This curriculum unit is intended for high school seniors in a Contemporary Law class at Co-operative High School in New Haven. The course is designed to acquaint students with issues of criminal and civil law and courtroom procedures. A field trip to the New Haven County Superior Courthouse and the viewing of an actual trial in progress is an essential part of the course and one of its highlights for my students. One of the goals of this proposed unit, then, is to familiarize my students with basic courtroom procedures and terminology so that they can appreciate the experience and not be too confused by it. Another goal of this unit is to get students to enter into issues the criminal justice system has a responsibility to address, particularly the race question. One of the questions often asked before the O.J. Simpson case began was, “Can he get a fair trial?” If this question was appropriate for Simpson, with his “Dream Team” of attorneys, then what about those accused persons who must rely on overworked Public Defenders who often have precious little time to investigate adequately. How many under-represented defendants, many of them black, are victimized by the system because of factors beyond their control? Can our criminal justice system do better? What can we learn about the system that will lessen the chances of becoming unwitting victims ourselves? Most of my students have first-hand experiences with crime and the police. How can a knowledge of courtroom procedures help both students and teacher to learn more about society’s racial attitudes and fears? How can events such as the O.J. Simpson trial help our awareness of how deeply divided our nation is over the question of race, and how real the consequences of racism are in a society which continues to play the “race card” on a daily basis?
In the Law course I teach, we study various issues facing the criminal justice system, one of which is the Fourteenth Amendments “equal protection clause,” as it applies to race. Within its historical context, obviously, the primary issue was legal status of the newly freed slaves. Today, the issue is fairness. Is justice really justice unless it is fair for all people, regardless of race or ethnic background? In the aftermath of the Simpson case, many white Americans were made aware of the perception by non-whites that there is not one but two systems of justice in our country, one for blacks and one for whites. This was not news for African Americans; but it is an important issue that needs to be pursued and disabled. What better form than my classroom, with the Simpson case helping to focus students’ attention in such a way that discussion can flow naturally and non-threateningly. The recent public fascination with the Simpson case has been a social studies teacher’s dream in many ways. The interest my students have shown in this trial, and their willingness to discuss the implications of then legal and social issues the trial has raised is something I wish to capitalize on in my law course. Now is the time, while the so-called iron is hot and recollections of Simpson fresh in people’s minds, to create a unit in which students “face themselves” in the sense that they examine their own racial feelings within the context of how “fair” the legal system was to O.J. Simpson, and to what extent race continues to be a factor in the criminal justice system.