Twenty years after the most notorious trial of the last century, I find myself still mesmerized by it, perhaps more now than at the time.
Lately, I’ve watched all 10 episodes of the FX dramatic series, The People v. O.J. Simpson; I’ve read The Run of His Life by Jeffrey Toobin, the nonfiction book on which the TV series was based; and I’ve finished viewing the powerful five-part documentary on the case, O.J.: Made in America.
For a while, I couldn’t figure out my own fascination with the 1994 murders of Simpson’s estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, especially after so much time has elapsed.
But I think I find the Simpson debacle riveting because it reinforces two principles at the center of how I understand society: first, true justice doesn’t, cannot exist in our fallen world, and second, we humans, individually and as a species, are profoundly flawed.
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From beginning to end, the Simpson trial was riddled with every imaginable irony, hypocrisy, venal subplot, misjudgment, arrogance, incompetence and bias. No one involved — prosecutors, defense lawyers, police, the jury, the judge, the media, forensic scientists and, least of all, the defendant himself —emerged intact.
Even the victims, particularly Nicole Simpson, sometimes appeared mercenary and amoral. Saying that is not to blame them for their fates, but to note that even the dead were defiled by this story’s grime.
The backdrop to the trial was a violent police force, the notorious Los Angeles Police Department, which had compiled an ugly history of brutalizing black citizens. Blacks in L.A. feared and despised the LAPD, and with very good reason, Rodney King being only the tip of a mammoth iceberg whose depths white people couldn’t comprehend.
An exception to this was Simpson himself. A wealthy hall of fame football player, actor and corporate shill with an ingratiating public persona, he’d made a point of befriending cops and enlisting them to perform personal favors for him. Rather than abusing Simpson, the LAPD had protected him when Nicole charged, as she repeatedly did, he’d beaten her half senseless.
“I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” Simpson bragged.
Rules rarely applied to him. Entitled, glib, astoundingly narcissistic, he cheated at everything, even at golf with the business executives whose professional favor he relied on. He was a serial philanderer, too.
He proved, however, a hapless criminal.
When he finally killed Nicole and Goldman in a fit of pique, he left behind enough evidence to convict a dozen murderers.
Prosecutors practically high-fived each other. They’d never seen so much incrimination: Simpson’s blood at the murder scene, as well as the victims’ blood in his vehicle, on his later infamous gloves, on his clothes and at his house.
He had no alibi. Cops observed a cut on his left hand. A pattern of bloodstains at the crime scene showed the killer had bled from the left side of his body. And the bloodstains matched O.J.’s DNA.
He’d already demonstrated motive: his escalating violence and stalking. Nicole had prophetically left behind handwritten notes, and even photos of her bruises from past beatings, saying she would one day turn up murdered, and when she did authorities should assume O.J. was her killer.
On and on the evidence went. An open-and-shut case.
Except the prosecutors repeatedly erred, in jury selection, in presenting the voluminous evidence, in failing to adequately vet Mark Fuhrman, a detective who’d played a small role in the investigation but had an extensive history of racism the defense could exploit.
Professionally, the prosecutors were no match for the “dream team” of defense attorneys Simpson had assembled. (He funded his defense partly by signing millions of dollars’ worth of memorabilia while in jail.)
It was a white lawyer, Robert Shapiro, who hit on the idea of turning Simpson’s trial into a referendum on the LAPD — that is, using the “race card.” Later, Shapiro would distance himself from this strategy, blaming it on another lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, because the race card’s bald cynicism made Shapiro a pariah among his well-to-do friends.
But the strategy worked. A largely minority jury, drawn from the same areas of Los Angeles long victimized by the police, exhausted by a trial that ran the better part of a year — months they spent unhappily sequestered — acquitted Simpson in a single morning’s deliberations.
In O.J.: Made in America, a juror admits the verdict was less a statement about Simpson’s innocence than a payback to the LAPD.
A final irony. Years after that first trial, after he’d been found responsible for the murders in a subsequent civil lawsuit, Simpson was sentenced to up to 33 years in prison for an unrelated penny ante Las Vegas robbery that legal experts say may not even have been a crime. Even if his acts were illegal, they would have netted another defendant probation, or at worst a couple of years behind bars. Simpson remains incarcerated.
Many view this imprisonment as its own kind of payback: by the Las Vegas judge for Simpson’s acquittal in the 1994 murders.
So Simpson walked free when he should have gone to prison, but got 33 years when he should have walked. Justice by injustice, you might call it. Still, that doesn’t really sit right, does it?
Our courts convict more guilty people than innocent, I imagine, and probably acquit more innocent people than guilty. But their proceedings are marred on all sides, always, by a stain that is the human stain.
We humans are capable of humility and decency and honesty and love.
Just beneath those virtues, perhaps interwoven with them in the very same hearts, lie the taints of arrogance and seaminess and dishonesty and hatred. Such sins infect every social structure we create.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.