This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 16, 1995
For a few suspenseful seconds last week, tens of millions of hearts beat a little faster across North America. Maintenance workers hovered in the doorways of executive offices to catch a glimpse of the television screen. In shopping-mall electronics stores, nannies with strollers stood next to curious seniors, all eyes raised to the flickering monitors. Los Angeles bistros brought in extra TVs so they wouldn't lose business. President Bill Clinton interrupted his study of budget legislation to watch live coverage. In New York City, there was a measurable surge in electricity as residents switched on an estimated 750,000 sets around 1 p.m. local time. Across the world, millions more tuned in to hear a Los Angeles jury announce its verdict in double murder case number BA097211.
Slowly, matter-of-factly, court clerk Deirdre Robertson read out the judgment: O. J. Simpson, football legend, advertising pitchman and now the media-made colossus of a deeply troubled America, was "not guilty" of brutally stabbing his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. As the defendant broke into a relieved grin, some commentators compared the moment to the unifying where-were-you-then power of the 1963 murder of John Kennedy or the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Suddenly, people of all backgrounds had an emotional stake in the matter of Orenthal James Simpson. But how they perceived the outcome cleaved deeply along America's racial fissures. "I was stunned - I feel totally empty inside," said Tina Barry, a white homemaker in the upscale L.A. neighborhood of Hancock Park who had watched the trial coverage daily. Blacks across the continent, meanwhile, rejoiced at what for many was a long-awaited vindication of their complaints of chronic police bias. "People may say it shouldn't be this way," said John Mack, president of the Urban League of Los Angeles. "But for the people of South Central Los Angeles, who live with a double standard of justice, this is a good day."
Whether it was the presence of television or the status of Simpson as the most famous American ever to be charged with murder, the trial became a prism through which people saw each other. Beyond black and white, it pitted men against women, rich against poor. Canadians differentiated themselves from Americans. Hostilities resurfaced between American Jews and blacks.
In the end, there were two realities: what happened in the court and what happened in the court of public opinion. The Los Angeles jury was unanimous. The evidence presented to them, several members said, was simply not conclusive enough to convict Simpson beyond a reasonable doubt. But the jury of viewers was far from unified. Polls showed half of Americans disagreed with the verdict. Among whites, 70 per cent believed Simpson committed the crimes and 56 per cent would not have let him off. Yet, 74 per cent of blacks believed Simpson was not guilty and 83 per cent agreed with the jury's decision. That the nine blacks, two whites and one Hispanic on the jury took less than four hours to arrive at their verdict was described by legal commentator Roger Cossack as "an insult" to both sides. "I'm not a psychologist," said L.A. district attorney Gil Garcetti, in trying to explain how the jury could have rejected what he called "overwhelming evidence" against Simpson.
There was no shortage of psychologists, lawyers and other experts anxious to analyze a trial that was called a circus and a zoo from the moment helicopter TV crews followed Simpson's white Ford Bronco through the streets of Los Angeles before his arrest in June, 1994. After the verdict was announced, the media feast proceeded to gluttony. It completely overshadowed the Oct. 1 conviction of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and nine militant Muslims for conspiring to bomb the United Nations and carry out several other murderous plots. That New York case was the largest terror trial in U.S. history, stemming from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people and wounded hundreds.
But, people were clearly more interested in hearing Simpson juror Gina Rosborough, a 29-year-old black postal worker, tell talk-show host Oprah Winfrey that if O.J. had committed murder there would have been more blood in his Bronco "than just this little speck that we saw." Another black juror, Brenda Moran, 45, held a news conference on the top of a Beverly Hills parking garage because 100 reporters could not fit into her lawyer's office. "In plain English, the gloves didn't fit," she said, echoing defence lawyer Johnnie Cochran's closing refrain, "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." Needless to say, the catchphrase is now a popular California T-shirt slogan.
In Washington, political leaders seemed keen to stay out of the fray. Attorney General Janet Reno cautioned against reforming the time-honored jury system. Clinton and rival candidates for the 1996 presidential race mouthed platitudes about democracy. But in a case filled with bizarre turns, there were some post-verdict surprises. Defence lawyer F. Lee Bailey claimed that his colleague Robert Shapiro had at one point considered a manslaughter plea bargain for Simpson. That was just one of the bombshells that, in no time, reduced the once-united Dream Team of defence attorneys to bickering enemies. Shapiro denied the claim and lashed out at both Bailey and Cochran for using race as their main strategy. Cochran responded that Shapiro was a "sick little puppy."
It was not long before O.J. himself spoke out, fittingly by calling in to CNN's Larry King Live show while Cochran appeared. Though he was careful not to stay on long enough to harm his chances for an immensely lucrative pay-per-view TV interview, Simpson spoke of his frustration with the whole televised trial process: "Throughout this case it has been misrepresentation - time and time again. People come home from work and they hear the pundits elaborating on these misrepresentations," he said. "Fortunately for me, the jury listened to what the witnesses said and not [prosecutor] Marcia Clark's or anyone else's rendition of what they said."
That may sum up what actually happened in the isolated jury room. When the jurors began to speak publicly, they insisted that holes in the prosecution's case made the difference, not race or Cochran's impassioned summation imploring them to send a message to bigoted police forces. Said juror Lionel Cryer of the government's evidence: "It was garbage in and garbage out." Cryer, 44, who shocked some onlookers by giving Simpson a raised-fist salute before leaving the court, added that the most credible witness to the jury was forensic pathologist Dr. Henry Lee, billed as the country's top practitioner in his field. Lee had said on the stand: "Something is wrong here. Something is terribly wrong."
The defence had pounded away at its contention that L.A. police planted evidence either to frame Simpson or to bolster shoddy work. With no eyewitnesses and no murder weapon, the prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence and failed to prove - to these 12 people at least - guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The lack of credibility of key witnesses did not help. Coming after the televised beating of black motorist Rodney King by white police officers, the perjury and racism of former detective Mark Fuhrman further torpedoed the reputation of the Los Angeles Police Department. The federal justice department is already investigating allegations of police misconduct raised at the Simpson trial.
Despite juror Moran's protestations that Fuhrman rated "barely a blip" on their radar - the jury only heard two of his 41 taped racist epithets - they were what resonated in the court of public opinion. "I agree with Cochran that he had a responsibility to follow up on the race card," says L.A. lawyer Brenda Shockley. "It's so rare that this system works on behalf of a black person that people don't know how to react."
The money card may have been more decisive. Simpson's legal bill is expected to reach $13 million. More than $1 million of that went to a jury consultant, three DNA specialists and two full-time investigators, who helped point out the imperfections in crucial pieces of evidence. On the stand, defence witnesses were able to make plausible what at the outset seemed preposterous: that police officers including Fuhrman planted bloody socks in Simpson's bedroom and a bloody glove outside his house, and smeared blood around his car. The defence's success in discrediting the prosecution's so-called mountain of evidence dumbfounded the losing side. "This was not a close case," said district attorney Garcetti. "I didn't just fall off the back end of a turnip truck. This is not how most cases are handled. Jurors do the right thing most of the time."
Among those convinced that the jurors did the wrong thing were many abused women and the professionals who work with them. Shelters for battered women around the United States immediately reported frantic calls from people who feared Simpson's acquittal was a green light for wife beating with immunity. "We believe that domestic abuse had everything to do with it," says Cathy Friedman, the associate director of the L.A. Commission on Assaults Against Women. "Whether Simpson was convicted or not, he is a batterer. We are concerned that people might lose sight of the fact that battering can be a deadly affair." In fact, photos of Nicole Simpson's bruised face and a tape of a 911 call of her crying for help as Simpson threatened her seemed critical at the trial's outset. But, by last week, that element had been superseded by the Fuhrman fiasco and its latest side issue, a confrontation between Jews and blacks sparked by defence lawyer Cochran's closing remarks.
Cochran called Fuhrman a "genocidal racist" and compared him to Hitler, a characterization that Jewish leaders condemned as a trivialization of the Nazi Holocaust and its murder of six million European Jews. Ronald Goldman's father Fred, who is Jewish, lashed out at Cochran's courtroom rhetoric and his use of bodyguards from the black nationalist group Nation of Islam, which many Jews view as anti-Semitic. Simpson's family, in turn, verbally attacked Goldman, who was supported outside the court by chanting members of the militant Jewish Defence League. By the night the verdict was read, which happened to be the eve of the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, there was a sense that the Jewish community had adopted Ronald Goldman as an emblem, much as battered women had done with Nicole Simpson and the black community with O.J. In one Toronto synagogue, Goldman's name was called out by a worshipper just before the recitation of the traditional prayer of mourning, the Kaddish.
Among Canadians, still reeling from the horrific murder trial of Paul Bernardo, there was a palpable sense of self-satisfaction. "Today, I'm proud to be a Canadian," said Toronto lawyer Shelley Levine, shaking his head at what he sees as a travesty of justice in the United States. Canadian jurors convicted Bernardo in a sober, untelevised four-month proceeding, resisting a defence attempt to shift the blame for killing teenagers Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French to Bernardo's ex-wife Karla Homolka. The key difference, though, was the stringent limits on news coverage. Shocking audiotape was heard in the Canadian courtroom, but never broadcast live outside. "You didn't have the lawyers pitching to the media in the Bernardo case," says Bruce Durno, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association of Ontario. "The Simpson trial probably set back by 10 years or so the position of those people who want television in the courtroom."
Despite their differing legal system and multicultural history, Canadians were not immune to the forces that tugged at America last week. At midtown Toronto's Sports Cafe, most whites grimaced while blacks shouted for joy and high-fived across their tables when the verdict was announced. The city's police had braced for riots in black neighborhoods, just as they had in Los Angeles.
To Larry Berg, a consultant and former University of Southern California political scientist, the lessons of the trial went well beyond America. "It is time for us to understand that racial division is the No. 1 problem facing not only the United States but most of the world - in Europe and, I'm sorry to say, in Canada. You have had trouble in Montreal, in Toronto and in Vancouver." Lawyer Courtney Betty, prominent in Toronto's black community, ruefully agrees. "What the O. J. Simpson trial has done is bring it all to the forefront. It has shown that we're not close to racial harmony. We're not close in the United States and we're not close in Canada."
The trial has produced some positive action. Across the continent, committees have been struck on law enforcement and on race relations. The Brown family has set up a fund in Nicole's name to help protect battered women. (Last week, they were still mulling over whether to fight Simpson for custody of the couple's two children.) But politicians like Jim McDermott, a Democratic congressman from the state of Washington and also a psychiatrist, question how much more fallout there will be. "The American public and the political mind doesn't stick to anything very long. The O.J. case has been the event du jour for nine months or so. There will be a lot of crazy ideas about changing the ways trials are conducted and so on. But the main body of political thought will just move on."
Maybe so, but the O.J. saga is by no means over. Already, the brother of Simpson's current girlfriend, Paula Barbieri, has hinted - on television, naturally - that his sister and O.J. may marry within six months. Simpson now faces three civil lawsuits, from the Brown family, the Goldman family and Ronald Goldman's mother Sharon Rufo, claiming damages for wrongful death. In civil suits, the burden of proof is much less than in criminal cases. This means that the defence must actively show why the allegations are not true - and that Simpson will almost surely have to take the stand and face cross-examination.
With further expensive proceedings looming, Simpson has applied to copyright his name and image to cash in on his acquittal. The live pay-per-view show, which might involve an interviewer and live phone calls from around the world, could earn him $100 million, industry watchers say. Simpson has already made more than $1 million on his book I Want to Tell You - one of scores on the trial published and in the works. Celebrity careers have been made by the trial. Lawyer Cossack and colleague Greta Van Susteren were given their own legal show on CNN after their daily commentaries on the case helped boost ratings. Simpson houseguest and monosyllabic witness Kato Kaelin is now a radio host, constantly mobbed for autographs. Even Simpson's golf caddy is working on a book. For O.J., however, simply cashing in will not restore his former stature. "He profited and thrived from his image," says lawyer Shockley. "That is over. Do I think he will be called upon to come and speak at commencements? No."
Notoriety still has its perks, though. L.A. County prison set Simpson free in about five minutes, although the process usually takes four hours. Then, his odyssey through the criminal court system concluded almost as it began - only this time it was a white police van, not his Bronco, that the helicopter TV crews trailed through Los Angeles. Following him, too, were a host of unanswered questions. If not O.J., who did kill Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman? Simpson himself vowed to dedicate the rest of his life to finding the killer, a pledge that brought horselaughs from his detractors. And why, ultimately, did people care so much about this trial? Beyond the second-string celebrity at the centre of it, the case seemed to summon the most primeval and prurient elements in society - sex, violence, race - even as its TV images expanded the electronic village. To many, the verdict seemed an echo of life in that village, where "not guilty" does not always mean innocent.
Maclean's October 16, 1995