In 1994, Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman were found murdered at Nicole Brown’s L.A. home. The crime scene, as described by the first witnesses, indicated that the crimes committed were perpetrated with extreme violence. Nicole was practically decapitated. Despite the horrific nature of the crimes, the story found itself on the front page of nearly every US newspaper because Nicole was the ex-wife of the famous former football player OJ Simpson.
Almost immediately OJ was placed under the spotlight. The suspicion was growing around the question of his potential involvement in the murders. The question of OJ’s involvement divided American public opinion and fed the existing racial tensions between “White” and “Black”Americans (1). The reality of racial tensions influenced the trial by transforming it from a murder case into a “race” battle, notwithstanding the fact that OJ was clearly guilty.
More than being about OJ Simpson’s guilt or innocence, the so called “trial of the century” exposed the shortcomings of an American society and justice system that struggles to rid itself of racial hostilities and to dethrone former heroes that were once created to be worshipped only later to be revealed as real life monsters.
Who is OJ Simpson?
OJ Simpson was born Orenthal James Simpson in 1947 in San Francisco. Like many “Afro-Americans,” his family origins are in the south of the US. The official end of slavery in 1865 made it legal, for the first time, for “Blacks” to flee the racist south in what is known as the Great Migration. During the Great Migration, millions of “Black” Americans migrated to the North, East and West of the country. One statistic summarizes quite well the importance of these migrations: between 1940 and 1960, the “Black” population of L.A. increased by 600%.
For OJ’s family the landing point would be in San Francisco, California in the then “Black” neighborhood of Potrero Hill. From an early age, OJ developed a passion for American football — a sport wherein he excelled. But because of his poor academic performance, he started his post-high school education and sports career at City College of San Francisco in 1965. At City College, OJ gained exposure that allowed him to attract recruiters from top schools who were strictly interested in his exceptional football skills.
A star is born
After several universities fiercely competed to recruit OJ, he decided to attend the University of Southern California (USC). His choice was no coincidence, given how much attention USC’s famed football program garnered and how much OJ dreamed to whet his appetite for fame.
It only took a year for OJ to shine and make a name for himself, thereby entering into the territory of legends in his sport. Although he was still a rookie in 1967, during a game against arch nemesis UCLA, his team had a 6 point deficit to overcome when 11 minutes before the end of the game OJ ran the ball 64 yards to tie the game. The extra point that USC earned from the conversion gave OJ’s team the victory.
OJ was on the road to stardom. His ability to run with a football was his golden ticket to avoid the type of institutional racism against “Black” people that plagued average people, like his neighbors down the street. That’s because a few blocks from USC’s famed stadium, everyday “Black” people who lived in that same neighborhood spent much of their time running for their lives to escape ongoing police harassment and brutality.
Me, me and me
Police harassment and brutality reflecting the institutionalized form of racism that plagued most American cities at the time led to the 1965 Watts riots in L.A. Then to the creation of the “Black Panther”party in Oakland, one year later in 1966. In the mid 60’s, the “Black” political conscience was rising. By 1967, several “Black” American athletes, including Kareem Abdul Jabbar, united and decided not to participate in the 1968 Olympic Games that were to be held in Mexico. That same year Muhammad Ali openly refused to join the US army and refused to serve in the Vietnam War.
When OJ was questioned about these positions that were taken by numerous “Black” athletes, OJ’s response was quite distant. He insisted on being viewed as an individual and not as a “Black” person, or a member of the larger black community. One phrase, although there is no proof that OJ said it, summarizes OJ’s mindset and perceived notions of exceptionalism — “I am not black, I am OJ.”
In 1968, OJ won the all important Heisman trophy which is awarded to the most valuable college football player in the US. OJ has a taste of success and he likes it. He feels at ease and important at USC surrounded by a “White” upper class that worships the ground he walks on. Totally aware that his acceptance in the “White” world was based solely on his athletic abilities, good looks and charm, OJ has no qualms about the fact that his worshippers, like himself, could care less about the rest of the “Black” population.
Rich and famous
OJ’s true power lied in his charisma, which operated on “White” and “Black” America in different ways. The “Whites” viewed OJ as the exceptional “Black” guy that their family could accept; while the “Blacks” viewed him as a model for success. Aware of these perceptions, advertising agencies and corporate sponsors took full advantage of OJ’s star power and raked in the profits.
Few public personalities, especially during that period of time, were as beloved or as well known by the majority of both “Black” and “White” Americans, as OJ Simpson. Consequently, even prior to joining the NFL, OJ signed a contract to promote Chevrolet automobiles – which was a rare accomplishment for any athletes and any “black” person to have an affiliation with such a prominent sponsor.
During the 1978 filming of a Hertz commercial, Hertz comprising another of OJ’s lucrative sponsors, director Fred Levinson stated about OJ’s physical appearance and marketability that “He is African but he is a good looking man. He does not have the typical Afro American look. He almost looks White.”
Later, when OJ joined the ABC sports commentators’ team, dissatisfied with OJ’s spoken English, the channel prohibited OJ from using “Black” slang and intonations. Yet OJ was not the least bit offended by such restrictions. Instead, OJ was aware that to be accepted on TV and viewed in “White” households he must talk as they do. OJ’s practicality and seemingly his disdain for his own people was pointed out and even praised by his then employer ABC who described his response as highlighting his great intelligence.
In OJ’s attempt to completely cross over to the other side, he was only missing a “White” wife by his side to progress to the final stage of his whitening evolution. OJ consequently divorced his first wife and high school sweetheart, a “black” woman. OJ then found and married his new “white” queen, Nicole Brown, a young woman who 12 years his junior.
A protected monster
OJ and Nicole Brown married on February 2nd 1985. Although in appearance, the marriage looked great, the rosy picture began to quickly deteriorate. OJ considers Nicole his toy. She has very little freedom. Her life is ruled by a husband who is controlling, possessive, jealous and violent. On several occasions she called the police to ask for help and protection, fearing for her life and safety.
But OJ being OJ, her complaints were not taken as seriously by the police as they should have been. OJ’s dream had come true, because he was always treated like a superstar and not like the average “Black” guy, even when he regularly assaulted his pretty and young white wife. The power and control OJ had over Nicole surely went to his head.
When the police finally arrested OJ after yet another call for help from Nicole on January 1st 1989, the story was again played out on OJ’s terms, to both the police and the media. When OJ spotted the police car arrive to his home, OJ decided to simply hop into his car and drive away. The police officers did not even attempt to chase OJ nor apprehend him.
A few weeks later, the criminal court judge pretended to serve justice, by sentencing OJ to 120 hours of community service. But instead of serving those 120 hours by doing dirty work, like picking up trash on the side of the highway — OJ completed his sentence V.I.P. style by organizing a charity golf tournament at his own country club. This behavior on the part of the judge and OJ were nothing short of a slap in the face to Nicole and to the justice system.
His image being somewhat tarnished, OJ decided to take advantage of his show business contacts to present his imagined version of the incidents on various TV shows where the hosts did not question him narrative at all. The impunity that OJ benefits from no doubt helped to feed the monster that he became, a monster that was always starved for more attention and that had grown accustomed to there being no accountability for his actions.
Whereas Nicole’s ongoing calls for help continued to escalate, they go ignored. No one stepped in to protect her from OJ. Nicole eventually files for divorce on February 25th 1992. But the divorce case does nothing to stop OJ’s desire to exert power and control over Nicole. In OJ’s repugnant mind, Nicole will always belong to him and she will never be freed to exercise her own will, to live as she wants. OJ could not stand the fact that Nicole found the courage to say no more and to put an end to their marriage, because no one ever stopped him. No one said no to OJ.
On June 12th 1994, OJ decides to go to Nicole’s house and kill her in a heinous manner, while their own children aged 9 years old and 6 years old at the time, were sleeping just upstairs.
Sometime after OJ’s arrival to Nicole’s house, an unexpected visitor appeared. It was Nicole’s close friend Ronald Goldman. Ronald was also a waiter at the restaurant where Nicole had only ate a few hours ago with her family present. Ronald stopped by to drop off a pair of sunglasses that Nicole’s mother had forgotten at the restaurant. OJ, without taking the time to understand the reason for Ronald’s presence decides to viciously kill him too. Ronald Goldman’s only mistake was to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
A trial under high voltage
With OJ clearly being guilty,his defense attorney would have no choice but to find and argue a loophole to acquit him. To do so, the attorneys will try to use the institutionalized racism present in the American society, especially in law enforcement, to their strategic advantage.
Whereas OJ will quickly hire top flight attorneys close to his circle of friends, his stroke of genius will be to invite super star attorney Johnny Cochran to join his so called “dream team.” A “Black” lawyer who specialized in the defense of average “Black” citizens who were victims of police brutality, Cochran’s strategy will be to shift and reframe the debate and also the manner in which the case investigation was conducted.
Cochran’s defense strategy was centered around two ideas. First, the terrible reputation of the L.A. Police Department. LAPD was riddled by racism, by an anti “Black” and anti “Latino” practices that trickled down from the top of the hierarchy. Daryl Gates, the former LAPD chief from 1978 to 1992 once suggested “that there is something about the anatomy of African Americans that makes them especially susceptible to serious injury from chokeholds, because their arteries do not open as fast as arteries do on “normal people”.
Secondly, L.A. was still paralyzed and in a state of shock following the 1992 riots. Riots that had found their origins in the resentment of the “Black” and “Latino” communities towards the police and the infirmed justice system. The tragic case of an unarmed (1) Latasha Harlins being gunned down for no reason by an armed and racist fellow citizen and the videotaped police brutality suffered by (2) Rodney King case were still present in everyones’ minds — as was the fact that in both cases no justice was served by the perpetrators.
And just as attorney Cochran was well aware that he could use this atmosphere to his client’s advantage, he was also aware that he first needed to ensure that he could find the right jury that would be receptive to his arguments and framing of the case. In this respect, the jury selection was a crucial moment in this saga. A great part of the verdict stems as a result of the jury selection.
Potential jurors are meticulously examined by the disputing parties, and as a result the process of jury selection is a slow and tedious one. After examining 900 persons, the final jury is composed of 12 people: eight “Afro American” women, two “White” women, one “Afro American” man and one “Hispanic” man. At the sight of his jury’s composition, OJ is said to have boasted aloud “if this jury convicts me, maybe I did do it!” His attorneys were equally delighted even if they had yet to win their case.
In search of the weak link
At the moment of the trial commencing on January 25th 1995, a survey revealed that 10% of the “Blacks” living in L.A. thought that OJ was guilty; whereas 70% of the “Whites” living in L.A. thought that he was guilty. With eight of the twelve jurors being “Black”, the show seems off to a good start for the defense.
OJ is perceived as a hero to the « Black » community; a hero that the community is not ready to obliterate without a clear and concrete demonstration of his guilt. Cochran, knowing his city and his community by heart, will start off by playing with the “Black” resentment and distrust surrounding the LAPD. Cochran’s first angle of attack would take the name of Mark Fuhrman. An LAPD detective who worked on the case, Fuhrman said that he found a bloody glove on OJ’s property on the night of the murders. After experts testify, it appears that the blood present on the glove belongs to the two victims and OJ. Being the most serious piece of evidence, the defense needs a plan of attack to destroy its credibility. And by researching deep into Fuhrman’s unsavory past, the defense finds a mountain of evidence proving his overt racism — the most damaging being a recording where Fuhrman uses the word “Nigger” 41 times to describe “Afro American” people.
And with that, the trial suddenly takes on a new direction. The trial no longer has its primary objective which was to focus on the tragic and untimely deaths of Nicole and Ron; but instead shifts its focus to the indisputable institutional racism that plagues the justice system and could potentially send an innocent “Black”man to jail.
The second crucial evolution in the trial revolves around the narrative surrounding the prosecutor Chris Darden. Darden, the only “Black”attorney who is a member of the prosecution, asks OJ, against the recommendation of his co-counsel, to try on the gloves that were found at the crime scene. Darden’s approach backfires when the gloves clearly do not fit OJ’s large hands.
And with that climatic scene playing out in court, Darden and the prosecution have scored a dreaded own goal. Already viewed as an “Uncle Tom” by a large segment of the “Black” community, Darden’s epic failure reduces his already razor thin authenticity. Cochran will use this pivotal moment to hit the hammer home, by declaring in his final argument the now infamous quote “if the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.” This quote is now and forever a part of history.
After more than 250 days of trial, the jurors give their verdict on October 3rd 1995, after only 3 hours of deliberation. OJ Simpson is found not guilty of the murder of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. Once again, OJ is able to escape the punishment he deserves and ironically this time he is also able to avoid accountability by claiming his race for the first time in his public life. Much of the “Black” population in the U.S. erupted with celebration, while most of the “White” U.S. population simultaneously found themselves infuriated and in a state of shock.
A sick country
But while the “Black” population celebrated OJ’s verdict, the fact that most of that population had serious doubts about his innocence cannot be ignored. But for many “Blacks” having grown accustomed to the benefit of the doubt only ever being given to “White” defendants, many “Blacks” could not hide their delight in witnessing for the first time that justice — or rather injustice, could work in the favor of a “Black” defendant.
Questioned about the potential mistake made by the jurors, Danny Bakewell (a businessman and prominent civil rights activist) will say directly to “White” people“ while looking into the camera lens “Now you know how it feels!” A statement summarizing the depths of frustration of a community that has been subject to over 400 years of the contempt and horrors of a purported justice system that has historically and unendingly doled out crushing humiliation and defeats over “Black” victims while and protecting countless “White” torturers.
The “Blacks” in the US know more than anyone else that the justice system is not blind. Justice closes its eyes only for the persons who are in charge when they need protection from their sins.
In the Rodney King case, the justice was blind in order to the defendants because they were “White” police officers. In the case of Trayvon Martin, the justice agreed to close its eyes to benefit a cold-blooded killer who murdered an unarmed and innocent young boy, simply because the killer was “white” and the victim was “black.” As paradoxical as it might seem, a large percentage of the “Black” community in their quest for equality under the law and reciprocity, desired for OJ to be acquitted.
In recognizing the nuances of this situation, a distinction was indeed made between OJ’s culpability and the desire of the “black” people to see the justice system protect a Black icon. Justice for Nicole and Ronald was not the main objective for the “black” community, but instead, the objective was to balance out the innumerable injustices suffered by “Blacks” at the hands of “Whites”.
The most difficult aspect to grasp about this misguided point of view in the “black” community is that we know that during his entire public life, OJ fought tooth and nail to ensure he would never be considered as a “Black” man and as a result, OJ had zero solidarity for the pain that afflicted the “Black” community.
But objectively, if one adopts this point of view of an “Afro American” it is clear that had OJ received a guilty verdict, it would have destroyed all potential hope that an African American might transcend their life sentence of discrimination due to the handicap of race, by acquiring wealth and fame. A guilty verdict for OJ would have represented the “Black” American’s worst nightmare, that no matter how hard you work and no matter how high you climb up the social ladder, you will always remain “Black” in the not-so-blind eyes of the law.
Instead, OJ’s verdict gave a clear message that just as a “White” man has the birthright privilege to overcome the justice system because he has a dominant social position; a “Black’ man who obtains a dominant position in society might also exercise that privilege if he plays his cards right.
It is undoubtedly a pitiful message of false hopes for a sickly society. Sick because it brings us back to our most primal instincts, that nothing beats an “eye for an eye, and a tooth for tooth”. This primal and immoral instinct, as applied to OJ’s case, resulted in him being found not guilty for the slaying of two innocent people and this denial of justice in turn “helped” the “Black” people.
The outcome of the OJ trial sends a clear message to the “White” establishment that the “Black” population, while critical of white privilege using and abusing the justice system, is similarly ready to do the same when offered the same privilege to seize its advantages for the benefit of the wider community. The natural reaction of the “Black” community was to protect “their” own, as if part of an irrefutable natural order.
The reality is that such behavior and sentiments are not a part of a natural order, but a consequence of the illness that is US racist disorder. The real losers in the OJ trial were: Nicole and Ronald, the justice system and the actual “Black” community that lacks the wealth, power and privilege of OJ. The “Black” community lost because it fell for the trap that was set by the institutional racism. The black community lost through its failure to recognize and acknowledge that OJ is a horrible person who unlike other outstanding athletes of his time also just happened to hate his own “Black” community. The future will show that OJ has already betrayed the opportunity for freedom that his own community offered him, and we can only hope that this betrayal might help the “Black” community to finally open its eyes.
The “Black’ community, instead of uplifting OJ, ought to focus on helping all of the regular “Black” people who unfortunately remain at the bottom of the social hierarchy– those who really are innocent victims of the discriminatory justice system. How many of them did not have the chance to be remembered, simply because they never made the frontpage of a newspaper or an evening newscast? How many “Central Park Five” stories actually exist all over the US but never received a fraction of the support or media attention that the unworthy OJ received? The real tragedy of the OJ trial lies in this fact: The cause was the right one but the defendant was not.
(1) The term “Black” and “Afro-Americans” will be used in this article between quotes to highlight the fact that these terms refer in the US to a way of discriminating one part of population. Moreover, these expressions neglect the fact that the majority of the US “Black” population is actually mixed.
(2) Latasha Harlins was a 15-year-old African-American girl who was shot in the head by Soon Ja Du a 51-year-old Korean-born female convenience store owner who was tried and convicted of voluntary manslaughter in Harlins’ death. Harlins was a student at Westchester High School in Los Angeles. Harlins’ death came 13 days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King. Du was fined $500 and sentenced to five years of probation and 400 hours of community service but no prison time for her crime. Some have cited the shooting of Latasha Harlins as one of the causes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
(3) Rodney Glen King (April 2, 1965 – June 17, 2012) was an American construction worker turned writer and activist after surviving an act of police brutality by the Los Angeles Police Department. On March 3, 1991, King was violently beaten by LAPD officers during his arrest for fleeing and evading on California State Route 210. A civilian, George Holliday, filmed the incident from his nearby balcony and sent the footage to local news station KTLA. The footage clearly showed King being beaten repeatedly, and the incident was covered by news media around the world. The four officers were tried on charges of use of excessive force; three were acquitted, the jury failed to reach a verdict on one charge for the fourth. Within hours of the acquittals, the 1992 Los Angeles riots started, sparked by outrage among African Americans over the verdicts and longstanding social issues.