OJ Simpson and The World Around Him

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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37 Responses

  1. pillsy says:

    I have a lot of overlapping memories of the OJ trial and verdict, down to kids running through the halls of my high school shouting, “NOT GUILTY!” at the top of their lungs. I remember the teachers did nothing to try to stop it, and even by the relatively lax disciplinary standards of schools back then (and mine was laxer than most, I gather) this kind of struck me as odd.

    I remember my primary emotional reaction was relief. Not at the verdict, because any verdict at that point would have struck me as absurd, but at the fact that this disgraceful, stupid spectacle was at an end. Like a lot of older teens, especially in the mid-’90s, I indulged in a sort of shallow, affected, punk-influenced rebelliousness that led me to be dismissive of anything that seemed to get “too much attention” or was “too popular”. In this one instance, I remain convinced that shallow, affected rebellion led me to exactly the correct conclusion.

    My mother was furious about the verdict, and I suspect it had something to do with that gendered dynamic, though she also was angry at the way the defense “played the race card”. My dad was mildly approving, if anything, saying that the LAPD had tried to frame a guilty man and that acquittal was probably the best outcome.

    If anything, that remains my judgement today. It always bugged me how much venom people around me directed (and elsewhere) directed at the defense, who did their jobs, and the jury, who were presented with a bunch of lousy options and probably chose the best, while remarkably little scorn landed on the LAPD and the prosecution, who hadn’t done their jobs at all.

    In any event, that was a good piece, Will. Thanks for writing it.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to pillsy says:

      The verdict came out during math class. The teacher, Carol Murphy, decided not to have a lesson because she just wanted to listen to the news, knew that everybody else was the same, and we just waited. Her first words were “I don’t believe it.” Its kind of quaint that class would be interrupted for a verdict in a celebrity murder trial.Report

  2. DensityDuck says:

    It *is* important to remember how this meant something to people back then and was more than just jokes about a white Bronco on TV.

    Like, it was a decision for a lot of people about whether a Black Success Story–about whether having an example of a black man who’d made money doing not-criminal things and was in a stable monogamous adult relationship–was something we were willing to burn down on behalf of a wronged white woman. Basically, this was Bill Cosby twenty years earlier. On the one hand the answer is obvious, but on the other hand…it’s reeeeeeeal easy to decide that it’s complicated.

    It was, also, one of the first big cracks in the idea that people who were guilty would Get Got if the system were allowed to do its job. Simpson damn near ran towards the news cameras waving a bloody knife, and yet he didn’t get got. The dudes who beat the shit out of Rodney King on national TV didn’t get got. It’s easy to understand how millennials have so little faith in the ability of the justice system to produce equitable outcomes when there are so many examples from their youth of Bad People who Did A Wrong Thing and Everybody Knew yet somehow they didn’t Get Got over it.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Like, it was a decision for a lot of people about whether a Black Success Story–about whether having an example of a black man who’d made money doing not-criminal things and was in a stable monogamous adult relationship–was something we were willing to burn down on behalf of a wronged white woman.

      Was that particularly rare among athletes at the time? I can understand if he’d been a top surgeon like Ben Carson, Nobel Prize winner, CEO, or something like that, but even back then, successful black athletes were a dime a dozen. Surely more than a few of them had it together off the field as well?Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Sure! Not as many with OJ’s history of being that guy, though. As the OP points out, dude was a funny face in movies, and (in his public persona) seemed like a genuinely nice fella. A lot of those athletes were…uncouth, not “the black person that everyone at work can agree on” (as The Onion put it.)

        The other thing is that OJ had been around for a long time. Hunter Thompson was writing about the guy back in 1970! It takes a long time to build up that level of credit.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to DensityDuck says:

      OJ like Cosby pulled off the neat trick of being well-liked by White people without seeming subservient to them.Report

  3. Aaron David says:

    OJ Simpson Juror: Not-Guilty Verdict Was ‘Payback’ for Rodney King

    Trial watchers, sociologists and even FX’s show “People v OJ Simpson” have argued that the jurors in O.J. Simpson’s murder case acquitted him as payback for the Rodney King beating. And in ESPN’s new event series, “O.J.: Made in America,” one juror finally comes out and says it.

    In an excerpt aired on public radio show “Fresh Air” this week, juror Carrie Bess, who is now in her 70s, is asked whether “there are members of the jury that voted to acquit OJ because of Rodney King.”

    “Yes,” she says simply. Later she says that she was one of them.


    I remember people saying they framed a guilty man, but honestly, I don’t think it made any difference. Of course the defense played the race card, but again, that is how defenses work. I remember thinking the whole glove thing was BS at the time, but again, so it goes. Furman was a POS, but again…

    The reality was that the people who had been consistently screwed over by the system really didn’t care if some woman ended up dead, as it allowed them to show solidarity against that system. To push back against having to just. keep. taking. it. As NWA said, Fuck The Police.Report

    • pillsy in reply to Aaron David says:

      I remember people saying they framed a guilty man, but honestly, I don’t think it made any difference.

      As one of the people who said (and still says) that, I think it matters for two reasons:

      1. It means that the jurors, whatever their motives, returned a result that isn’t necessarily going to be read as pure nullification. The quoted juror says “some” rather than all.

      2. Jurors, being human beings, have complex motivations, and the way the prosecution and police handled the case (at least plausibly) made it easier for them to return a “not guilty” verdict that they might have otherwise resisted, despite their other biases.

      3. Most importantly to me, it ties the outcome to legitimate concerns, even if the connection between those concerns is tenuous. Juries are always a bit of a black box, as are memories decades after the fact.

      As it is, I’m not saying this is the reason we have juries…

      The reality was that the people who had been consistently screwed over by the system really didn’t care if some woman ended up dead, as it allowed them to show solidarity against that system. To push back against having to just. keep. taking. it. As NWA said, Fuck The Police.

      …but I’m not sure it isn’t the reason we have juries either.Report

      • Aaron David in reply to pillsy says:

        As someone who has zero problems with jury nullification, I agree with your last thoughts. My whole point of saying that it didn’t make any difference was more toward that thought though. That this time they had the whip hand.

        That essentially, they did not care about “white man’s justice.”Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Aaron David says:

          Jury nullification is the courtroom version of lynching.Report

        • pillsy in reply to Aaron David says:

          Yeah that makes sense.

          What’s striking to me is that those jurors almost certainly walked into the courtroom with negative preconceptions about the police and the CJ system and the police and CJ system did a pretty good job living down to them.

          Would they have decided differently if not for Fuhrman and and the rest? Probably not.

          But to me the reality of Fuhrman and seems intimately tied to those preconceptions.Report

          • Will Truman in reply to pillsy says:

            It might have been decided differently in the sense of a non-decision: Hung jury.Report

            • pillsy in reply to Will Truman says:

              Yeah that’s fair.

              I think what I’m trying to get to is that the jurors’ preconceptions were one input, but they were not the only input.

              And to the extent that I can place myself in their somewhat alien and nebulously defined shoes, I think the other inputs would have tended to reinforce, rather than challenge, those preconceptions.Report

  4. Presumably this is because it would be bad form for a president to second-guess a jury like that,

    Young and innocent days.Report

  5. I don’t know that the evidence Simpson was convicted was weak, but it does seem to me that he got a long prison term for what was technically a first offense, as if the murders were a factor in his sentencing.Report

  6. Brandon Berg says:

    He didn’t have a reputation for being cocky or rebellious or an athlete.

    for an athlete?Report

  7. Oscar Gordon says:

    I was on deployment when it happened, and I remember the discussions we had on the ship about it, with a lot of the black guys pretty much saying, “Yeah, he’s guilty, but he’s rich and famous and he’s gonna walk if there is even one black person on that jury.”Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    One of the things that was pointed out to me at the time was that there was a dog that didn’t bark.

    There’s a trope out there about someone getting arrested for some horrific crime and the investigators talk to the neighbors and the neighbors all say “he was polite, he was friendly, he was quiet, I can’t imagine him doing anything bad!”

    That last part. “I can’t imagine him doing anything bad!”

    Nobody came forward and talked about OJ like that. Nobody from Naked Gun came out and said “I can’t believe that OJ got accused of this! He was always so affable!” Nobody who played with him said “He was an intense guy but only on the field!”

    If Jerry Seinfeld killed someone, I imagine that they’d have found *SOMEBODY* from Comedians in Cars drinking Coffee who would have been willing to say “he seemed so nice!”

    There weren’t any dogs barking around OJ.Report

  9. Mike Dwyer says:

    I was starting my third year of college when the verdict was delivered in this case (dang, some of you guys are making me feel old). As Aaron David references, what I remember was how much this was linked to the Rodney King verdict three years earlier. If OJ had been found guilty, everyone believed L.A. would burn again. That’s what I remember most about the tension on that day.

    This was also another nudge towards conservatism for me. I saw lots of friends around me that seemed to only believe Simpson was not guilty for reasons that had nothing to do with the actual facts of the case. I started to realize then how politically charged certain topics were becoming.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      Yeah. I was in Anthro class. Halfway through the class, two of my classmates came in and everything STOPPED and we all turned to them and they said “Not Guilty” as they settled into their seats. Everybody started murmuring and the Prof said “thank you” to the two students and told the rest of us to hush and he went back to teaching.

      *AFTER* the class was when we all started yelling at each other.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to Jaybird says:

        Yeah, that may also be the first time I have actually really gotten into it with my friends over a pop-culture/politically adjacent issue.Report

    • fillyjonk in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      I’m even older than you are. I was nearly done with my Master’s thesis when all this happened. (I remember the slow-speed Bronco chase; I was taking a rare day off working to do some fun stuff while also watching my parents’ house and their cats while they were on vacation).

      We discussed the verdict a bit in my lab (where my colleagues and I had our grad student “offices”). We were a pretty white bunch, I think the consensus was that he got off because he was famous and people had liked him in the past. Though I do also remember the racial-lines split in broader society about whether people believed him guilty, innocent, or “it’s payback for Rodney King.”

      I can’t even imagine what a circus it would be if the trial were going on today. Wow.

      (I also remember, as a bit of a history nerd, being really annoyed about it being called “the trial of the century” because honestly, if some random non-famous man – of any color – was accused of stabbing his ex and another person to death, it would not even make the evening news most places.)

      The big class-stopping things when I was in high school? The Challenger explosion (We did a moment of silence at lunch) and the Chernobyl disaster (one entire day’s French class taken up by that, and the teacher finally gave up on trying to force us to discuss it in French and let us go back to English)Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to fillyjonk says:

        And I’m even older.

        Went down to the basement and pulled out my old lab journals. Spent that day in discussion with some researchers from Stanford. They were interested in what factors people valued for little video conferencing windows on their desktop workstation — frame size, frame rate, image quality, etc. I had some software that was useful. So I probably didn’t find out until the next day.

        (Research results, now worthless… people would sacrifice everything else to get the frame rate up to the 13-15 fps range, where you can tell if the video and audio are synchronized. After that, no consistent patterns.)Report

  10. InMD says:

    Thank you for the piece I enjoyed reading it.

    One of the things thats so stark in retrospect is the change in media environment. I was in middle school and they no kidding brought radios in to classrooms so people could hear the verdict. I can never imagine that happening now for anything.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to InMD says:

      I was a sophomore in high school and my math teacher decided to just forgo the lesson. These days, the pressure of the standardized test would just keep things going.Report

  11. North says:

    Being a xennial is so weird. I was 14-15 during the whole OJ fooferaw, which meant I was sort of vaguely aware of it but it seemed utterly unimportant (being in Canada probably added a layer of insulation to the matter as well). You run into a lot of this with Gen-Xers, you sort of know about the events they talk about but you were just a tch too young and out of it to have really formed any opinion about the matter at the time.Report

  12. Dr x says:

    “Whites would have done the same thing if it had been Jerry Seinfeld.”

    Robert Blake, who lost a civil verdict was found not guilty at his criminal trial. There’s a complicated discussion to be had about that but, just saying, yes, whites could have done the same with Jerry Seinfeld.Report

  13. Dark Matter says:

    Evidence that he did it:
    DNA evidence: His blood was at the crime scene.
    DNA evidence: Victim’s blood was inside his house.
    Blood soaked glove had DNA from OJ and both victims.
    OJ was cut to the bone on one finger, there has never been an explanation.
    OJ was stalking his ex-wife and has a history of beating her.
    Various other circumstantial evidence.
    The glove (or at least two pairs identical to it) which didn’t fit was purchased for OJ by Nicole in 1990 and there are photos of him wearing them. OJ takes medication to keep his hands from swelling from arthritis and Mike Gilbert told him he should stop taking it.

    Evidence that he didn’t:

    IMHO the idea that Fuhrman was running around moving evidence is getting into movie omniscient bad-guy territory. OJ was out of town by the time the cops got to his place. Framing the very high profile, rich, out of town ex-husband seems like it would be a bad move for Fuhrman personally. It’s also hard to see how Fuhrman put OJ’s blood on the glove, cut OJ’s finger to the bone, or knew that the glove is one that OJ typically wears. Fuhrman couldn’t have put OJ’s blood at the crime scene, so we need to assume multiple anti-OJ events.

    It also stands out that the vast bulk of the Fuhrman did “X” reasoning is assuming what should be proven. Was he a serious racist in other situations? I suspect this whole line of reasoning really shouldn’t have been allowed in court but that might be just me.

    My impression now is…
    1) The Judge didn’t realize what a different it would make to have cameras in the court and dropped the ball several times.
    2) The Prosecutor’s office realized early what a shit show it would be and the A-team lawyers avoided it. Clark didn’t use a jury picking expert and instead relied on her feelings, her feelings were wrong.
    3) OJ planned it, didn’t understand just how traumatic your first murder would be and botched it. Multiple mistakes including having an emotional meltdown during and after the event.
    4) The jury didn’t understand the DNA evidence and got buried under emotion and irrelevancies. To be fair this was before DNA was well known.
    5) With a bright and biased light shining on it, the level of professionalism shown here by the forces of law was lacking. I’m not sure if that’s a fair test or not.Report

  14. Michael Drew says:

    I remember having one main view on the verdict, and a few observations on the reaction (also from high school).

    1. My main reaction to the verdict was a sense that it was a good teaching moment for the public about what it means for there to be a high evidentiary standard for conviction. Sometimes people who did the crime will be acquitted (or not convicted) – and that’s by design, so that we absolutely (at high cost) minimize the number of false convictions. (At least that’s the theory.) I wrote an editorial in the student newspaper to that effect, which earned me some pretty weird looks from other students.

    2. I remember being a bit taken aback by just how unsettled a lot of (white) people were by the verdict. I had just started dating my first real girlfriend that summer, and she came to me to giver her reassurance about out safety or something liek that. She might have just been blowing smoke trying to make me feel good, but it didn’t feel like it, and a lot of other (white) people seemed to have the same reaction. I thought it was odd that one complicated, rich-people murder trial verdict a continent away should have such an effect on people just living normal life in the upper MIdwest.

    3. Even at the time, I felt the stark breakdown in reaction between whites and Black people to the verdict was something of a bad indication of where we were socially – whether an indication of a bad, new direction we were headed in, or just of a lack of progress from the bad old days.

    4. I felt at the time and feel now that there was kind of a karmic or zeitgeisty linkage between the OJ trial/verdict/reaction, and the Rodney King incident, trial, and reaction/riots. I think people on both sides were acting out fears and anger, and catharsis that they had developed (or that were revealed) in the earlier episode, in the OJ affair. There were elements of farce following tragedy in the way the two episode mirrored each other. During the big OJ retrospective we had in the media a couple of years ago I thought to myself that it’s pretty amazing how much attention this case is still getting when the Rodney King events took place just a couple of years earlier, and represented a much more wrenching and in retrospect deeply portentous moment of turmoil for our country. I don’t think there can be much question that the Rodney Kind beating, trial, and riots were one of the most significant set of events from that whole era of American history. That it gets eclipsed by the OJ Simpson case in popular memory is a pretty bad media failure from where I sit.Report

  15. I’m officially and happily agnostic about whether O.J. is guilty and whether the jury was right to acquit. As a citizen and as someone concerned with justice, I guess I should care. But the specific situation is so remote from my daily life and experience that in a sense, it’s none of my business. Of course, if I actually examined the evidence, I’m sure I would come up with a sense of his guilt. But whatever I personally decide won’t change anything.

    Of course, it was a national controversy. I didn’t follow the trial at all, but I couldn’t avoid hearing about it. I may be wrong, but it seemed that every episode of Nightline for those months discussed that day at the trial.*

    One specific thing I remember from that media coverage I couldn’t avoid was one juror being removed from the jury because someone found out he was taking notes in order to right a book. He was interviewed after being removed, and said his removal was “devastating.” A mans’ liberty is on the line, this juror is using that fact for his own profit, and he complains the denial of that profit to be “devastating”? Give me a break.

    *In fact, the obsessive focus on the trial caused me to lose almost all respect for that show. I could understand a couple of episodes devoted to the trial every once in a while, but not every night.Report