Justice system works in O.J. Simpson case, but not in his favor

To many people, Clarence J. Stewart might not qualify as a good example of our justice system in action.

He had the poor judgment and weakness of character to pal around with O.J. Simpson, the former NFL star who beat a double-murder charge in a case that made international news.

But Simpson couldn’t beat the odds in Vegas, where he was convicted in September 2007 of the armed robbery and kidnapping of two sports memorabilia dealers at Palace Station. Simpson, one of the most notorious names in the American justice system, was convicted in October 2008 and sentenced to 9 to 33 years in prison.

Stewart, his golfing buddy and hanger-on, was a throw-in defendant in the case, but was tried alongside Simpson, a name synonymous with the justice system’s failings. Given that company, it ought to have come as a surprise to no one Stewart also was convicted by a jury in District Judge Jackie Glass’ courtroom. He received a 7½ -to-27-year sentence.

On Friday, the state Supreme Court made public its decision to uphold Simpson’s sentence but reverse Stewart’s and remand the case for a new trial. Their reason was clear: It was impossible to receive a fair trial sitting next to Simpson.

"We conclude that the spill-over prejudice from Simpson’s notoriety warranted severance, and therefore we reverse the conviction," reads the order, signed by Justices Michael Cherry, Nancy Saitta and Mark Gibbons.

Naturally, Stewart’s attorney, Brent Bryson, was ecstatic the state’s highest court was moving to correct the lower court. But this is about something bigger.

The Stewart appeal provides an excellent example of how the justice system can work when capable and dedicated advocates for the defense and the state square off. The system is human and far from perfect. The failure to sever the cases was a mistake, but it can be corrected.

Before trial, District Attorney David Roger offered the defendants the opportunity to enter guilty pleas for dramatically reduced sentences and avoid a trial that had gained national media attention. Several of Simpson’s buddies jumped at the opportunity.

For whatever reason, Stewart held out even after it became clear Simpson was, as ever, attempting to cover his own tail no matter the expense.

During trial it became clear whoever was standing close to Simpson was going to go down hard with him.

The court noted from the start, "The jury questionnaires primarily focused on the prospective jurors’ possible bias towards Simpson by asking prospective jurors about their thoughts on the criminal and civil proceedings in California. Indeed, the trial transcript shows that the voir dire proceedings were dominated by questions about the verdicts in California, with both sides questioning prospective jurors about their knowledge and thoughts on the criminal and civil cases."

It wasn’t that the facts failed to lead the jury to determine guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The justices made their view clear: "We have considered Stewart’s claim that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict and conclude that it lacks merit."

The court noted that "any rational trier of fact" could have reached the jury’s conclusion. Someone, Bryson perhaps, should highlight that section of the court’s reversal and remand and encourage his client to read it over and over again.

If ever a criminal case cried out for settlement, it’s this one. Roger remains amenable, and by now surely Bryson has the DA’s phone number on speed dial.

Meanwhile, the bad guy in this story remains in prison with time to contemplate his karma. The unfortunate guy is about to be released.

And the state Supreme Court gets credit for ensuring the system in Nevada works for everyone.

Justice is greater than the sum of its parts. Clarence Stewart could tell you that.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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