How We're Still Reckoning With O.J. Simpson And 'The Trial Of The Century,' 25 Years Later
Twenty-five years ago today: the double-murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in Los Angeles.
What followed: O.J. Simpson’s infamous white Ford Bronco chase, his surrender to the police, a highly publicized criminal trial, which ended in a verdict that captured around 150 million viewers.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, professor of law at Columbia Law School and the University of California, Los Angeles, and Steve Futterman, West Coast correspondent for CBS News who covered every aspect of the Simpson criminal trial, joined On Point to discuss the series of events that changed the way Americans talk about race, fame, sex and law — and how it all resonates today.
"I'll tell you a very funny moment. A bit of an embarrassing moment, but it's OK. I was actually in the pressroom when the glove experiment took place and a bunch of my colleagues are saying, 'Oh, this is a mistake,' " Futterman recalled. “And I said to them, 'The prosecution knows exactly what they're doing.' Oh, was I wrong on that. ... O.J. Simpson was not going to allow that glove to fit him, no matter what the circumstances were."
"Those factors [of celebrity, fame and wealth] ended up being erased by the media's dominant narrative that this was exclusively about racial payback," Crenshaw said. "I'll tell you a story [about] when the verdict was prepared to come forward. There were television cameras trained across the United States, basically, to capture the racial division in the response. There was even a camera in my home that was coming to watch how was I going to respond."
On race’s influence on the trial
Crenshaw: "Within the black community, there was clearly an awareness that O.J. was a certain kind of black person. He wasn't a person, like other athletes, like Jim Brown, who was deeply involved in civil rights. He wasn't the guy who was going to put up a black-fisted salute. Everybody was clearly aware of that. But whether race would play a role in his prosecution didn't have much to do with how O.J. thought about himself, or how white America thought about him prior to the allegation."
Futterman: "I had more of a rose-colored view of race in America. This brought out some of the divides which unfortunately existed then [and] still exist today. You know, in a perfect world, in the ideal world, we are of different races, but we get together so well and the divides are not that great. This one did expose some of the raw differences, as far as experience, as far as views of law enforcement between whites and blacks. And it wasn't a shock to me, but it was a bit more raw than I expected."
Crenshaw: "For many people, race was in the mix from the very beginning. … I don't know if people remember that Time magazine cover that showed a darkened picture of O.J. Simpson that came long before the trial started. That made a real splash, so to speak, in the racial discourse. People [were] saying race isn't going to play a role because, 'We don't think of O.J. as black.' A lot of people think that's a colorblind statement, but that is a racial statement. … It was all of these moments like this, from the very beginning, that made it clear that this was going to be a racial spectacle."
"People [were] saying race isn't going to play a role because, 'We don't think of O.J. as black.' A lot of people think that's a colorblind statement, but that is a racial statement."Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
On the prosecution’s failures becoming the defense's success
Futterman: "You have to remember what Johnnie Cochran and the so-called 'dream team' wanted to do. Their goal — this doesn't sound necessarily complimentary — but their goal is to defend their client. Their goal is not a search for the truth. That's the prosecution's job. The defense team's job for the most part — and there are some ethical issues involved here — but for the most part, a defense team is trying to do the best for their client."
Crenshaw: "I knew Johnnie Cochran personally. He was a masterful attorney and much of the criticism that we're hearing comes from a failure to understand what attorneys actually do. And, I think [it’s] a failure to understand both sides were playing particular narratives. … [The prosecution] played the game and they lost the gamble. Both sides were doing it. They were trying to tell a story that affirmed their theory of the case and the prosecution’s story just didn't hold water."
On domestic abuse allegations against Simpson
Futterman: "I was someone, being in the news business, who was aware of the allegations of domestic violence against O.J. Simpson. Nicole Brown Simpson had complained about him before. There had been some police intervention, but never an arrest or anything. But there had been whispers in the Southern California area. So, initially, when I heard about this, my mind did think of O.J. Simpson. If this case was around today, let's say 2019 … there may have been a closer look of O.J. Simpson, even before the murders took place, which would have presented him in a different light.”
Crenshaw: "The prosecution didn't even put a focus on [domestic violence]. In fact, they had to be lobbied by domestic violence advocates to make the long history of domestic violence a central part of their argument and they never effectively did it. … So I was surprised and affirm that [Futterman] saw that, because so many people didn't see it, including the prosecution."
"Especially if you disagree with that verdict, you have to understand why the jury came back with that verdict. If you understand that, you'll go a long way to understanding the entire O.J. Simpson case."Steve Futterman
Lasting impacts, on the 25th anniversary of the murders
Crenshaw: "I still think it's a missed opportunity. Because so much of the reaction to the verdict focused on anger toward the jury for the disappointing outcome, rather than anger toward the institutions that made it possible. … If there had been more of a shift to focus on what's not working that caused this disappointment, rather than focusing on the jury, we probably would be at a different point in talking about this. So it's one of the things I'm talking about. I'm looking back 30 years and looking at that case with a new contemporary eye."
"So much of the reaction to the verdict focused on anger toward the jury for the disappointing outcome, rather than anger toward the institutions that made it possible."Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
Futterman: "It was a moment in time where you rarely had the entire country transfixed by a couple moments. The slow-speed chase, the trial, the verdict, etc. I think it's important. I think the professor sort of hinted at this. You have to understand why the jury came back with that verdict. Especially if you disagree with that verdict, you have to understand why the jury came back with that verdict. If you understand that, you'll go a long way to understanding the entire O.J. Simpson case."
Brian Hardzinski also produced this hour for broadcast, hosted by Meghna Chakrabarti. Alex Schroeder adapted it for the web.