Twenty years ago, Orenthal James Simpson became the object of America’s deepest obsessions.
On June 12, 1994, O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman were found butchered outside her home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Both had been stabbed multiple times, and their throats had been slashed. Nicole’s attacker had nearly decapitated her.
Suspicion quickly fell on Simpson, who had a documented history as a domestic abuser. The Los Angeles Police Department was regularly called to the home Simpson once shared with Nicole, but his celebrity status always bought him a measure of forbearance that less famous wife-beaters could only imagine.
On June 17, an estimated 95 million people watched live coverage of police engaged in a low-speed chase of a white Ford Bronco across endless miles of Southern California highway. Simpson, reportedly suicidal and babbling, was in the back of that car, which his friend Al Cowlings was driving. Crowds gathered at highway overpasses to gawk and cheer. Some waved banners that anticipated the perversity that would characterize Simpson’s eight-month murder trial: “Run, O.J. Run” and “Free O.J.”
The trial was a master class in prosecutorial incompetence. Simpson’s dream defense team turned every LAPD misstep into a referendum on the honesty of the criminal justice system. The prosecution team that Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden led looked amateurish in comparison with the smooth-talking Johnnie Cochran and his deep bench of defense wizards.
The LAPD, which had a national reputation as brutal and racist, had to convince the predominantly black jury that its murder investigation hadn’t been compromised by a recorded racist diatribe by Mark Fuhrman, one of the case’s lead detectives.
By the time Cochran was through, it didn’t take too great a leap of imagination to picture the cops planting evidence against Simpson to ensure the conviction of a man they believed was guilty of a double homicide.
When the jury returned a not guilty verdict on all counts on Oct. 3, 1995, I was stunned. Extraneous issues like a racist criminal justice system aside, I believed “guilty” to be the only sensible verdict a jury could bring back given the preponderance of circumstantial and forensic evidence against Simpson was guilt. That was not a commonly expressed sentiment among blacks at the time, even when they agreed with me. It was a blatant act of jury nullification on par with what white juries routinely did in the South for decades when they exonerated white defendants who murdered blacks.
Six of 10 African-Americans told pollsters in 1994 that they agreed with the verdict that Simpson was not guilty, a statistic I chalked up to an irrational desire to get at least one “win” over a justice system that had been historically hostile to African-Americans. Still, it was an appallingly cynical position to hold given that two people had been murdered. It was a verdict that lacked even the most cursory nod toward intellectual or moral integrity.
Two decades later, Simpson is in a Nevada prison serving a 33-year sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping unrelated to the murders. He’s eligible for parole in 2017, but the now-66-year-old might never experience life outside prison again until he is a very, very old man — if ever. Many consider his three-decade sentence for attempting to retrieve memorabilia he insists was stolen from him a proxy verdict to make up for the outcome of his first trial. That’s a reasonable supposition, but it’s hard to feel sorry for him given all he’s gotten away with.
This week, a CNN/ORC poll found that 20 years after the white Bronco chase inaugurated the era of news as reality television, a majority of African-Americans is finally able to assert that O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Perhaps a majority white jury’s exoneration of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin convinced enough folks that maybe, just maybe, a jury box shouldn’t become the last refuge for those nursing racial insecurities. It should be a place of clear-eyed, unsentimental justice.
It will be interesting to see if attitudes toward Mr. Zimmerman, especially among the elderly white viewers of Fox News, will catch up to reality in 20 years.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.