O.J. Simpson has the largest head I’ve ever seen on a human being. I sat behind it in 1994 and 1995, when Simpson was on trial for the murders of his estranged wife, Nicole, and Ronald Goldman, a Los Angeles waiter.
The football star and pop icon was a fading name but still living high off his past on June 17, 1994, when Simpson was arrested shortly after nightfall after leading police on that legendary chase through the Los Angeles freeway system.
Simpson’s rise and fall were brought back to life by director Ezra Edelman in vivid detail last week in “O.J.: Made in America,” the five-part ESPN documentary that sharply defined the case as the seminal American moment of the last quarter century.
Some of the plagues of American society – racial divisions, the fetish of celebrity obsession, the 24-hour news cycle, the erosion of faith in institutions such as the courts – metastasized into diseases that have grown more acute in the years since the Simpson trial.
Back then, I was a 31-year-old Bee reporter once mesmerized, as a child, by Simpson’s ability to run with the football in the 1970s.
Then, there he was, seated a few feet from me, in a Los Angeles courtroom. His case dragged on for so long that The Bee occasionally would send me and others to spell our colleague who was covering the trial full time.
Simpson’s massive head sometimes obscured my view of the murder case against him. In a sense, all our views were obscured in the nearly 16 months for an open-and-shut conviction of Simpson to become an acquittal that had nothing to do with the facts of the case. Blood with Simpson’s genetic markers was found at the crime scene and in his vehicle. Bloody socks with the genetic markers of Simpson and his estranged wife were found at his residence. His history of beating his wife was covered in exhaustive detail. No matter.
As Edelman’s documentary showed, the Simpson case was not about Simpson’s guilt or innocence. It was about a narrative that goes like this: If you cheered Simpson’s acquittal, you did so because it struck a blow against a racist, unjust legal system in Los Angeles and America at large.
It was about a narrative that goes like this: If you cheered Simpson’s acquittal, you did so because it struck a blow against a racist, unjust legal system in Los Angeles and America at large.
“There has been overwhelming evidence against white murderers and rapists for 400 years… when black victims got no justice, there was usually zero national outrage,” wrote Michael Wilbon, who is African American and is a nationally recognized sports writer and ESPN basketball analyst. “Turnabout brought some teeny-tiny measure of a sense of universal justice, if not justice in our legal system. For every O.J. Simpson (and there seemed to be only one) there were thousands of Byron De La Beckwiths littering American history, as if the evidence against him wasn’t overwhelming after he murdered Medgar Evers and nonetheless walked for three decades.”
Wilbon wrote this though he believes Simpson is guilty, and others obviously shared this view. “In two recent polls, more than 50 percent of black respondents said they thought Simpson was guilty – up from about 20 percent in most polls before, during and right after the trial,” wrote Carl Bialik for FiveThirtyEight, the ESPN-owned website that focuses on opinion poll analysis in sports, politics and economics.
Despite this, the narrative for justifying or celebrating Simpson’s acquittal endures. Some African Americans cling to it like a life preserver in choppy seas. While watching Edelman’s documentary, I drew on my experiences of covering the Simpson trial to tweet: “The O.J. Simpson trial was lost at jury selection. Dumb and biased panel. Wonder if any feel a twinge of remorse?” I was pelted by sharp responses from people offended at criticism of a largely African American jury.
... the narrative for justifying or celebrating Simpson’s acquittal endures. Some African Americans cling to it like a life preserver in choppy seas.
Different people responded as if they were reciting the same script – that plenty of whites had beaten the criminal justice system, so why was I angry that an African American had?
Some like to claim that the O.J. case divides America into two sides – black and white.
Speaking as someone who is neither black nor white, allow me to retort: The time has passed for anyone to corner me on this issue with the tactics once employed by President George W. Bush, when he said: “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.”
I’m not with those people who justified the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers caught on tape savagely beating Rodney King on videotape. I wasn’t down with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager, and got away with it. I’m not with the New York cops who choked Eric Garner to death or the cop in Ferguson, Mo., who shot Michael Brown to death.
But 22 years later, I can’t buy the O.J. narrative, either. Simpson walking free did not gain justice for Trayvon Martin, Garner, Brown and other true victims of systemic failures in the American criminal justice system. A serial wife beater would be excoriated by society today. But in the Simpson case? Crickets.
In Edelman’s documentary, Simpson’s lawyers who raised doubts about the blood evidence at trial couldn’t bring themselves to say their handiwork proved he was not guilty. Simpson’s lawyers caught a key Los Angeles cop in a lie that he had never used the N-word before. But they couldn’t prove that cop had planted evidence. They simply suggested it and let the narrative take over.
All this for a man so unworthy of such support.
Simpson remained silent during the 1960s as other African American athletes, such as Muhammad Ali, spoke out against injustice. As Los Angeles burned after the LAPD cops were acquitted in the Rodney King case, Simpson was safely ensconced in his Brentwood mansion. And when he was being led away from that mansion by police on that infamous night 22 years ago last week, an incredulous Simpson surveyed the massive crowd gathered on his affluent block and said, “What are all these (N-words) doing in Brentwood?”
Simpson’s acquittal was just like Simpson’s life, a fraud. To argue that a corrupt verdict somehow brought justice to a corrupt legal system is akin to Simpson saying he was going to dedicate his life to finding “the real killers.”
Sooner or later, a lie is exposed as a lie.