the death penalty might easily have jeopardized the possibility of finding him guilty. At least that is the position of many court-watchers.
In addition, the death penalty issue in such a highly publicized case would have complicated the jury selection and made it more difficult and tricky than it already is going to be.
Prosecutors appear to have made a pragmatic choice that simplifies their job just slightly. That won't satisfy those people who believe the state should seek the death penalty in every murder case, but as legal strategy, the decision is understandable.
The district attorney says there will be no further comment on the death penalty issue. That is as it should be. There has been too much public comment about the case already.
What is coming up beginning Sept. 26 is supposed to be a trial, not a circus. Whether it will work out like that remains to be seen.