A thousand miles away in California, the O.J. Simpson jury had just started deliberating when Denver County Court Judge Larry Bohning called his court to order.
From the outset, the city's case against Arisha McRae and DeShawn White looked like anything but a grand slam. Time had not only dulled the collective memory, but it had also failed to sharpen individual recollections of the March 25 fracas at a local Denny's--last spring's hot topic on TV and radio and in the newspapers.
But when the women finally got their days in court last week, it rated barely a mention in the media. By then, of course, the media were devoting all their precious time and space to the Simpson trial, second-guessing the verdict, offering "expert" analysis, interviewing relatives of people only peripherally involved with the case. There was no room for anything else.
Inevitably, O.J. spilled over into the Denver courtroom. There, by sheer happenstance, the city's most racially charged incident of 1995 coincided with the national obsession of the decade.
The echoes began with the "n" word, as potential jurors were questioned, ever so delicately, as to how they felt about racist insults, racial epithets. But then, the word "nigger" helped fuel the spark that flamed into life early that Saturday at the Denny's at 6699 Leetsdale.
The joint was jumping at 1:30 a.m., and the people who weren't eating to sober up were eating to stay up. An off-duty Denver sheriff's deputy, Susan LaMonte, was working security, keeping order and keeping her eye on a group of sixteen to twenty black youths; she'd even called the Denver Police Department a few minutes earlier to ask that a cruiser pass through the parking lot in a show of strength. But that group was paying up when the real trouble began. A feeling-no-pain white guy, Rick Brauderick, accompanied by a woman who admitted that she, too, was under the influence, went up to the cashier, said the crowd was "fucking bullshit" and loudly asked to be seated; manager Curtis Hain decided to do so...quickly. That was the first mistake.
As Hain walked through the "welcome" area, one of four young black women seated there pointed out that her group had been waiting longer; Hain admitted that might be the case, and a service assistant then moved to seat the quartet. When they decided the assigned table was too small, they moved to a booth that was larger--but also closer to Brauderick. That was the second mistake.
From there on out, the mistakes came fast and furious. Brauderick and his companion complained about having to sit too close to the young women, making audible comments about "nigger" behavior. At least one of the young women countered with a reference to the "white bitch." And the war of the words was on. When Brauderick approached the women's table, Hain and LaMonte veered over to intercept him. The manager told Brauderick he would have to leave. One of the black women used a profanity, and Hain told the women that they would have to leave, too.
They didn't go quietly. One woman got into a tussle with LaMonte, her friends gathered around--and the sheriff's deputy hit the panic button. Eight squad cars, containing a total of sixteen DPD officers, responded.
Denny's has been hit with well-aimed discrimination complaints before, and its corporate management now reacts to any accusations of racism with the sort of hypersensitivity usually seen in adolescent poets. The next day the president of the company flew into town, where he temporarily shut the restaurant and scheduled confabs with representatives of the African-American community. By that Monday, Denny's had reported the incident to the Office of the Civil Rights Monitor, which had been established in response to two earlier federal cases and was now charged with investigating any claims of discrimination made against the restaurant. And within a week, Denny's brass had petitioned Denver police chief David Michaud to drop all charges against the four women--a fact that made it into open court only after the city attorney unexpectedly called another city attorney to impugn a defense witness.
But the city didn't drop the case. Although charges against their two friends were dismissed, Arisha McRae and DeShawn White were accused of assault and disturbing the peace. Rather than cut a deal (as both Brauderick and his companion had, pleading guilty to lesser charges in exchange for deferred sentences and fines that covered only court costs), the women decided to go to trial.
It certainly would have helped the city's case had one of its key witnesses managed to keep the two defendants straight. But even as news of the O.J. verdict was filtering in, the city's arguments were petering out. The prosecutor knew the differing stories could be a problem, and in his closing argument, he urged jurors to use their common sense. He brought up not only the hackneyed blind-men-and-the-elephant analogy but also references to Monday night football, as proof that not everyone watches the same parts of the game and someone has to do the play-by-play.
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And not everyone plays the same game, as was evident when defense attorney C. Lamont Smith, who specializes in sports law, offered his close. He knew it was time to pour on the Juice. "I want to assure you that these defendants didn't play any race card," Smith told the jury. "They played the card they were dealt."
He then proceeded to deal a few from the bottom of the deck. Smith apologized to the jury--three white men, two white women, one Asian woman--for "subjecting you to that racial epithet. I'm sure to even some of you," the black lawyer said, "it's offensive." From there the arguments became as subtle as a sledgehammer. While Susan LaMonte quietly wept at the prosecutor's table, Smith suggested that her necklace, admitted into evidence as proof of the alleged assault, could have been broken anytime, anywhere, and not by one of the defendants. It was all part of the city's "coverup," he said. In fact, the entire case was "a coverup, because they know they have exposure." (If they do, it's because Smith has already filed suit on behalf of the four women against Denny's and has said he may add the Denver Police Department and the city to the lineup of defendants.)
It was Wednesday evening, exactly thirty hours after the O.J. verdict had been announced, when the six jurors in that Denver courtroom began their deliberations. Four hours later they had their verdict. McRae and White were found not guilty of assault.
But both were found guilty of disturbing the peace.
It's not all black and white.