How O.J. Simpson’s Murder Trial Cemented Tribal Politics

O.J. Simpson is slated to be released from a Nevada state prison in October after serving nine years of a 33-year sentence for a sports memorabilia robbery. But nobody who thinks of Simpson thinks of his ill-conceived caper at a Las Vegas hotel a decade ago. They think of his role in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. Simpson’s responsibility for their deaths is well-established. A vast majority of Americans believe he is guilty, according to a 2015 poll—including 57 percent of blacks, up from the not inconsiderable 25 percent at the time of his criminal trial.

The fact that Simpson was acquitted of the murders in 1995 when he was obviously guilty, yet held liable for the deaths in the civil trial of 1997, plus the fact that few people actually believed the “real killer” would be found—much less sought—especially by Simpson himself, constituted too many loose ends for the episode to be laid to rest. Even as the trial progressed, it was being satirized in comic routines and roundly held up for ridicule. Thus ensued the continuing stream of books and films about the case, some of which may have helped achieve the consensus of today.

Last year alone, for example, two outstanding television series were devoted to the Simpson case and it would be hard to come away from either thinking Simpson innocent. “O.J.: Made in America” is an absorbing seven-hour documentary based on interviews and directed by Ezra Edelman, son of civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman. It won the Academy Award for best documentary of 2016. The second is the mesmerizing 10-part Emmy and Golden Globe-winning dramatic series, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” based on Jeffrey Toobin’s best-selling and exhaustively factual account of the trial, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson (1997), and with a powerful performance by Cuba Gooding as the lead.

Although Toobin explicitly and unequivocally argues for Simpson’s guilt, and the writers quite meticulously follow his book, the series’ creators wanted to keep the final question open, making it more about how the whole historical event unfolded along with its colorful cast of characters, than about judgment. Nevertheless, Simpson’s guilt comes through clearly. The drama vividly illustrates how the trial turned into something of a clash of cultures, that of the traditional no-frills belief in facts, logic, evidence, and the jury system on the part of the overconfident prosecutor Marcia Clark (nicely played by Sarah Paulson) versus that of the postmodern disregard for facts and mockery of truth by the thoroughly amoral defense lawyers hired by Simpson, gleefully cooking up fraudulent distractions to divert from the “mountain of evidence” that assuredly pointed to their client’s guilt. The so-called dream team manufactured a tale of a racist Los Angeles Police Department framing O.J. Simpson, a man the police were actually quite friendly toward, and even revered, painting a picture of a police department that was somehow “both totally inept and brilliantly sinister,” as Toobin puts it—deviously planting evidence and incompetently handling it at the same time.

“As it happened,” Toobin writes, “bad as the LAPD was, it did not frame O.J. Simpson; no one planted or fabricated any evidence.” As a matter of fact, he adds, “the defense cleverly obscured the one actual police conspiracy that was revealed in the course of the case—that of the starstruck cops who in 1989 tried to minimize and excuse O.J. Simpson’s history of domestic violence,” for which he pleaded no contest.

In the end, as Toobin writes, and as the series illustrates, the dream team managed to deflect the issue entirely from the brutal taking of innocent life and subjecting survivors to a nightmare of grief, to policeman Mark Fuhrman’s use of the n-word, and by extension the racism of the entire police force, and, by yet another extension, America’s racist past.

Nothing could have been more disrespectful to the jury—nine blacks, two whites, and one Latino, in its final composition—than these tactics, in which the evocation of racism was obviously a cynical ploy. For example, as shown in the series and as recorded in the trial record, when assistant district attorney Chris Darden asked that testimony regarding a witness’s use of the n-word not be allowed in court because of the potential it had to be inflammatory in the ears of the black jurors, defense lawyer Johnny Cochran loudly denounced him for daring to doubt that blacks could remain composed and objective even when hearing racial slurs. But when Darden wanted to enter into evidence the testimony of a witness who heard the voice of a black man near the crime scene at the time of the murders, Cochran histrionically declaimed that the black jurors would be highly insulted at the outrageously offensive idea that a human voice could possibly be identified by race.

Even dream team member Alan Dershowitz did not expect all the defense flimflammery to result in an acquittal, but a hung jury, as he has said in interviews. In fact, had the jury done its job and gone through the evidence—even that for police tampering—they would have seen that Simpson was undeniably guilty as charged. But they’d been given excuses not to look and they took them.

After less than four hours, much of which had to be taken up by simple paperwork, the jury voted to acquit. Evidently, the jury room presented something of a sorry reversal of “12 Angry Men,” that old liberal chestnut of a play, in that the one or maybe two jurors who wanted to look at the evidence were silenced by those who just wanted to acquit and end the nine-month ordeal. One of the jurors leaving the courtroom after the verdict had been announced, a former member of the Black Panthers as it happened, gave Cochran the black power salute. There was high fiving in the parking lot as the jurors were escorted out, according to one of Edelman’s interviews, saying the verdict was payback for the exoneration of the cops who beat motorist Rodney King after he’d led them on a lengthy high-speed chase.

What the Simpson trial showed is how our system can be undermined by men willing to use any means necessary to get their client off. “The lawyers went beyond the bounds of good ethical practice,” a professor of law of my acquaintance remarked. “O.J. shows the adversarial system at its worst.”

And thus the terrible aftermath, in which many blacks across the country loudly and ostentatiously cheered the verdict the minute it was announced. This for a man who, according to one of Edelman’s interviews, had remarked at the crowds around his home as he was driven to the police station, “What are all these n—-s doing in Brentwood?”

Debra Dickerson, author of The End of Blackness (2005), believes that Simpson was guilty, but also that the police tampered with the evidence in order to ensure a conviction. In her lights, therefore, the jury was justified in the acquittal. However, when Dickerson was asked in an interview what she thought of the “African-Americans who jumped up and down for joy when he was acquitted,” she replied, “Blacks jumping for joy at the sight of a black murderer gone free just because he murdered white people, I feel ashamed.” She elaborated:

That’s why I call my book “The End of Blackness.” I’m just so tired of being black in that way, that way which can only understand itself as the people who are oppressed by white people.  The people who condone murder as long as it annoys whites. . . . It’s slaves spitting in the master’s soup; changes nothing and demeans the spitter. . . . It teaches weak minded, immature blacks that we never have to look at ourselves, that anything we do is justified, as long as it displeases whites.  A lot of blacks are still slaves picking cotton on that last plantation, the mind. . . . They can’t accept that two wrongs don’t make a right, that there is no way to undo the past. People like that are obsessed with white people. They are the ultimate white supremacists; they can’t even figure out how to feel about crime without reference to white people.

Dickerson’s analysis went even deeper, to explain what could be behind such attitudes:

Blacks are experiencing a sort of disequilibrium brought about by freedom while so much injustice remains enshrined and circumscribes their options. There is so much bitterness and disappointment that, to us, the racism still seems so obvious yet white people walk around free and unrepentant. Too many of us are caught up in the ‘a ha!” syndrome. We think if we just track down every scowl, every missed promotion, every clutched purse, eventually we’ll have evidence to get whites on the witness stand, forced to admit their racism, and apologize. Because that’s what we really want. Few of us will admit it, but we want atonement. We want whites to feel bad about themselves, for a change. …We’re free but unavenged and some of us are losing our minds at the injustice of it.

Dickerson’s analysis deserves pondering. Some would object that whites have most certainly felt “bad about themselves” with regard to racism. As Shelby Steele has extensively described, “white guilt” has largely driven decades of the country’s efforts to make up for the sins of past generations. Why hasn’t this been enough?

Well, aside from the fact that many of these efforts have been counterproductive to the flourishing of blacks, as the Manhattan Institute’s Jason Riley argues, this kind of guilt is not real guilt—to be guilty for historical sins is not really to be very guilty at all. It doesn’t really cost whites enough and there can be no actual “atonement” for whatever wrongs were done by others in the past. This is why there is such an effort to make present day whites feel guilty through concepts such as “systemic racism” and “microaggression” and “white privilege.” That is, whites should feel guilty simply for being white, members of an irrevocably guilty race.

align=”right” What would be enough? Would there have to be more evidence of active suffering on the part of individual white people, perhaps even some kind of collective punishment and reduction of their circumstances? Whites would have to be punished, deprived, degraded?

There may well be segments of the white population who feel they have suffered because of resources and policies designed more to benefit blacks, and as many commentators have noted—starting in the early hours of November 9 of last year—the Democratic Party has long forsaken its traditional white working class base in favor of advancing what it took to be minority interests. But this has been insufficient to address the racial indictment.

What would be enough? Would there have to be more evidence of active suffering on the part of individual white people, perhaps even some kind of collective punishment and reduction of their circumstances? Whites would have to be punished, deprived, degraded?

Since such an indictment of racial guilt can’t hold or be effective universally, even if given constant lip service, the only kind of satisfaction blacks who hold such attitudes can get is to discomfort whites on an ad hoc basis. Thus the pumped-up, ecstatic acting-out at Simpson’s acquittal. But this is a dead end. There will never be sufficient suffering or discomfort to assuage the perception of wrong. And when the temporary moment of triumph passes, the truth starkly emerges.

The collective wound caused by the exoneration of Simpson for a brutal double-homicide was partly assuaged by his nine-year stint for robbery. Although the sentence may have seemed harsh, it wasn’t, according to some experts, given his prior conviction for domestic abuse and the civil judgment for wrongful death. In any event, like it or not, it constituted a kind of poetic justice. But the granting of parole has opened the wound of injustice once again, at the prospect of his returning to freedom when he should still be in prison for killing his wife and the poor soul who happened to be with her at the wrong time. A murderer has escaped justice, and that is an affront to humanity and a blot on the universe reminiscent of Greek tragedy. Tribal vengeance is futile and self defeating, and is no justice at all.


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