Over the course of American history, there have been many controversial court cases that have split the general population. Cases such as ‘Brown vs. Board of Education’, ‘Plessy vs. Ferguson’, or non-supreme court cases such as ‘The Scottsboro Boys’. However, none of these cases had a celebrity as the one on trial or the available media coverage due to the era. Because this lack of availability and notoriety to the public, those cases do not come up often in normal settings and everyone agrees on the verdict. However, one case did suffer from having such a notorious main character during the big boom of television and news coverage. This case was the O.J. Simpson murder trial which was the most controversial case in the last 30 years as it divided the nation by race. The racial circumstances around the trial were also unprecedented. After the overwhelming amount of evidence that was presented against O.J. Simpson, it became clear that his acquittal was mainly due to the fear of racial backlash. This can be seen in how the trial progressed and in how the verdict was racially split.
Before being able to really understand how the ruling was based off of a fear of racial backlash, having a sense of the notoriety O.J. Simpson brought is needed. Orenthal James Simpson was born on July 9, 1947 to his lower-class parents. Jimmie Lee, his father, was a custodian and a cook while his mother Eunice Simpson was a nurse’s aide (CNN 2). He went to City College of San Francisco in 1965 to continue his education and play as a running back on their football team. However, he transferred to the University of Southern California for football reasons in 1966. Here, O.J. thrived as he would lead the nation in rushing yards in both the 1967 and 1968 football seasons. After being a runner-up to win the 1967 Heisman trophy, the most prestigious award in college football given to the best player across the nation, he won the coveted trophy in 1968. This led him to be drafted in the 1969 NFL draft to the Buffalo Bills where he would go on to be the first player to ever rush for 2,000 yards in a season in 1973 while winning the MVP award. Before retiring at the conclusion of the 1979 season, he was the rushing leader twice more in 1975 and 1976. In 1985, Simpson was given the highest honor an NFL player can receive after being elected into the NFL Hall of Fame.
During his football success, he was also active off the field. While at USC, Simpson got married to Marguerite Whitley in 1967 whom he had three children with. However, tensions arose when Simpson’s popularity began to grow as Marguerite coveted a private life while O.J. was the life of the party. This ultimately led them to get divorced in 1979. Even though his football career ended, O.J. still stayed around the sport through transitioning into the commentating booth for games. Working ABC games from 1979-1986, the 1980 Rose Bowl, 1984 Pro Bowl, and Monday Night Football, Simpson stayed active within the football community while continuing to build a bigger name brand.
Not only did Simpson stay within the football world, but he branched out to other aspects of media, especially acting. Coveting the life of celebrities, Simpson took part in various movies, commercials, talk shows, and television shows. His movies include ‘The Klansman’, ‘The Powering Inferno’, ‘Capricorn One’, and ‘The Naked Gun’ trilogy. Through the power of commercials and catchy nicknames such as ‘the Juice’, O.J. became the one of the most marketable African-Americans to white business owners, especially due to his famous Hertz commercials. This led Simpson to begin to surrounded himself with only white folks as he did not perceive himself as black but saw his own blackness as something that is holding him back from achieving what he wanted. This fact makes it even more confusing why later on in his life, his only saving grace became the black community.
In his personal life, O.J. met an 18-year-old waitress in Beverly Hills named Nicole Brown whom he married in 1985. Although she was portrayed as just another ‘blonde in a Ferrari’, her friends told a much different story. The pair quickly had two kids together and Nicole embraced the role of “the mom with M&Ms in the seams of her car’s back seat, bananas mushed into the carpet” (Washington post). She cared for the children taking them to dance recitals but because of how quick she settled into playing mom, she missed the chance of growing up, the “ill-advised lovers, late-night shenanigans, [and] bad choices” (Washington post). She began acting on these things at the age of 33, much to the displeasure of O.J. and the pair got a divorce in 1992.
Even though their marriage looked lovely from the outside, there was a history of abuse in the household as well as multiple calls to the police. The new republic reports that Los Angeles Police Department had visited the Simpson household eight separate times due to calls from Nicole claiming Simpson was beating her. However, due to the popularity of O.J., the police were star struck each time and even pleaded to Nicole to not press charges that would tarnish O.J.’s image. The police were intensely protective of the celebrity with only one case brought O.J. where they still let him off easy with only some charity work.
According to Nicole’s friend Cynthia Shahian, the relationship between Nicole and O.J. had “sunk to dangerous depths” within “the last three weeks of her life” (qtd. In Washington post). On Nicole and Shahian’s morning run four days before Nicole’s death, Shanian was shown a letter from O.J. that exhibited a new nastiness in their relationship. That morning, Nicole told Cynthia “He [O.J.] is going to kill me and my friends are going to sell me out” (Washington post). According to Kris Jenner, Nicole had told him “He’s going to kill me and get away with it” (qtd. In Washington post), but he did not understand. This is while other friends like Grant Cramer thought after the murders that “It finally happened”(qtd. In Washington post) as if her friends knew this was coming.
All these signs do not look promising as an already heated relationship looked as if it was becoming more unraveled. Due to the past abuses, Nicole showed that she believed O.J. was about to kill her soon, although her friends missed the multiple hints. Then, on June 12, 1994, around 10:15 P.M., the double murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman took place outside of Nicole Brown’s condo. According to police reports compiled by CNN, Nicole had been at the Mezzaluna restaurant with her children a couple hours beforehand. After one of the members of Nicole’s party had left their sunglasses at the restaurant, waiter Ron Goldman was going to return the glasses to Nicole’s house, leaving the restaurant around 9:50 P.M. Two hours after the murders occurred, one of Nicole’s neighbors who had found and been taking care of her Akita dog who was acting agitated and had bloody paws, decided to follow the dog who led him to the dead bodies of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, both with stab wounds as their cause of death (CNN 3).
At this same time, O.J. claims he had been sleeping and awaiting a ride from his limo driver Allan Park to the airport. However, O.J. was not at his house at 10:25 when he showed to pick him up. He buzzed the intercom several times only to no response. Around 11:00, Park sees a man resembling O.J. walking around the house before O.J. comes to the limousine and takes off for the Los Angeles Airport (CNN 3). He took a plane to Chicago where he eventually found out about the murders in his hotel room the next morning. After flying back to LA the next morning, he was questioned by the police and was named as the primary suspect in the case a few days later. Simpson was asked to surrender to the authorities but refused to do so forcing the LAPD to declare Simpson as a fugitive. Robert Shapiro, Simpson’s lawyer, read a “suicide letter [that had been] found” (CNN 2) to the public that was written by Simpson. At this same time, Simpson called 911 while in the back of his White Bronco.
One of the two most infamous scenes throughout the murder trail happened before the trail even started. The image of a lone car going down the Santa Ana Freeway followed at a distance by a fleet of police cars has been engraved into many minds as it was on all news channels and even interrupted the coverage of the NBA Finals. Simpson was in the back of the car driven by his friend A.C. Cowlings while contemplating where he should commit suicide whilst also on the phone with police with all of America tuning in to watching this former hero’s steep fall (Britannica). However, while on the freeway, Simpson was met by crowds of cheering black spectators with signs of “Free the Juice” and “Run O.J. Run” who were standing over the freeway. The car was heading towards his house but as he got closer to the white neighborhood he lived in, the cheering black spectators turned into unemotional, silent white crowds watching him go by.
After this highly televised chase, the racial divide was already clear just through who was cheering for O.J.’s last ride. This would lead into the court trial as the two sides began to prepare. O.J. got together what has been nicknamed the ‘Dream Team’ of attorneys which included F. Lee Bailey, Robert Blasier, Shawn Chapman Halley, Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz, and later Johnnie Cochran as the lead attorney. On the other side, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office was led by Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden with Lane Ito as the presiding judge. As each side prepared, the dream team focused their case on the mishandling of evidences and racism of the LAPD while the DA’s office focused on the former domestic abuse and the divorce as the reason for the murder.
After each side gathered their evidence, the trial began on January 24, 1995 and the prosecutors began presenting evidence on why the evidence proved that O.J. was the murderer. There were blood stains found in Simpson’s foyer, on paper found at the murder scene, a fence near Goldman’s body, on Simpson’s sidewalk in shoeprint form, in Simpson’s white bronco on the door handle and a partial footprint on the pedal, on gloves with one at the crime scene and one at O.J.’s estate, and on a pair of O.J.’s socks in his bedroom (CNN). This was an overwhelming amount of blood and evidence that all pointed to O.J. The shoes that matched the prints at the murder scene were high-end shoes made in Eastern Italy that are called Bruno Magli. The shoes were not recovered by they were a size 12 which matches O.J.’s shoe size. There were only 299 pairs of these shoes in the US and there had never been a picture that had O.J. wearing the shoes before (NY Times). That is until recently as a photo taken a year before the murders where O.J. is at Buffalo Bills game has been found with Simpson wearing the infamous Bruno Maglis (buffalo news). This incriminating picture that was not revealed until a decade after the trial would have been incredibly damaging to O.J.’s story.
Blood was found everywhere and it was directly involved in what became the most pivotal and infamous scene from the trail. If someone is asked to remember one thing about the murder trial, they will respond with remember Johnnie Cochran saying “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit”. There were two gloves used in the murders with “the left-handed glove [being] found outside the residence of Nicole Brown and the right-handed glove [being] recovered form O.J. Simpson’s estate” (CNN). However, when O.J. tried on the gloves in court, they appeared to be too small which led to Johnnie Cochran uttering the infamous phrase. On the other side, the prosecutors contested that “the gloves, once drenched in blood, ha[d] shrunk (CNN)” which matches science which says gloves shrink when they get wet.
The blood found at the crime scene was also used to take DNA samples and they were compared to known samples from Nicole Brown, Ron Goldman, and O.J. These samples and various experts found that “the DNA test link O.J. Simpson to the murders (CNN)” while the defense claimed “the crime scene samples have been contaminated or could have been planted as part of a conspiracy against Simpson” The defense claimed this after trying to get Judge Ito to throw out the DNA evidence because they knew it was the most “damning physical evidence yet against Simpson”. In this day, DNA was still relatively new and people also doubted the legitimacy of it. However, knowing what we know now, the matching DNA evidence by itself would be enough to incriminate O.J., not even needing the corroborating evidence.
All this evidence came against O.J. when even his own defense team was doubting what O.J. had told them to be true due to conflicting stories. While in Los Angeles, Simpson told Cochran that he cut his finger in LA which did not match up with him telling a detective that he cut his finger at the hotel in Chicago when he heard about the killings. When Cochran called him out on this, Simpson then offered to get someone in Chicago to say they were on the phone with him and heard the glass break but this did not add up either as the landline was in the bedroom and the only glass was in the bathroom. It was already suspicious that Simpson had cut his finger the night of the murders while he was claiming he was sleeping but him not being able to remember how he cut it makes it seem even more likely that he had something to hide.
Simpson cutting his finger would line up if the murder weapon was some sort of sharp object instead of a gun. It just so happened that the murders had been committed “with a single-edged knife” and the “O.J. Simpson had purchased a single-edged knife prior to the murders” (CNN). However, the murder weapon has never been found and it is unknown to what happened with it. There is a story of people seeing O.J. dump a black bag at the Los Angeles Airport the night of the murders as well as a potential knife being found over ten years later however the black bag has never been proven while the potential knife was proven to not be the murder weapon. Although the bag has multiple eyewitnesses, the interior is unknown but it potentially could have contained bloody clothes, the knife, or other potential evidence.
The defense knew they would not be able to overcome to mounting pile of evidence that had been brought forth against O.J. Simpson. Because of all the blood and DNA that had been connecting back to Simpson, they knew their only chance was to attack the LAPD and try to take the focus off of what O.J. did. Johnnie Cochran created a narrative that portrayed O.J. as a civil rights advocate and martyr who was being discriminated against by the police. He insisted that “African-Americans who failed to embrace his narrative, such as the hapless prosecutor (Christopher Darden), were not only wrong, but were not really black”. Also, he was successfully able to divert attention by attacking the prosecution’s lawyer, Mark Fuhrman, by bringing up his past use of racial slurs doing Simpson’s trial.
Playing off of this idea that it was an attack on O.J. because he was a famous black man, Cochran came up with the idea to claim that all the evidence against O.J. was actually evidence against the LAPD by claiming they planted all the blood. Toobin makes this clear that this would have been impossible as Fuhrman would have had to transport the glove with residue and “wipe the glove on the inside of Simpson’s locked car” without being seen by the hundreds of media personal there. Also, someone would have to of put Simpson’s blood on the back gate, put Goldman’s blood in the Bronco, put Nicole’s blood on Simpson’s sock, and hoped Simpson did not have an alibi so they would not get caught making this story from the defense impossible to have occurred.
To go hand-in-hand with pushing this alternative and unlikely story, Cochran and the rest of the dream team decided they had to play the race card to get their client free of charges. In the closing argument, Cochran used “an explicit call for race-based jury nullification, calling on African-American jurors to ignore the evidence and ‘send the message’ to the racist police that letting a murderer go free was an appropriate payback for a legacy of state-sponsored oppression”. This was a call that invited criticism from others for the obvious invitation for jurors to ignore the evidence presented in the trial. However, when he was accused by Robert Shapiro after the trial, Cochran said “race plays a part in everything in American” and those who deny that “are totally insensitive to the problem of race in America and the underclass” (qtd. In new republic).
After the closing arguments were presented in which there was a blatant call to race, the resulting verdict was highly controversial as the innocent verdict left the involved families feeling as if they had been wronged. This led to a civil suit “by the victims’ families for wrongful death, and the civil trial began in October 1996′ (Britannica). In this civil suit, the new jury found Simpson guilty for being responsible for the deaths of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown (Britannica). Although this did not provide full closure for the families, it brought some closure as well as $33.5 million that O.J. was ordered to pay the families.
After such a controversial and media filled trial, there were many people who wanted to hear the events from O.J.’s point of view. Questions still lingered on how the murders may had been committed if it was done by O.J. This led to a 2006 interview by Fox that did not air until 2018 due to the controversy surrounding it. In the interview Simpson gives a hypothetical explanation for what could have happened on the night of the murders. Simpson details “how he disposed bloody clothes and other specific actions following the slayings’ as well as saying he could have “gone to Nicole’s condo on the night she died with a friend he describes as Charlie”. Charlie was supposedly the one who gave him the knife to kill Nicole and Ron with. After watching the interview, both former prosecutor Christopher Darden and publisher Judith Regan believed that Simpson was undoubtedly the murderer (nbcnews).
Due to the amount of evidence that was presented against O.J. in his involvement in the murders, the acquittal was very surprising. However, it was only surprising to whites as most blacks believed that O.J. was innocent. This spilt was due to the race cared that had been played throughout the trial and because of the racial tensions in that time. But before talking about the reasons the verdict was on way or the other, some background on those handing down the decision is needed. The jury consisted of eight black women, two whites, one hispanic, and one black man. This did not match the population of Los Angeles County as it was only 11% black. The jury also got the chance to tour the Simpson estate however it was an altered estate. In an effort to get the jurors to think O.J. embraced his blackness, the defense changed all the pictures on the walls from white women to black people and Simpson’s family. One of the pictures was from Johnnie Cochran’s office of a little black girl trying to get to school. This was all done in an effort to swing the jury and make the trial about race.
Due to the use of race in the trial, it makes sense that there was a racial divide on O.J.’s innocence. Most whites across the country were upset as 63% of whites believed O.J. was guilty. This goes along with only 22% of blacks believing O.J. was guilty. However, there has been a shift in this due to a poll conducted in 2015 where 83% of whites and 57% of blacks believe O.J. was guilty of the murders (Washington post 2). This goes hand-in-hand with research done by Lawrence Shriller were only three of 200 African-Americans polled that Simpson was guilty back in 1995. These people polled connected with O.J. as 44% said they had personally been treated unfairly by the LAPD at least once and “29% believed that blacks were rarely treated well in the local legal system’ (new republic). On a separate panel Shriller conducted, all 6 whites believed Simpson was guilty while the 4 blacks believed innocence. When he asked the blacks voters to assume the bloody footprints left at the scene were Simpson’s, a direct guilty verdict, “three of the four blacks still said they would vote for acquittal”. This shows the verdict went past the evidence and concerned itself primarily with race.
Race made itself an issue in the case before Cochran had called it out. Many blacks across the nation and specifically in the LA area felt that the police were unfair and after them. Framing one of the most high-profile black men in America seemed more likely to them than O.J. committed the crime. This is because the anger over the harassment of the police in the LA area for the 20 years before the murder trial had been building up and had just begun to boil over two years before Simpson. During the 1980’s, there was “rising unemployment, gang activity, and violent crime to the poorer neighborhoods of Los Angeles”. It did not help that the LAPD initiated aggressive techniques to try to take control in minority neighborhoods. In 1988, “more than 80 officers tore apart a pair of apartment buildings on Dalton Street…leaving dozens homeless”. Then, a video was taken of police beating a man named Rodney King.
The rising tensions were going to boil over eventually, it was just a matter of time when. In March 1991, a man named Rodney King led LAPD through a high speed chase that ended with him on the ground being kicked and beaten with batons for 15 minutes by police officers. As a result, he got “skull fractures, broken bones and teeth, and permanent brain damage”. When video was released showing the helpless black man being beaten by white police officers with over a dozen more officers watching, the black community was outraged and four officers were charged with use of excessive force. However, the officers were acquitted of all charges by a whit jury on April 29, 1992, which led to great unrest in the streets of Los Angeles. Tensions were already high as a young, black girl had also just been shot a few weeks prior and then, all hell broke loose in the streets.
After those officers had been acquitted, the black community took out their frustration in the streets over the next few days. As fires, lootings, and beatings of white men went on, there was no response by the LAPD who “did not respond to incidents of looting and violence around the city until almost three hours after the original rioting broke out” except for cop cars driving past, ignoring the violence. After five days of unrest, there were 50 deaths, over 2,000 injured, and 6,000 looters and arsonist arrested. The city had been on shutdown since the riots began as the major had declared a state of emergency and the national guard had been called in. There was also a city curfew with schools and businesses being shut down as well. This uproar only convinced the black community that the legal system was against them which had a direct influence on the O.J. Simpson verdict. The murder trial incited race and, according to New Yorker writer Jeffery Toobin, included everything Americans obsess about: “sexual relationships, sports, violence, and a criminal mystery witnessed only by a dog’ (qtd. In Washington post 2).
Overall, due to the notoriety of O.J. Simpson and the overwhelming amount of evidence against him, it appears that he was acquitted because of the fear of racial backlash that had begun with the to previous confrontations between African-Americans and the police. However, because of the expected backlash that would have occurred and the tension a guilty decision would have brought to America, the innocent decision is understandable. Although the question still remains, is it better to have social justice or legal justice when it comes to our courts making decisions.