WE KEEP HEARING that the justice system is on trial in the O.J. Simpson case, and it is. The whole world is watching, judging every aspect of a sometimes baffling process that somehow or other is supposed to guarantee that justice is served.
By the time a verdict is achieved in the Simpson trial, we will have gained many impressions and misimpressions about American jurisprudence. And foremost among these will be the impression that there is no job on Earth worse than that of testifying in a court trial.Just look at the string of witnesses who have been chewed up in the former football star's case.
There was prosecution witness Ron Shipp, accused by defense attorney Carl Douglas of being a drunkard and a philanderer. There was defense witness Rosa Lopez, trashed by prosecutor Christopher Darden as a liar and manipulator.
One of the prosecution's star witnesses, Los Angeles police Detective Mark Fuhrman, was accused by the Simpson defense team of racism and evidence-tampering. And other L.A. cops who've testified have been berated as dishonest, incompetent or maybe just plain dumb.
Even Denise Brown, grieving sister of murder victim Nicole Brown Simpson, was maligned when defense attorney Robert Shapiro revealed her past problems with alcohol.
And now we have the spectacle of Assistant District Attorney Marcia Clark beating up her own prosecution witness, Brian "Kato" Kaelin, because he sometimes doesn't answer questions exactly the way she wants him to.
If this keeps up, witnesses won't be swearing to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth; they'll be swearing to head for the nearest exit the first chance they get.
Just escaping the witness stand doesn't solve the problem, of course. Even if they survive the courtroom bombardment, witnesses still must endure being raked over the coals by reporters, expert commentators and all those "experts" out there in TV land who critique each day's court proceedings via fax and voice mail.
Few other court cases - no other court cases, in fact - have been subjected to the intense public spotlight that's been focused on the Simpson trial. But the Simpson case isn't that much different from a lot of trials as far as the witnesses are concerned.
No matter how hard you try to do the right thing, no matter how deeply committed you are to telling the truth as you remember it, if you are a witness in a court trial somebody in that courtroom will consider it his or her personal and professional responsibility to rip you to shreds, to destroy your credibility, to convince everyone who is listening that you are a scoundrel, a fool or a perjurer - and very likely all of the above.
The problem is that in the eyes of the lawyers in a court trial, witnesses are not human beings. They are merely tools, devices used to convey information to the court and the jury.
A witness's reputation is of no concern to the combatants in a trial except to the extent that such reputation can advance or impede the case being made by one side or the other.
A witness's feelings are certainly of no concern, unless those feelings can be exploited by the lawyers to make a point with the jury.
In the end, dedicated trial-watchers may not agree on much - especially Simpson's guilt or innocence - but most of us will take on oath on this: If somebody wants us to testify in a court trial, we're planning to be out of the country that day.