Simpson Trial

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Simpson Trial

On the night of June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman were viciously stabbed to death outside the former's townhouse in Brentwood, California. The murders immediately received an extraordinary amount of media coverage because Nicole Brown was the ex-wife of former football star, minor film star, and celebrity pitchman O. J. Simpson. O. J. Simpson came under immediate suspicion in the murders, was briefly questioned by detectives assigned to the case, and formally notified four days later of his impending arrest on double homicide charges. Rather than surrender, however, Simpson left behind a maudlin note for the media, which some construed to be a suicide note, and took off with his friend A. C. Cowlings in Cowlings's white Bronco. After a few hours of uncertainty and suspense, police cars located the white Bronco on the L.A. freeway and began pursuing it in what the media, televising the dramatic event to a spellbound worldwide audience, quickly dubbed a "low-speed chase." In contrast to the public animosity that would soon make Simpson a social outcast, hundreds of people lined the freeway overpasses above the bizarre procession and waved handwritten signs of support for the "Juice." The strangest chase in LAPD history ended at Simpson's estate in Rockingham, where he was quietly placed under arrest, out of camera range of the circling news helicopters, and taken to the L.A. County Jail. Eighteen months later, Simpson, acquitted of all charges, would again be escorted home by the LAPD, but this time to the jeers and contempt of his neighbors and the scorn of much of white America. The reaction to Simpson's acquittal, as well as belief in his ultimate innocence or guilt, was and still is sharply divided along racial lines, with African Americans tending to support Simpson and white Americans ostracizing him. The process by which Simpson became legally vindicated but socially exiled is indicative of the force of the mass media in late twentieth-century America.

The international spectacle of the Bronco chase was only a hint of the media obsession to come regarding the Simpson case. All of the major figures involved in the investigation and trial procedures would become celebrities in their own right, courted by the media and in many cases given multi-million dollar book deals. The preliminary hearing and the trial were televised in whole or in part by the major networks, and night after night the cable news stations, such as CNN and MSNBC, devoted hours of often-heated analysis from mostly obscure legal pundits to the day's legal developments. (Some of these legal pundits, such as Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren, soon gained their own regular cable shows, and much later some of the Simpson trial veterans, such as Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clark, ironically became pundits themselves.) Millions of viewers across the United States followed the television proceedings throughout the day, and millions more watched the nighttime trial summaries, commentary, and analysis. The wall-to-wall coverage and the high ratings ensured that future extended real-life dramas, such as the 1998 national sex scandal involving President Bill Clinton and a young White House former intern Monica Lewinsky, would receive the same exhaustive treatment from the media.

Simpson was formally arraigned on June 20, 1994, entering a plea of "not guilty." Thus far, public opinion seemed to have more or less reserved judgment on Simpson's guilt, but all of that began to change on June 22. That was the day that the District Attorney's office leaked to the media a tape of a frantic 911 call made by Nicole Simpson back in October of 1993. In that tape, Nicole tearfully pleads for help as an enraged Simpson shouts and swears in the background. The contrast between the chilling tape and Simpson's genial public persona could not have been more striking, and many students of the case point to the release of the tape as the beginning of the public shift of opinion against Simpson. Two other instances of domestic violence in the Simpson household then received widespread media play: a 1985 incident that resulted in no formal charges, and a 1989 incident in which Simpson was charged but eventually pleaded "no contest." On the basis of such abusive incidents, the District Attorney's office, under the leadership of D.A. Gil Garcetti, began formulating its theory of the murders: that O. J. Simpson, already a violent wife-batterer, had killed Nicole and her friend Goldman out of jealousy and rage. Thus began a public debate between various experts as to whether Simpson fit the "profile" of an abuser-turned-murderer.

However, contrary to most expectations, the prosecution's emphasis on domestic violence eventually proved to be a losing strategy. What ultimately carried the day for Simpson was a defense that compellingly argued that a combination of LAPD malfeasance (evidence planting and tampering) and crime lab incompetence (evidence contamination) had conspired to make an innocent man look guilty. Central to this defense strategy was the ambiguous figure of Detective Mark Fuhrman, one of the original investigating detectives at the Bundy crime scene. Fuhrman was in some ways a star witness for the prosecution: movie-star striking in appearance and unwaveringly methodical in crime-scene investigation. However, according to some sources, Fuhrman had a reputation as a racist who allegedly targeted black suspects for brutal treatment. Problematically for Fourth Amendment advocates, Fuhrman also had entered Simpson's Rockingham estate on the night of the murders without a warrant, ostensibly because he and fellow detectives Tom Lange and Philip Vanatter, having just come from one bloody crime scene, feared for Simpson's safety and did not consider him a suspect. (Judge Lance Ito later characterized Vanatter's version of this story as demonstrating "reckless disregard for the truth.") Fuhrman provided a convenient way for defense lawyers to negate one of the most damning bits of evidence against Simpson: a bloody leather glove found by Fuhrman at Simpson's Rockingham home that matched one left behind at the Bundy crime scene. The defense theory, which was formulated early on and never so much explicitly stated in court as implied, was that racist Fuhrman, alone behind Simpson's house, had motive and opportunity to plant the bloody glove, surreptitiously lifted from the Bundy crime scene, and thus make the case against Simpson ironclad. Such a theory had undeniable resonance in racially troubled Los Angeles, which still remembered all too clearly the deadly riots that followed the 1992 acquittal of four LAPD officers charged with beating African-American motorist Rodney King.

However, it would be some months before the defense could square off against Fuhrman and the LAPD in open court. In July of 1994 at the preliminary hearing, Judge Kathleen Kennedy-Powell found that there was enough evidence for Simpson to stand trial. A few weeks later, Judge Lance Ito became the trial judge. Jury selection began in September and continued into November. The jury was predominantly African American, a fact that would later cause much controversy. The attorneys who represented Simpson, some of them nationally famous, became hyperbolically known in the media as "The Dream Team." Simpson's team of lawyers at various times included F. Lee Bailey, Bob Blazier, Shawn Chapman, Johnnie Cochran, Alan Dershowitz, Carl Douglas, Robert Kardashian, Ralph Lotkin, Peter Neufeld, Barry Scheck, Robert Shapiro, Skip Taft, and Bill Thompson. Robert Shapiro first organized Simpson's defense. Later, the locally famous African-American lawyer Johnnie Cochran joined the defense team and eventually became its lead attorney after public disputes between Shapiro and F. Lee Bailey caused a severe rift in strategy. Against this team were arrayed some forty full-time prosecutors, of which Marcia Clark and Chris Darden (an African American) became the most visible advocates for the People's case.

Clark and Darden delivered opening arguments in the case of The People vs. O. J. Simpson on January 24, 1995. The trial lasted for nine months, during which the rapt television audiences witnessed many defining moments, some of high drama and others of low comedy, that have since passed into legal lore. A partial list of those moments includes: Nicole's sister Denise crying on the stand as she described Simpson's contemptuous and abusive behavior toward Nicole; the jury field trip to Simpson's elaborately staged Rockingham estate; the cross-examination of Detective Mark Fuhrman by F. Lee Bailey, in which Fuhrman unwisely denied using the word "nigger" in the previous ten years; the befuddled demeanor and tortured vocabulary of Kato Kaelin, a houseguest of Simpson's who had been with Simpson on the night of the murders; the rigorous cross-examination of LAPD criminalist Dennis Fung by Barry Scheck, in which Fung admitted to numerous errors in processing the crime scene; the horrendous decision by prosecutor Darden for Simpson to try on the killer's leather gloves, which apparently did not fit, in front of the jury; the defense team's first courtroom suggestions that evidence may have been planted by the LAPD in order to frame Simpson; the playing to the jury of tapes which conclusively refuted Fuhrman's contention that he had never said "nigger" in the past ten years; Fuhrman's subsequent pleading of the Fifth Amendment as to whether he had planted evidence in the case; the calling of two sinister-looking mob informants to impeach the testimony of one of the case's detectives; Simpson's in-court assertion to Judge Ito that "I did not, could not, and would not commit this crime;" and Clark's impassioned rebuttal to the defense's closing arguments.

But by far the most dramatic days of the trial were October 2 and 3, when the jury deliberated the case for only four hours before reaching a verdict. Judge Ito decided to delay the announcement of the verdict until the following day, thus allowing one full night of feverish pundit speculation as to the outcome. On the morning of October 3, 1994, as much of the nation halted work to watch the suspenseful reading of the verdict, Simpson was found "not guilty" of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. Television viewers across the nation saw news video of white audiences stunned by the news and black audiences rejoicing. Official reaction was primarily that of disbelief. A visibly stunned Gil Garcetti and his lead prosecutors held a post-verdict press conference, during which Chris Darden was reduced to tears. Public reaction depended very much on the race of those being asked. Polls taken in the days and weeks after the verdict confirmed that people's views of the verdict tended to break down along racial lines. The voices of the white establishment press, including those of highly visible network news anchors, swiftly grew in protest against the African American jury that, it was implied, freed Simpson for reasons of racial solidarity. Subtly racist criticism was also leveled against Asian American Judge Ito for not having kept tighter control of his courtroom.

The white backlash against the jury and its verdict only grew stronger over the coming months, eventually reaching its crescendo in the wrongful-death civil trial that grew out of a suit earlier filed against Simpson by Fred Goldman, the father of Ron. Fred Goldman had been a highly visible spokesman for his slain son during the criminal trial. The lead lawyer for the plaintiff was Daniel Petrocelli; Simpson's lead lawyer in the civil trial was Robert Baker. The civil trial began on September 16, 1996, in Santa Monica. In contrast to the first trial, the civil trial was not televised, and Simpson himself took the stand to testify. On the evening of February 4, 1997, in another media spectacle that threatened to overshadow President Clinton's annual State of the Union address, a predominantly white jury found Simpson liable for the wrongful deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman and assessed combined compensatory and punitive damages of $33 million. Just as the first trial's verdict was roundly condemned by the establishment press, so too was the second verdict hailed as a triumph of justice. O. J. Simpson was forced to sell his Rockingham estate and, as of this writing, stands in jeopardy of losing the custody of his and Nicole's two children, Sydney and Justin. The "Trial of the Century" at which he was acquitted has proved to satisfy no one. Many people remain convinced that Simpson legally, if not financially, got away with murder, while others are equally convinced that institutional racism and police malevolence allowed the real murderer(s) to escape justice.

—Philip Simpson

Further Reading:

Bosco, Joseph. A Problem of Evidence: How the Prosecution Freed O. J. Simpson. New York, William Morrow and Company, 1996.

Bugliosi, Vincent. Outrage. New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 1996.

Clark, Marcia, and Teresa Carpenter. Without a Doubt. New York, Viking Press, 1997.

Cochran, Johnnie L., and Tim Rutten. Journey to Justice. New York, Ballantine, 1996.

Cooley, Armanda, Carrie Bess, and Marsha Rubin-Jackson. Madam Foreman. Beverly Hills, Dove Books, 1995.

Darden, Christopher, with Jess Walter. In Contempt. New York, Regan Books, 1996.

Dershowitz, Alan M. Reasonable Doubts. New York, Simon &Schuster, 1996.

Elias, Tom, and Dennis Schatzman. The Simpson Trial in Black and White. Los Angeles, General Publishing Group, 1996.

Freed, Donald, and Raymond P. Briggs. Killing Time: The First Full Investigation. New York, Macmillan, 1996.

Fuhrman, Mark. Murder in Brentwood. New York, Regnery Publishing, 1997.

Gibbs, Jewelle Taylor. Race and Justice: Rodney King and O. J. Simpson in a House Divided. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Goldberg, Hank. The Prosecution Responds. New York, Birch Lane Press, 1996.

Kennedy, Tracy, Judith Kennedy, and Alan Abrahamson. Mistrial of the Century. Beverly Hills, Dove Books, 1995.

Knox, Michael, with Mike Walker. The Private Diary of an OJ Juror. Beverly Hills, Dove Books, 1995.

Lange, Tom, and Philip Vanatter, as told to Dan E. Moldea. Evidence Dismissed. New York, Pocket Books, 1997.

Morrison, Toni, and Claudia Brodsky Lacour, eds. Birth of a Nation 'Hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case. New York, Pantheon, 1997.

Petrocelli, Daniel. Triumph of Justice: Closing the Book on the Simpson Saga. New York, Crown, 1998.

Resnick, Faye, with Mike Walker. Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted. Beverly Hills, California, Dove Books, 1994.

Roberts, Peter. OJ: 101 Theories, Conspiracies, & Alibis. Diamond Bar, California, Goldtree Press, 1995.

Schiller, Lawrence, and James Willwerth. American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense. New York, Avon, 1997.

Shapiro, Robert, with Larkin Warren. The Search for Justice. New York, Warner, 1996.

Simpson, O. J. I Want to Tell You. Boston, Little Brown & Co., 1995.

Singular, Stephen. Legacy of Deception. Beverly Hills, California, Dove Books, 1995.

Toobin, Jeffrey. The Run of His Life: The People vs. O. J. Simpson. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Uelman, Gerald F. Lessons from the Trial: The People vs. O. J. Simpson. Kansas City, Andrews and McMeel, 1996.

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Simpson Trial

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