WHIPPANY, N.J. — Robert Shapiro, the lead attorney for O.J. Simpson's defense in the murder of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, does not know if his former client was guilty.
"I wasn't there, you weren't there and I don't know if I ever allowed myself the luxury of coming to my own conclusion," he said.
Speaking Nov. 7 at the Lautenberg Family Jewish Community Center of Greater Morris in Whippany, N.J., Shapiro described how members of his Los Angeles synagogue reacted to Simpson's acquittal on criminal charges.
His comments came amidst Simpson's civil trial on wrongful death lawsuits filed by the families of his former wife and Goldman.
Shapiro, author of "The Search for Justice" (Warner Books), and a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Christensen, White, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser and Shapiro, said Simpson's guilt or innocence in the criminal trial is not the point.
What matters is making a distinction between moral and legal justice, he said.
"If you express an opinion, you are saying he probably did it; maybe he most likely did it; the evidence points to the fact that he did it. But in the court of law that is not enough," Shapiro said.
The government, he added, must prove beyond a reasonable doubt and to a near certainty the guilt of the accused.
"If you sat in the courtroom for a year and a half and if you are a clear-thinking, rational individual, you have had some real doubt," he said.
Issues that sparked doubt in the O.J. trial included the Los Angeles Police Department's collection of blood from the murder scene, which defense experts termed problematic, and the Mark Fuhrman tapes, which showed that the LAPD detective lied about using the epithet "nigger."
Shapiro also discussed the growing gap between whites and blacks and to a large degree between Jews and African Americans. Shapiro said fellow "dream team" defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran was wrong to compare Fuhrman with Adolf Hitler.
"Not only was the race card played, but it was dealt from the bottom of the deck," he said, repeating one of his more famous comments on the issue of race in the case.
"This was something that was tremendously bothersome to me. [Race] may have been a factor on some level, but our lawyers made it the issue."
Had race been left out of the case, the outcome would have been the same, Shapiro said.
Shapiro said he attempted to withdraw from the case, but would not say why that did not happen, except that he needed written permission from Simpson.
Shapiro is also troubled about the state of race relations in this country today.
"We have a [race] division like I have never seen since I was a student in UCLA in what was the civil rights movement," he said, "and we have moved as far back from there as one can imagine."
Yet he acknowledged that race was a factor when he selected Cochran and said he was even searching for a female black attorney.
When he began the case, Shapiro had hoped that two things would happen. "One is that a Caucasian Jew representing an African American who has been accused of killing not only a white woman, but a fellow Jew, could…demonstrate how lawyers could come together and [also] how lawyers could really be professional," he said.
"Unfortunately, I could not have been more wrong on both accounts."
He also spoke about anti-Semitic experiences during the course of the case.
"I found it strange in the newspaper accounts that I would be referred to as O.J. Simpson's Jewish lawyer," he said. No other lawyers in the case were identified by religion.
He said newspaper caricatures unfairly depicted him with a prominent nose and protruding ears and late-night television hosts made jokes about his wealth.
Then there was the mail, with some letters stating, "`Dear Jew Bastard: How could you defend a…' and you know what the next word would be."
He recalled other similar letters from Jews. "How could you as a Jew defend someone who spilled Jewish blood? You are doing it for the money. It is blood money," he recalled such letters saying.
The day of the verdict was memorable for Shapiro, but not solely because of the outcome. Yom Kippur began that evening, and congregants hissed at Shapiro and his family as they took their seats in the synagogue.
That night the rabbi handed the Torah to Shapiro, telling the lawyer he was going to need it more than anyone.
After the airing of a TV interview with Barbara Walters in which Shapiro expressed unhappiness over the "race card," the hisses turned into apologies, he said.