A number of years ago I wrote an op-ed article for the Oklahoma Gazette. It was at the time O. J. Simpson was about to be tried for murder. I expressed the hope that the trial would be a civics lesson for the nation and an example of our system of justice at work.
I’m not sure the Gazette published that piece, and I hope they didn’t, because the peril of the Op Ed Business is that you write about something that is totally wrong or never happens. As we all know, the trial was a complete run-away, with a judge who couldn’t control his courtroom and grandstanding lawyers, worse than Perry Mason. After the show in the courtroom, the decision of the jury couldn’t have satisfied anyone. In many ways the Simpson trial was a one off in the judicial system. The trial more in line with the example I hoped the nation would see is the trial of Timothy McVeigh. It was carried out with dignity and a professional procedure which probably made it dull and forgettable. The pending trials of most of the terrorists now in custody, have not risen to the level of more than passing interest by the public
However, the premise on which I based that hope for a major example of the judicial system at work over a major crisis in the country still holds. I maintained that two occurrences in the last century had a profound influence on damaging the confidence of the public in our system of justice and more broadly, in government itself. The first was the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby and the second was Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon.
In the first instance, I had a premonition of what would happen. I was sitting on the bed in the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, watching television. Two days before, four of us had watched the parade from a window on the second floor of Neiman-Marcus. On that Sunday, my husband was in the bathroom shaving. “Somebody’s going to kill that guy,” I said. About that time Ruby fired his revolver. “There it is,” I said and remember feeling absolutely no emotion. “What was that?” my husband said and rushed into the room, razor in hand.
What I could not know is that the murder would prevent an orderly trial, where all the evidence would be laid out at one time for the public to evaluate. Instead, we have gotten fifty year of increasingly bizarre theories on what happened. More importantly, we were denied watching the judicial system work its way through that singular event.
For those who believe in a conspiracy, there is now no real way to convince them they are wrong or to persuade those who believe Oswald acted alone that they are in error. It leaves us with dilemma we cannot resolve.
In the case of President Nixon, I appreciate President Ford’s wish to get past the ugly facts of Watergate, but again, truncating the proper procedure of our system of laws denied the public a chance to watch the system work its way through a major catastrophe. Without this frame of reference, the growing sense that “government doesn’t work,” “all politicians are crooks,” “Everybody’s on the take,” “If you’re important or rich you can get away with anything.” Again, with no formal trial, there was no working through the evidence and no closure. We have been dealing with the fall out ever since.