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Sports Guy’s Vault: Remembering the O.J. Trial

On the anniversary of OJ's car chase, Bill Simmons looks back on how the Simpson case changed America

Editor’s note: This column originally ran on June 11, 2004.

Things That Make Me Feel Old, Chapter 253: There’s an entire generation that doesn’t remember the O.J. Trial.

Some of you remember bits and pieces. Like the surreal Bronco Chase. Marcia Clark breaking out her Mokeski perm. Chris Darden’s disastrous idea to have O.J. slip on the murder gloves. Johnnie Cochran wearing so many crazy suits, one reporter purchased a book of 64 crayons so he could accurately describe the colors. The crazed look on O.J.’s face when the verdict was announced, like even he couldn’t believe he was going free.

Bits and pieces. If you’re 21 or younger.

And if you’re older than that, you remember everything that happened 10 years ago, starting with the double murders on June 12, 1994.

We always hear phrases like “Fight of the Century” and “Trial of the Century” … well, this really was the Trial of the Century. A Pro Football Hall of Fame running back might or might not have killed his wife and one of her male friends. All evidence pointed to him. No other suspects. No alibi. A disturbing history of domestic abuse. A motive. Blood splattered everywhere, including back at the suspect’s house.

It should have been easy. Instead, the trial stretched until September of the following year, fracturing the nation along the way. We learned about the legal process, forensic science and the cult of celebrity (personified by Kato Kaelin, the ultimate freeloader). We learned how quickly a screwed up case can get more screwed up. We learned about the inherent flaws of our jury system, a process which eliminates just about anyone who follows the news. We learned that our nation could and would poke fun at anything, even when the murders of two innocent people were directly involved. We learned that the stakes change for wealthy defendants, that it’s possible to buy your own acquittal. We learned about lawyers, how some will do anything to win a case, no matter what the cost.

We learned we don’t know many of these athletes and celebrities. We think we do … but we don’t. That sounds pretty simple, but believe me, in those first few days after the murders, everyone had the same reaction: We know this guy. He couldn’t have done it. Like with the Kobe Trial, it seemed farfetched that a handsome athlete with everything going for him could be charged with a heinous crime. But after what happened with Simpson, you never know.

O.J. turned out to be a string of dichotomies — a black ex-football player who hung out with white businessmen; a philandering husband and wife-beater who claimed that he loved his wife “too much;” an articulate college graduate who could barely write a sentence. He wasn’t living the life of a football legend; he was eating meals at McDonald’s with Kato, filming cheesy infomercials, throwing tantrums because his wife didn’t save him a seat at their daughter’s dance recital. His whole life was a lie.

Still, he walked.

Like many Americans, I became an O.J. Trial junkie in the mid-’90s. Unlike many Americans, my interest was piqued mostly because I didn’t have anything better to do. Back then, I was working as a high school sports reporter for the Boston Herald, working 25-30 hours a week covering games and writing profiles. With every event starting after 3 p.m., I had more than enough free time on my hands. And since Al Gore hadn’t created the Internet yet, my mornings and afternoons revolved around making trips to Dunkin’ Donuts, writing short stories I couldn’t get published, playing season after season of “NHL ’95” and following the trial.

There was always something happening. Either they were having the trial, or two talking heads on CNN were arguing about the trial, or one of the superb journalists covering the trial (especially Dominick Dunne of Vanity Fair and Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker) had written something good. When you went out drinking, you argued about it. When you went home for Easter, you discussed it with your family. It was everywhere. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone had a theory about the murders. Those who believed he was guilty worried he would get away with it — a belief that seemed like an impossibility when he was fleeing in the white Bronco, but something that seemed more realistic with every passing day.

Everything started with the Bronco Chase. We knew two people were dead. We knew O.J. was a suspect. But he couldn’t have murdered them, for God’s sake. After all, this was O.J. — the guy who rushed for 2,003 yards for the Buffalo Bills in 1973, the guy who played Nordberg in Naked Gun, the guy who sprinted through airports in those Hertz commercials. We knew this guy. I mean … didn’t we?

Then he disappeared. Friday afternoon, June 17, 1994. Out of nowhere. During a hastily scheduled news conference, an LAPD spokesman announced Simpson had failed to turn himself in by the 11 a.m. deadline, adding “The Los Angeles Police Department right now is actively searching for Mr. Simpson.”

Wait a second … what?????????

You could hear the gasps from the reporters on hand. Millions of people began thinking the same thing: “Good God, he must have done it.” Everyone in America stopped working. People huddled around televisions in offices, bars, restaurants, wherever. Simpson’s lawyer, Robert Shapiro, scheduled a second press conference begging O.J. to turn himself in. One of O.J.’s friends and lawyers, Robert Kardashian, read an apparent suicide note O.J. had left behind. This was insane. This couldn’t be happening.

That weekend I was visiting friends in Connecticut, prepared for a raging night on the town: Pitchers of beer, some shuffleboard, maybe even a late-night stop for chili-cheese fries. Once the white Bronco materialized on the 405, we never left the house. Poor NBC was stuck with Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Rockets and Knicks, bouncing between O.J. & A.C. and Ewing & Olajuwon. Finally they settled on a ludicrous split-screen, which seemed to satisfy everyone — those who cared about the game, and those who were waiting to see if O.J. would blow his brains out on national TV.

We were mesmerized. I still remember everything about that night, everyone in the room, even where everyone was sitting. We were about to watch O.J. Simpson kill himself. A.C. had already done his hilarious “This is A.C., I got O.J. in the car … you know who this is, g–dammit!” routine. The cops had been trailing them for hours. Now they were headed toward O.J.’s Rockingham Estate, crawling along at a snail’s pace on Sunset, an eerie feeling of anticipation in the air. One of my buddies was getting anxious, ready for some sort of resolution.

“Hurry up, O.J.!” he said. “Do something! We’re running out of beer.”

We all felt that way.

If the trial happened in 2004 instead of 1995, Simpson and his gravity-defying noggin probably would be rotting away in prison right now. He couldn’t have survived the overwhelming DNA evidence. The science is the same, but thanks to the startling popularity of CSI and CSI: Miami, forensics doesn’t seem nearly as complicated today as it did in the mid-’90s, when scientists wasted entire days of the trial simply explaining the basics of DNA evidence to the jurors. Of course, those efforts were completely wasted, as evidenced by the words of one juror after the trial:

“I didn’t understand the DNA stuff at all. To me, it was just a waste of time. It was way out there and carried no weight with me.”

Keep in mind: Blood was found at the crime scene, dripping on the left side of the footprints leaving the area (and yes, O.J. had an unexplained cut on his left hand). There was a 1-in-57 billion chance that the blood did not belong to O.J. There was blood in the Bronco, blood on the rear gate, blood on O.J.’s socks (found in his bedroom at home), blood on the gloves (one left at the crime scene, the other dropped behind Kato’s guest house at the Rockingham estate). In each case, the odds were in the millions and billions that the aforementioned blood didn’t belong to Simpson, his ex-wife or Ron Goldman. This would have been the most boring episode of CSI ever; Gil Grissom might have sent O.J. packing in 10 minutes.

But this was 10 years ago. Only educated people understood the ramifications of the DNA evidence … and educated people have a way of being bounced off juries. Faced with overwhelming evidence against their client, Simpson’s defense team embarked on a two-pronged strategy, setting out to prove that the incompetent LAPD mishandled much of the blood evidence — which it had, to some extent — because they were so consumed with trying to frame Simpson with the murders, because they hated African-Americans.

Think about that for a second.

On the one hand, the defense argued the LAPD was completely incompetent, so you couldn’t possibly trust the DNA evidence. On the other hand, they played the race card, arguing the LAPD was calculating enough to arrive at a crime scene and, within about 10 minutes of digesting what had happened, hatch a convoluted plan to frame Simpson because he was African-American … even though they didn’t have any idea if he had an alibi or was even in the country at the time.

Does that make any sense? Of course not. But it worked. Because Mark Furhman lied on the stand about using racial slurs, apparently that meant he planted the second glove at O.J.’s house. Poor Dennis Fung, the hapless doctor who handled the blood evidence after the murders, was demolished for nine consecutive days by maniacal defense attorney Barry Scheck, then suffered the further ignominy of having the defense team hug him and shake his hand after his testimony ended. Sorry we called you a liar and insinuated that you framed our client … we’re just doing our jobs, no hard feelings.

That’s how ridiculous this trial was. The defense had no case — if anything, they just sat back like Bernard Hopkins, waited for the prosecution to screw up and pounced on every mistake. They presented no alibis, no other suspects, no semblance of a defense that related to O.J. as a person. And when all else failed, they brought out the race card and smashed it over everyone’s heads. Consequences be damned.

Fortunately for the defense, the LAPD started mangling this case from the moment they arrived in Brentwood. Do you realize that, right after the murders, the LAPD interviewed Simpson for 30 minutes — without his lawyers present! — and failed to tie him down to any sort of an alibi, then let him go when they ran out of questions? Simpson admitted to dripping blood all over the place on the very same night his wife was brutally murdered, a night in which he had no alibi whatsoever, and they didn’t even pursue this? In a movie scene, wouldn’t they have been battering away at him for hours on end, while O.J. chainsmoked with sweat pouring from his head? Please.

The prosecution was equally inept, screwing up the case to smithereens. (If you’re interested in the gory details, read Outrage by Vincent Bugliosi). Marcia Clark, so confident and cocksure at the beginning of the trial, became more and more harried as things dragged along. At one point, after the Enquirer published revealing photos of her, she actually broke down in court as Darden shielded her from the Court TV cameras. By the middle of the trial, Judge Lance Ito was treating her with open disdain, which was funny because he was such a joke in his own right (thanks to his Art Shell-ian clock management, the jury was sequestered for more time than any jury in the history of California).

Meanwhile, Darden was self-destructing like John Starks against the Rockets, unable to stand up to boyhood idol Johnnie Cochran. As Cochran gleefully pushed his buttons, snidely questioning his competence and experience, poor Darden became so flustered he would actually turn away from the judge’s desk and rock back and forth like Leo Mazzone. You really had to see it. There were at least four different times during the trial when it seemed like Darden would snap and either have a nervous breakdown or kill everyone in a 25-foot vicinity. It was like watching one of the roommates slowly lose his mind over the course of a Real World season.

Simpson’s defense team rolled through Clark and Darden with ease. Scheck blistered holes in their DNA evidence, sneering in contempt at every witness, like he couldn’t believe they would bring something so moronic in front of a jury. He was like James Mason in The Verdict” crossed with a Rottweiler. And Cochran was so polished, so righteous, so likable … it almost seemed like an actor was playing him, as if the defense team had hired Morgan Freeman for the duration of the trial. Johnnie could throw anything out and you would believe it.

Isn’t it interesting that there were only two gloves found? What happened to the third glove? Why isn’t anyone talking about this? What did the LAPD do with it? I find this whole thing veeeeeeeeeery interesting.

And you’d buy it! Old Johnnie could sell mink coats at a PETA rally. But the biggest contribution came from F. Lee Bailey, the renowned trial lawyer who came off as a trembling self-parody in the disappointing Fuhrman cross-examination. He made up for it later in the trial by successfully goading Darden — whispering into his ear, “You have the balls of a field mouse” — prompting an enraged Darden to have Simpson try on the gloves found at the murder scene without knowing if they would fit. In the Pantheon Of Horrible Ideas, that one ranked somewhere between “Bowie over MJ” and The Magic Hour. Not only had the gloves shrunk from all the testing, but O.J. had to wear latex gloves when he was trying them on. They never had a chance.

Both Darden and the trial would never be the same.

When Simpson was found responsible for the murders in the civil trial — ordered to pay $33.5 million to the Brown and Goldman families — some believed this made up for the criminal trial. I don’t see it. He’s still walking the streets. Still playing golf. Still giving interviews. Still living a lie. And even though he has to turn all income over to the families, he still lives a decent lifestyle off his NFL pension. Most of his friends deserted him, and he’s somewhat of a social pariah, but anything’s better than prison.

More importantly, nothing could erase the damage of his criminal trial, the wounds that opened across the nation. Again, you had to be there. Had to be standing in a group of people, hearing the verdict delivered, seeing O.J.’s face light up, feeling the life sink from your body. You had to glance around the room, seeing your friends or co-workers staring blankly at the television in disbelief. This was Generation X’s defining “I remember exactly where I was when it happened” moment, our version of JFK’s assassination. You couldn’t think of something to say that could match the moment, so you didn’t even try. There were no words.

Minutes after the verdict was announced, we learned something disheartening: The chasm between whites and blacks in this country was more pronounced than anyone imagined. As TV stations started showing various reactions to the verdict around the country, those images confirmed everything we refused to believe for 15 months. The defense was right. This trial wasn’t about a double-murder, it was about a distressing racial divide, a legacy of mistrust between blacks and whites.

At the time, many African-Americans had trouble trusting police, lawyers, the legal process as a whole … too many of their own people had been railroaded or mistreated over the years, personified by the revolting images from the Rodney King beating and the subsequent acquittal of the policemen involved. These scars affected every facet of Simpson’s defense: the jury selection, the defense, even the verdict. When the system acquitted a clearly culpable man, some of these same African-Americans rejoiced upon hearing the news. One of their own had finally beaten the system. Didn’t matter how.

And yes, some blacks believed O.J. was guilty, just like some whites believed he was innocent. But those weren’t the images that television chose to show us. And that remains the legacy of the trial, that astonishing moment when the verdict was announced — My God, he’s going to walk — followed by many blacks celebrating like they won the Super Bowl, many whites recoiling in horror, O.J. and his team rejoicing, and saddest of all, Kim Goldman and her father sobbing uncontrollably. Ten years later, that image of the Goldmans endures over everything else, a sobering reminder of two brutal murders, of the mounds of evidence pointing to one man, of a trial that evolved into something else.

Ten years later, we’re still picking up the pieces. And if you can’t remember what happened … maybe you’re lucky. 

Filed Under: Sports Guy's Vault, O.J. Simpson, O.J. trial

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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