“Where was the joy of the defense team at the announcement of the not-guilty verdict? [Johnnie] Cochran smiled his cat-that-ate-the-canary smile, F. Lee Bailey wore the smirk of victory on his face, and Robert Shapiro, who had already distanced himself from the winning team, made a halfhearted gesture toward Simpson, but the others, particularly Robert Kardashian, looked momentarily dazed, as if the verdict were more than they had expected. The exhilaration that is part and parcel of an acquittal for a wrongly accused person was eerily missing. Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld had already returned to New York. At the lackluster press conference in the courtroom following the verdict, there was an absence of euphoria. When Jason Simpson read a message from his about-to-be-set-free father, in which the former defendant said that a priority of his life would be to find the real ‘killer or killers,’ he sat awkwardly, almost hiding his face from us, as if he were ashamed of the message he was reading. In the opinion of many, the lawyers who fought so hard for Simpson’s acquittal have become diminished by their association with him. As someone close to the defense team said to me, it was a victory without honor.” —Dominick Dunne, “O.J.’s Life Sentence,” Vanity Fair, December 1995
Twenty years ago this month, virtually all America stopped to witness the verdict on O.J. Simpson in his trial for the first-degree murder of ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. Viewers had had time to prepare for this outcome, certainly more so than they had more than a year before, when, out of nowhere, amid the NBA playoffs, they were astonished to see the retired football Hall of Famer flee arrest in his white Ford Bronco.
The office where I work, in midtown Manhattan, was no different from the rest of the nation in watching the denouement of this astonishing spectacle. It being lunchtime on the East Coast, many staffers could simply go into the conference room and turn on the TV showing the proceedings occurring at 10 am in Judge Lance Ito’s courtroom in California. They quickly filled up all the chairs around the long conference room table, a mass hubbub rising as they awaited the announcement from Los Angeles. They then leaned forward, hoping this would finally put a period to a saga that had compulsively, crazily transfixed everyone.
At the words “Not Guilty,” some in the audience gasped. Others groaned. In short order, everyone filed out of the room, with many shaking their hands, bewildered by what had transpired. They could not understand how it could conclude like this.
I have written a prior post on the Simpson case, but that dealt with an essay by John Gregory Dunne, Dominick’s brother, honing in on the three principals: the defendant and the two victims. But Dominick was more consumed by the trial, not only reporting on it as a ringside observer for Vanity Fair Magazine but also using it as the centerpiece of his roman a clef, Another City, Not My Own.
Two decades later, we can see, as Dunne predicted, that any initial euphoria that Simpson and his legal “Dream Team” may have felt soon dissipated, as the former gridiron great and commercial pitchman became an outcast in his Brentwood community and his attorneys experienced various degrees of misfortune. (Simpson, having lost a wrongful-death civil suit brought by Goldman’s father Fred in 1997, lost his freedom 11 years later when he was sentenced to 33 years in prison for robbery and kidnapping, the result of a dispute over memorabilia he claims was stolen from him. His most famous attorney at the time of the case, F. Lee Bailey, ended up disbarred on another matter several years later.)
We also know, in a way that Dunne may only have dimly suspected, that the trial marked not an ending but a beginning. The consequences for our common culture run deep, in ways that are, more often than not, understood piecemeal, not in any comprehensive fashion. I’d like to outline here six keys—surely, some of you can think of more—to understanding how the Simpson case remains the property even of a second generation:
*The arrival of a multimedia tabloid culture. In its impact on the public consciousness, the case can best understood by comparing it to famous murder trials of the 1920s. The musical Chicago and the film noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice sprang from cases that burst on the United States in that decade. Tabloids breathlessly covered seedy murder cases reeking of crime, class and sex, and featuring flamboyant defense attorney predecessors of the "Dream Team" such as Bill “The Great Mouthpiece” Fallon—and, on a more positive note, promoted a golden age of sports heroes (e.g., Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Bobby Jones). The commercial possibilities of a recently developed broadcast medium, radio, were also being explored. By the mid-1990s, another journalistic juggernaut, cable TV, had developed. More than three out of five Americans had cable television by this point. Two channels in particular fed off the Simpson case: Court TV and CNN. In the case of the latter, guests commenting on the Simpson case so dominated Larry King’s schedule that even the talk-show host worried that it was too much. The fight for viewers fostered a 24/7 news cycle that would, before the decade was out, plunge to new depths with the establishment of Fox News and the development of the World Wide Web.
*Justice as legal farce. Jackie Chiles, Kramer’s attorney on Seinfeld, was a note-for-note parody of Johnnie Cochran. During the trial, Jay Leno’s Tonight Show featured “The Dancing Itos,” a series of choreographed numbers featuring Judge Lance Ito (along with a female dancer resembling lead prosecutor Marcia Clark). But many felt that nothing on TV could surpass in absurdity what was occurring in Judge Ito’s courtroom. This included assistant prosecutor Christopher Darden, inducing Simpson to try on blood-stained brown leather gloves—only to have the smug-looking defendant demonstrating they did not fit, and making Darden a legal laughingstock. This included a case so hideously long that jurors were sequestered a record 265 days, stuck in their hotel rooms, under the eyes of sheriff’s deputies, not allowed to watch television or listen to radio or even read newspapers—and scaring off thousands of future potential jurors nationwide terrified about serving on other long cases. This included a conspiracy theory so immense, involving so many officers, forensic personnel, and prosecutors that it would enable jurors to overlook a mountain of evidence tying Simpson to the crime, not to mention a history of spousal abuse.
*Domestic violence. Forensic evidence was not the only tie of Simpson to the death of his ex-wife; there were also the 17 violent years that preceded it. Jurors heard—then, in the end, ignored—two 911 phone calls Nicole made in 1993. Were her most horrifying words that Simpson was “going to beat the [expletive] out of me”? No, believe it or not—it was “I think you know his record.” “His record” included a 1989 no-contest plea to domestic violence. That might not have been the most horrifying aspect of the situation, nor even that, after nonstop coverage of the case, 31 votes could still be mustered in the Senate against the initial 1994 Violence Against Women Act. No, topping this is that last year, when reports trickled out that running back Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice had struck his then-fiance Janay in a hotel elevator, some still defended him—until a video of the event surfaced. OJ’s sister-in-law Tanya Brown made the logical connection between the two events: “You’re gonna raise a hand to a woman of that stature, that height and that weight, you can knock her out like what we saw, and end up like Nicole.”
*Reality-show America. The real-time low-speed chase involving the police and Simpson’s Bronco (driven by longtime teammate and friend Al Cowlings), followed by seemingly never-ending courtroom proceedings, signaled the rise of reality-show America. Although a number of the courtroom figures held important positions in the legal community (Ito, Clark, Simpson team member F. Lee Bailey), the trial also involved people with no accomplishment and no claim on the public attention save for their connection to the case (Simpson semi-permanent houseguest Kato Kaelin, Nicole Simpson confidante Faye Resnick), given their 15 moments of fame and, in some cases, wanting a whole lot more. The obsession with these people was intense, total even, and so in-the-moment that a few years later, viewers had completely lost track of some of these supporting players.There was even a connection to the most famous reality-show cast of all on Simpson's "Dream Team": Robert Kardashian, before his divorce from wife Kris, had sired children who, together with his ex, would still keep a nation transfixed with their doings two decades later.
*Distrust of law enforcement. At least eight times before the 1989 911 calls, police were called to Nicole Simpson’s house on domestic-violence charges against O.J. That statement did not come from the police, or even from Nicole, but from O.J. himself: “The police have been out here eight times before, and now you're going to arrest me for this?" he yelled at two cops there for the 911 call. Given how often he had gotten off, you could understand his disbelief. What might be a bit harder, initially, to grasp is how a police force that had long ignored and enabled O.J.’s violence against his wife could now be considered responsible for framing him. Harder, that is, until one recalls that Rodney King had been beaten to a pulp only a few years before. Or that a 10-member commissioned chaired by future Secretary of State Warren Christopher found that "a significant number" of cops on the Los Angeles Police Department who had been accused of excessive force were seldom punished. Or that, more often than not until recently, African-American civilian complaints about police brutality were not weighed on the same credibility scale as those of cops—until the presence of cameras confirmed, in many cases, what they had been saying all along. The presence at the crime scene of Mark Fuhrman, trailing a history of racist statements, gave the largely African-American jury all the excuse they needed for “reasonable doubt.” If overlooking massive circumstantial evidence tying Simpson to the crime constituted “jury nullification” (not to mention accepting a criminal conspiracy involving not just Fuhrman but everyone at the LAPD connected to the case)—well, that, to those inclined to think this way, was simply payback for white-dominated juries who, for decades, had let their own kind off scot-free.
*The enduring racial divide. In an interview for the PBS news show Frontline, Jeffrey Toobin, who covered the case for The New Yorker, may have said it best: “The only reason we will care about this case 10 years after, 20 years after, is what it told us about race in this country….[T]his case showed that when it came to law enforcement and belief in the police and the judicial system, black people and white people in 1995 lived in different countries, and that was something that the country really didn't want to be reminded of, but this case sure brought it home.” We are now at the 20-year mark after the case that Toobin spoke of, and every word he said rings true. We see this not just in continuing different opinions on the verdict, but also in political discourse in which a significant portion of the electorate opposes President Obama less because of his economic record or views on the culture wars but because of the demonstrable falsities that he is Muslim and not a citizen of the United States. You can understand the frustration that more than a few blacks might feel about being criticized for supporting a verdict so at odds with logic when there is a good chance their white questioner holds views about Barack Obama that are equally, if not more, irrational. And that, of course, is part of the racial baggage of the United States: All questions of logic fly out the door when the color of someone’s skin comes into play.
What the case proved, indisputably, is that the color of justice in the United States is not black or white, but green. Without money in this country, a defendant of any color immediately faces higher odds. With enough financial resources, though, a celebrity defendant can face down virtually any legal problem. Within a decade, Robert Blake would get off on the charge of having his wife killed, while the prosecution had to endure a mistrial before it could earn a conviction against “Wall of Sound” pop producer Phil Spector on charges of second-degree murder against a B-movie actress—the first time in 40 years that a celebrity was found guilty of murder in Los Angeles.
It’s obvious now that America can’t escape from the damage that the Simpson trial inflicted on this country’s cultural, legal and racial landscape. But neither can the defendant—who, after all, rose to fame and fortune by eluding massive linemen on the gridiron and by dashing through an airport in a landmark rental-car commercial—flee the consequences of his actions two decades ago.
The bizarre aborted book deal (If I Did It), the long-delayed civil trial admission that he had indeed struck Nicole in their marriage, the current incarceration, all mean that, even in the interior realm where people can live at their freest, O.J. cannot run away from his conscience. Those autopsy pictures of the mother of his two youngest children—throat lacerated, eyes still almost wide open, as if disbelieving that what she long feared was at last happening to her—tackle him at every turn.