Twenty years ago this month, the verdict delivered after the double murder trial of former football star O.J. Simpson transfixed the nation and much of the world that had been avidly following the trial for weeks.
The case brought against Simpson after the brutal murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman had elements of everything we now recognize in reality shows: celebrity, jealousy, violence, legal drama and, most notably, race. But so much has changed and not changed in the 20 years since the verdict, one has to wonder: if the same trial happened today, would the entire world watch?
Probably, but these days the trial of O.J. would be only one notorious, racially charged story among many.
It would certainly generate a conversation about the racial divide, as it did 20 years ago. But in an age in which Black Lives Matter and income inequality have become mainstream topics, O.J. Simposn would be one conversation in a much larger ongoing conversation about race, equality and the power of money to alter dynamics of both.
The O.J. trial was simply the lightning rod of its time, unique in its particulars but most significant in how it revealed a racial divide and color-coded opportunity gaps that had been building in the 1970s and ’80s and had reached an apex in the ’90s. The burning question during the trial was whether those inequalities, especially in the criminal justice system, could be thwarted this time by a famous black man who could afford a high-powered and high-priced legal team to defend him.
That question made O.J. a unique figure in black circles — not a hero, but significant in other ways. As journalist and longtime Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison said recently, black people saw in O.J. not a traditional community leader, but a symbol of social redress that had been too long denied. Summing up the case, defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran alluded to that redress in his remarks to the jury.
“Maybe you are the right people at the right time in the right place to say: ‘No more’,” he said.
In one way, O.J. as a symbolic figure preceded President Barack Obama, a mainstream black man with skills and resources who beat the system by getting a decision — or an election — to go in his favor. The triumph, however, was individual. It was not systemic.
O.J.’s murder acquittal was widely debated and still is, but it was an anomaly that did not eradicate racism in the justice system; it only served to harshly illuminate racial divisions that have been deep a long time. Like Obama’s success as president, defendant O.J.’s success in the courtroom in 1995 only reinforced the fact that in many American institutions like the legal system, there really is no level playing field.
Memorable as the case was, O.J. feels very far removed from the events of today because it was so unique. It was a genre unto itself because it brought together many threads of the American id — race, sex, money, celebrity, violence, the volatile mix of one or more of all these things — in a single case. And it was truly an event: analyzing the courtroom proceedings daily was a national pastime, something people did together in real time before the atomizing age of Facebook, social media and Internet platforms.
Yet the backdrop to all the O.J.-watching does resonate clearly today. The verdict came in 1995, just three years after the civil unrest in Los Angeles exposed growing racial divisions and generated a racial backlash in much the same way the Watts Rebellion did in 1965.
The calls for law and order got louder, and the mass incarceration of black men with which we are now so familiar was in full swing, aided by statutes such as the three-strikes law in California. The acquittal of O.J. went against popular political sentiment that was unapologetically “tough on crime” and looking to lock up black men with only modest evidence.
In such an atmosphere, O.J. escaping a murder conviction despite the proliferation of evidence — however tainted — was a big slap in the face, an unnatural circumstance.
Some in the media tacitly agreed. Time magazine famously blackened O.J.’s mug shot on its cover with the headline, “An American Tragedy.” Feelings on both sides ran so high that the LAPD, fearing another race riot after the October verdict, put mounted LAPD officers outside the courtroom the day the verdict was read.
It was during the O.J. trial that the phrase “playing the race card” became part of the cultural lingo. Johnnie Cochran was repeatedly accused of playing it, and yet in pointing out structural inequalities built on race, he had a point.
According to a Princeton study, on an average day in 1996, more black male high school dropouts aged 20–35 were in custody than in paid employment; by 1999, over one-fifth of black non-college men in their early 30s had prison records.
Those statistics of struggle actually came back to haunt the once-charmed O.J. After the triumph of 1995, his life, like Rodney King’s, became a wreck. He continued to be dogged by opponents and was never really embraced by black activists as a grassroots as a hero of any sort.
The New York Times put it this way in 2008: “After he was found not guilty in the 1994 murders, [O.J.] remained a pariah.” His star fell quickly and then dimmed altogether.
In 1997, a civil jury found him liable for the deaths of his former wife and Ron Goldman, and he was ordered him to pay $33.5 million to their estates. More run-ins with the law included being acquitted in 2001 of battery and auto burglary charges stemming from a road-rage incident in Florida.
He also appeared in a video that seemed to make light of the 1994 deaths by being seen wielding a knife, and he penned what he called a fictional tell-all book, “If I Did It,” which described how he might have committed the slayings.
Finally, in 2008 he was convicted in Nevada — the year Obama was first elected — of robbery and weapons charges when he attempted to recover memorabilia he insisted belonged to him. He is still serving time in prison.
The O.J. case as social redress always had its ironies. The future football star grew up poor in San Francisco, but he was never an icon in the black community the way athletes like Rosy Grier or Sugar Ray Robinson had been.
He was drafted into being a symbol of a wronged black man, accused in this case of killing a white woman (even one who was his wife), which raised alarms among black people who assumed he’d be crucified because of that fact. The evidence wouldn’t matter, as it had not mattered in so many instances in the past when black men accused of assaulting or even looking at a white woman were lynched without a trial at all.
The prevailing sentiment among black people of all classes was that O.J. should at the very least be given his full day in court; he should be able to use the system to his advantage like other rich and famous Americans. Here was a chance at truly levelling the playing field, which isn’t the same as saying that justice would prevail.
Black people knew very well that often didn’t happen. But a black person deserved the same reasonable doubt as everybody else accused of similar crimes. The push for this kind of historical redress was the crux of the black popular support for O.J., not really for O.J. himself.
With the stakes so high, the entire nation leaned forward to hear the decision as Simpson rose from his seat in the courtroom to hear the verdict on Oct. 3, 1995. Many reacted with shock and disbelief. Lead prosecutor Marcia Clark called the not-guilty verdict “outrageous.”
“The evidence was overwhelming,” she told reporters. “It pretty much shook my belief in the system.”
For many black people who had a very different reaction, some of whom were cheering robustly outside the courtroom, the system had finally gotten just what it deserved.