I voted guilty … with a life sentence.
When O.J. Simpson was caught in the maelstrom of the “Trial of the Century” in 1995, the mountain of evidence led me to conclude he committed murder. Twice.
Nothing has changed since.
Why is the controversial Simpson verdict being dredged up again? Because of the popular five-part “O.J.: Made in America” documentary that aired on ABC and ESPN and ended this past weekend. The series (now in the re-run stage) explored the essence and soul of O. J. Simpson, full throttle at the intersection of crime, race, police and history.
What did we know before the airing of the documentary:
That Nicole Brown, O.J.’s ex-wife, proved prophetic in predicting to her friends and relatives that if she turned up dead, Simpson — Pro Football Hall of Famer, network broadcaster, charismatic commercial pitchman — would be the culprit.
That the blood and DNA evidence against Simpson was overwhelming.
That a wealthy black man could wiggle his way out of a murder conviction just as a rich white guy. We’ve seen much wiggle room when the justice system is influenced by affluence. That’s timeless.
That must-see television trials can pole-vault TV careers, a la Greta Van Susteren to Tavis Smiley to Nancy Grace.
What did we learn after the documentary:
That to pay for his “Dream Team” during the trial, Simpson signed hundreds of autographs in prison, with one estimate at approximately $3 million earned for writing his signature.
That the gloves didn’t fit Simpson in the courtroom because his sports agent advised him to cease taking his arthritis medication in order to allow his fingers to swell.
That one juror from the Simpson trial who is featured in the series admitted that she voted not guilty for Simpson because she wanted payback for Rodney King not winning his police brutality case against the Los Angeles officers in 1992, a trial that featured a mostly white jury.
Carrie Bess, now in her 70s, was asked about the Rodney King factor during the documentary, directed by Ezra Edelman. An excerpt:
Interviewer: Do you think there are members of the jury that voted to acquit O.J. because of Rodney King?
Interviewer: You do?
Interviewer: How many of you do you think felt that way?
Bess: Oh, probably 90 percent of them.
Interviewer: 90 percent. Did you feel that way?
Interviewer: That was payback.
Interviewer: Do you think that’s right?
At that point, she holds up her hands.
She also seemed to lack empathy for Nicole Brown, whose face we often saw bruised and battered in horrific photos during the trial, saying, “Let me tell you, I lose respect for any woman that take an ass whuppin’ (in a volatile marriage) when she don’t have to. Don’t stay in the water if it’s over your head — you’ll drown.”
Remember, Simpson was acquitted of killing Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman after his attorneys, led by Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, Robert Shapiro and a list of others lengthy enough to field a football team, argued to the mostly black jury that Simpson was a pawn in a grand conspiracy perpetrated by a racist police department.
The Simpson case ultimately became a referendum on race, retribution and revenge, tailor made for the American persona with high drama and reality TV entertainment value.
That’s it, in a time capsule.
I’ve often wondered how the trial and subsequent reaction — the polarization in opinion between black and white folk — would have played out if Simpson had killed his first wife, Marguerite. She was a black woman, with strong ties to the black community, unlike her former husband.
If the blood and DNA evidence were the same, would the verdict have been the same.
Remember LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman: He found the bloody glove; the defense team claimed he planted it; but they didn’t prove it. The “Dream Team” also discovered that Fuhrman wasn’t truthful about using the n-word in a general, cavalier way. Bailey vociferously challenged him, “Marine-to-Marine,” on the witness stand, and ultimately caught Fuhrman in a lie.
Simpson’s “Dream Team” of attorneys used that riveting episode to lay down the foundation for its racial conspiracy defense to free Simpson from the clutches of a California state penitentiary.
Suppose evidence had surfaced that Fuhrman used the n-word in referring specifically to Simpson with Marguerite as his murder victim, instead of Nicole, whom we eventually discovered was a defenseless punching bag for Simpson’s fists.
Would many black folk have been a celebratory bunch, as they were in 1995, if Simpson had been acquitted in that hypothetical case? Fuhrman or no Fuhrman?
I don’t think so.
A conviction would have been demanded.
I have heard and read that some black folk have said they weren’t necessarily for O.J., but moreso against the LAPD, or they were more pro-Johnnie Cochran than pro-Simpson, or believed O.J. was guilty, but wanted him to beat the rap because of Rodney King. Or they were perturbed that justice was delayed following the slayings of Emmett Till (killed in 1955) or Medgar Evers (1963) or the 25 black citizens who died in the L.A. Watts riots (1965). Or whomever from 25 or 50 or 100 years ago. Or there was a rush to judgment.
Any combination or permutation one can imagine. It’s akin to a continuous merry-go-round, revolving around and around in perpetuity, with no one courageous enough to break the cycle of the Payback Syndrome.
If someone were denied justice during the Jim Crow years of segregation, then let’s make up for that miscarriage of justice with O.J. Simpson as the point man to reap a false and unwarranted acquittal. That appears to be the message.
All of the above is the scorecard mentality we sometimes see in sports: If a referee in the NFL knows he made a bad call, then he might “discover” a makeup call to essentially even the score for the two teams on the field.
Many black folk targeted Simpson as the great equalizer on the score sheet.
So, Run O.J. Run, many said.
He ran right out of the throes of damning DNA evidence. The irony was unbelievably blatant that Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the DNA experts on Simpson’s “Dream Team,” tried to confuse the jury by touting anti-science to counter the prosecution’s science. And these two guys otherwise were pro-science gurus. How contradictory.
Cochran, replete with designer suits that complemented his persuasive skills, seemed to mesmerize the jury with a Svengali-like charm. A smooth operator, for sure. He probably could have argued that a Martian planted the bloody glove at Simpson’s residence, and the star-struck jury would have fallen for that cockamamie theory — hook, line and sinker.
Remember, after the trial, Robert Shapiro told ABC News’ Barbara Walters that he would never work with Cochran again. Shapiro told her that “not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck.”
Cochran coined the signature phrase of the trial during closing arguments when he declared:
“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
In hindsight, how about this:
“If a Dream Team’s defense is phony, it can lead to a verdict that’s baloney.”