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Let's put this case in perspective. A black man, the evidence of whose guilt in a brutal interracial double murder remains over-whelming, walks free. For generations, however, black men, the evidence of whose innocence in alleged interracial crimes was just as overwhelming, were jailed and executed and lynched. We are still far from righting the balance.

All this is true. Why then does it feel wrong to say it? For the same reason the Simpson verdict seems so wrong to so many: In deciding a case of guilt or innocence, a real case with real people, one is simply not supposed to invoke history nor to tote up group and racial grievances.It does not matter whether Johnnie Cochran's summation to the jury to "send a message" with an acquittal is now cited by the jury as the reason for their astonishing verdict. Cochran's summation, as masterful as it was disgraceful, simply codified what the trial was all about: Whatever the evidence, this trial was about political message sending. As Cochran put it, the police couldn't control the police, the government couldn't control the police, so the jury, speaking for the American people, would control the police.

The disgrace of this argument lies in the contempt it shows for what trials in a free country are supposed to be about. They are supposed to be about what happened on the night of the crime, not about what generally happens elsewhere in society. A jury box is not a polling booth or a venue for political demonstration.

In unfree countries, moreover, that is precisely what jury boxes are about. In totalitarian countries, trials are just another opportunity for political statement. Even as he portrayed the other side as Hitlerian, it was Cochran who sought to turn this case from a murder trial into that totalitarian specialty, the show trial.

It is not that in America we deny the legitimacy of group identification or group grievances. But they are legitimate in the political arena, not the judicial. In the political backrooms it's perfectly proper and highly traditional for groups to grant each other special favors and support. But that is not supposed to go on in the courtroom.

At the political level, for example, we recognize the need for some righting of the balance for the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. We did so by granting them the most honest and least corrupting means of balancing historical wrongs: monetary reparations.

The Simpson verdict balances wrongs in the least honest and most corrupting way. The appalling judicial injustices done routinely to black men in the past and the abusive police treatment of many black men in the present are undeniable. But had these indignities really been visited upon this black man?

On the contrary. This black man was a celebrity and accorded all the deference we slavishly accord men, black or white, of his fame. This black man was convicted of wife-battering and given the most risible of sentences. And after the slaying of his ex-wife, it was because of the police courtesies offered a man of his celebrity that he managed to slip away for his famous Bronco ride. Many black men get brass-knuckle treatment from police. Simpson got kid gloves - yet brilliantly succeeded in borrowing the prestige of their victimhood.

The trial was supposed to be about him, not them. In America one does not pervert justice in real cases with real victims because of what has happened to others - whether in the distant Jim Crow past or in the immediate present of the foul Mark Fuhrman. Or so we thought.

Perhaps we should not have so thought. After all, it is nearly 30 years since we made the fateful decision to start down the road of righting wrongs by group and doing so by officially treating different groups differently. In America today we routinely hire, promote and even fire on the basis of race. The shock felt across much of America at 11 a.m. MDT Tuesday was the awful feeling that perhaps we now acquit murderers on the basis of race, too.

The Simpson verdict should not surprise. We have lived now for a generation under a theory that declares that for officially designated victim classes the ordinary rules do not apply.

Cochran's genius was to turn O.J. Simpson from an abusive husband and murder defendant into a victim: of the police, of Fuhrman, of white society rushing to judgment. Simpson, too, learned how to play the card. He has said that in his relationship with Nicole Simpson he felt like a battered husband.

Once Simpson was made the victim, the rest was commentary. The case could unfold to its logical conclusion. For victims, the rules are different - not for Nicole Simpson, mind you, a mere victim of murder, but for the other Simpson, victim of the higher crime of racism.