When the verdict was handed down on October 4, 1995, I couldn't imagine that we would still be talking about The People v. Orenthal James Simpson more than 20 years later. I certainly never would have guessed there would be a hugely popular television series on the trial and a multi-part ESPN documentary.
The trial raised many issues: racism, celebrity, domestic violence, media coverage of criminal cases. As a result, it generated some very important and necessary discussions. As lead prosecutor on the case, I have followed those discussions very closely.
Here are the five things I'd like to say about those issues.
1) Not all of the Simpson jurors saw the trial as "payback" for the Rodney King verdict
Just two years before O.J. Simpson was charged with the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman, an all-white jury acquitted Los Angeles Police Department officers who had been videotaped ruthlessly beating black taxi driver Rodney King. Long-simmering racial hostilities boiled over. The riots that erupted following the verdict have been characterized as the most violent of the 20th century.
Long before we started to pick a jury for the Simpson trial, we'd heard that particularly among African Americans, there was talk that the trial would be a chance at payback for the Rodney King verdict. It was a problem we couldn't solve, but it had to be addressed. So I raised the issue during jury selection and asked the jurors if they thought this trial was a chance for payback. No one raised their hand. But a short time later, a black juror was overheard saying, "It's payback time."
And after the jury delivered its verdict, one of the jurors even raised his fist in the Black Power salute.
But I don't believe payback was the only factor. Some of the jurors started out reasonably impartial. In the beginning, we stood a chance of persuading them.
But over the course of nine sequestered months, the constant litany of racially incendiary remarks jogged memories, rekindled latent mistrust, and corroded the framework of law and logic we had tried to establish. Jibes and digs like Mr. [Johnnie] Cochran's gratuitous comments to Detective Tom Lange about his house in Simi Valley conjured up images of the Simi Valley jury that acquitted the police officers who'd beaten Rodney King.
By the time the infamous Mark Fuhrman tapes were played and the jury heard Fuhrman's voice spewing racial slurs and despicable stories of police brutality, even those who had started out with an open mind likely found it impossible to believe in Simpson's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
2) Celebrity was the key. If O.J. weren't a celebrity, he would've been convicted.
I'd been handling trials in downtown Los Angeles for 10 years by the time I was assigned to the Simpson case. I'd prosecuted many cases involving African-American defendants in which there were African-American jurors. The defense lawyers routinely found a way to inject race into the trials, yet the juries had convicted.
But O.J. Simpson wasn't just any black man; he was a famous black man — one who'd transcended racial barriers to become a celebrity beloved by everyone.
Black men had undeniably been mistreated in the criminal justice system, especially in Los Angeles. But Simpson was not one of them. Over the years, when Nicole Brown called 911 to report that Simpson had beaten her, police officers frequently washed out the charges. Simpson would sign a football for them, and the officers, his adoring fans, would walk away. Even Mark Fuhrman had declined to arrest Simpson for bashing in the windshield of Nicole's car — while she was sitting in the driver's seat.
To many members of the African-American community, it didn't matter much that Simpson was an unlikely target for police malfeasance; it was critical that this successful black man not be taken down by a discriminatory system.
In that manner, race and stardom were intertwined. Had the defendant been a famous white football player or an ordinary black citizen, I believe he would have been convicted. But his position as a black man who was also a celebrity was doubly powerful: It assured loyalty to Simpson and reinforced African-American jurors' distrust of the police.
3) Recordings of police brutality are playing a crucial role in exposing injustice
Even in 1995 it wasn't news to me that black men were being wrongfully harmed and killed by police officers — that the Rodney King beating symbolized the other less heralded cases of police brutality that had not been captured on videotape.
But seeing the hideous, vividly detailed recent footage of these shootings has made me feel the injustice viscerally, and given me a deeper understanding of why the African-American jurors viewed the Simpson case so differently than I did. Now, more than ever before, we can all see the reasons for ourselves in smartphone videos, dash cam clips, and surveillance tapes: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald ... the list goes on and on.
It is my sincere hope that when people discuss the Simpson verdict in future, they will bear those graphic images in mind. I know I will. The importance of these recordings is undeniable.
4) Cameras in the courtroom are also valuable tools — but only when used responsibly
By the end of the trial, I had come to believe that cameras did not belong in the courtroom. But over the years my views on the matter have changed, and I now think that, on balance, allowing cameras in the courtroom does more good than harm.
Fred Goldman, Ron Goldman's father, was the one who finally persuaded me of that. As he said, if there had not been television cameras in our courtroom during the Simpson trial, few would have known what a travesty the verdict was. If managed properly, I now believe the benefits of media presence and increased transparency can outweigh the costs.
5) Intimate partner violence is finally recognized for what it is: a crime
Media coverage of the Simpson case laid bare and even had a measurable impact on the pervasive and deadly nature of spousal abuse. Nicole's prophetic words haunted me throughout the trial. She had said to friends and family, "He's going to kill me, and he's going to get away with it." It breaks my heart that I was unable to prove her wrong.
Prior to the trial, people still largely viewed violence between partners as a "family matter," not really even a crime. More often than not, it was swept under the rug — along with the women's shattered lives. And few realized just how often domestic violence results in death.
But since the trial, the Violence Against Women Act has been signed into law and reauthorized three times. As a result, victim advocates and government agencies can work together more effectively. These laws have also enacted harsher punishments for certain violent crimes and created new prevention and victim assistance programs.
Domestic violence support groups and hotlines have multiplied since the Simpson case. There are now over 50 shelters in Los Angeles County alone.
So there has been progress, and I'm glad that the Simpson trial continues to provoke debate about these critical issues. But we must not forget that it comes at a terrible, tragic cost. Two innocent people were brutally murdered. So I want to end this article by honoring Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. We owe them a great debt.
Marcia Clark is the author of the best-selling legal thrillers The Competition, Killer Ambition, Guilt by Degrees, and Guilt by Association. A practicing criminal lawyer since 1979, she joined the Los Angeles District Attorney's office in 1981, where she served as prosecutor for the trials of Robert Bardo, convicted of killing actress Rebecca Schaeffer, and, most notably, O.J. Simpson. She recently re-released her 1997 best-selling book on the trial, Without a Doubt, as an e-book exclusive with a new foreword, and she is launching a new crime fiction series featuring defense attorney Samantha Brinkman, Blood Defense, on May 1, 2016.
This article was adapted from Without a Doubt.
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