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Thoughts on the death of O.J. Simpson

O. J. Simpson passed away from cancer Thursday. The instant meme was an image of the late Norm McDonald declaring, “Finally, O.J. can rest, knowing that his wife’s killer is dead.”

Kids, you may not believe this, but in 1994, it seemed absurd that somebody who was rich and famous would be the kind of person capable of murdering two people. There was just this blanket assumption that anyone living a lifestyle of “champagne wishes and caviar dreams,” as Robin Leach described it, would be happy.

This was before Phil Spector, before Robert Blake, before Oscar Pistorius, before Aaron Hernandez.

This was before TMZ, before cell-phone cameras showcased every celebrity meltdown, tantrum, and other outburst. The rich and famous people in Hollywood, and their handlers and agents and consultants, exercised a lot more control over their images. This was also before #MeToo, and it was a few years before the country realized it had elected men who saw the White House interns as their own personal sex kittens — not just in 1992, but also in 1960.

You could say it was a more innocent time, but it is likely more accurate to say it was a more naïve time.

When O. J. Simpson was mentioned “as the focus of the investigation” on June 14, 1994, the initial overwhelming attitude among the public, white and black, was that it was unthinkable that the famous face could have committed such a bloody and heinous crime.

Nicole Brown had been stabbed twelve times, and her throat had been slashed, severing both carotid arteries and jugular veins, and she had been nearly decapitated. Because there was no blood on her bare feet, she appeared to have been knocked to the ground before the stabbings began. Ron Goldman had been stabbed 25 times. Both victims had cutting wounds on the left and right hands, consistent with defensive wounds. Police testified that Brown was likely killed first, and Goldman’s approach likely interrupted the stabbing of Brown. This was no robbery gone wrong; these were deliberate murders committed with violent rage.

This was the University of Southern California football star, the Buffalo Bills single-season-rushing-yards record-breaker, the guy always running through airports in Hertz commercials. This was goofy Nordberg, the guy always suffering ridiculous injuries in The Naked Gun spoof movies. Everyone liked him.

It is easy, in retrospect, to be appalled by the crowds that formed to watch and cheer Simpson and Al Cowlings in the white Ford Bronco, in a low-speed chase down the Los Angeles freeways. But at that point, very few people had gotten their heads around the idea that Simpson, that smiling guy from the commercials and the movies, could have stabbed two people to death. It had to be that the Los Angeles Police Department — fresh off the colossal scandal and embarrassment of the Rodney King beating — had screwed up and falsely accused the beloved star.

But over the course of the following year, it became clear that all of us who liked him for what he had done on the football field and in the movies didn’t know the real O. J. Simpson. The real Simpson was a monster, an abusive husband. During the course of the trial, we saw the pictures of the bruises and black eyes he left on Nicole Brown, and we heard the desperation of the victim’s voice on the 911 calls. It became much easier to believe that a violent, abusive, possessive man would murder his ex-wife and a man he found with her.

When the Simpson verdict came down in 1995, the public reaction was a stark demonstration of America’s racial divide — less than a quarter of blacks believed O. J. Simpson was guilty and 69 percent believed he was not guilty, while three-quarters of whites believed he was guilty and just 16 percent believed he was not guilty. Each side looked at the other in disbelief — whites couldn’t believe that blacks could hand-wave away so much evidence, while blacks couldn’t believe that whites could so credulously accept the claims of the LAPD.

From 1995 to 2007, O. J. Simpson existed as living proof to many Americans that you could get away with brutal murder if you were rich and famous enough, and if your legal “dream team” was shameless enough. The jury deliberated for under four hours, when many legal analysts expected it to take days or weeks. Dennis Miller’s dark joke, “If you’re ever on trial, your fate is going to be determined by twelve idiots who couldn’t get out of jury duty,” reflected Americans’ increasing suspicion that juries were full of gullible naïfs who could be easily fooled by a smooth-talking attorney.

Simpson was hated, feared, and disgraced — but he walked the streets a free man and lived an odd life. In 1997, a civil-trial jury unanimously deemed Simpson liable for the deaths and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages, but he reportedly paid very little of it. Interest kept accumulating year by year, and Simpson still owed Ron Goldman’s family more than $100 million when he died, according to reports yesterday. Simpson said he only had his pensions from the NFL and other pre-trial work. But we know he also maintained his lifestyle by selling football memorabilia, which had bizarrely become more valuable and in demand because of his infamy. It genuinely appeared that Simpson had figured out how to cash in on his ability to get away with murder. There was even a short-lived effort to create a hidden-camera prank show around him, called Juiced.

Then in 2007, Simpson was arrested on new, separate charges; a sports-memorabilia dealer claimed that Simpson led a group of men to break into his hotel room and steal memorabilia at gunpoint. Simpson was charged with twelve counts, including conspiracy, burglary, first-degree kidnapping, robbery, assault, and coercion. In a trial that received only a microscopic fraction of the coverage of Simpson’s murder trial, an all-white jury found Simpson guilty on all charges, and a judge sentenced him to 33 years in prison.

A member of Simpson’s dream team from his murder trial, Carl Douglas, would later refer to the verdict in Nevada as “the fifth quarter”:

I grew up in Los Angeles, at Washington high school, man, and our school was not the greatest football team. But we had people who fought well. And whenever we would lose the football game, there would often be a fight after the game. We called the fight the fifth quarter. So, we may lose the game in the fourth quarter, but we were going to win the fight in the fifth quarter. That is exactly . . . what happened here. Although O.J. was found not guilty in Los Angeles, for the murder case, I believe, the judge sentenced him to 33 years based upon what happened in L.A., and that was the fifth quarter.

With Simpson behind bars, albeit for a separate and lesser crime, he faded from public view for a long stretch.

In February 2016, the cable network FX unveiled a new docudrama miniseries, The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson. A few months later, ESPN aired a spectacular five-part documentary series, O. J.: Made in America, which told Simpson’s life story, but also took long segues to offer a detailed portrait of the tense race relations in Los Angeles in the period leading up to the murders.

The two works and the passage of time allowed the America of the mid 2010s to recognize where the America of the mid 1990s had gone terribly wrong.

The public dissection of prosecutor Marsha Clark’s appearance was a ludicrous distraction and obsession with the inconsequential. Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran’s reinvention of Simpson as a symbol of black America was a cynical lie; before the jurors toured Simpson’s house, Cochran removed pictures of Simpson with his white friends and starlets and replaced them with African art.

And there was something unforgivably tasteless about Jay Leno’s “Dancing Itos” and the celebration of how the trial had turned into a circus. Two relatively young people had been stabbed to death in cold blood; the murder trial was nothing to laugh about.

And by the mid 2010s . . . many more Americans of all stripes had come to the conclusion that O. J. did it:

Overall, sixty-nine percent of Americans believe Mr. Simpson did commit the murders, compared with 7 percent who believe he didn’t, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Twenty percent said they weren’t sure.

According to the new poll, racial divides remain, even as few believe Mr. Simpson to be not guilty.

Seventy-three percent of whites believe Mr. Simpson committed the murders, while 5 percent say he didn’t, and 18 percent aren’t sure. Among African Americans, 44 percent think Mr. Simpson committed the crimes, while 22% believe he didn’t, and 27 percent aren’t sure. Of Hispanics, 67 percent believe Mr. Simpson committed the crimes, with 5 percent believing he didn’t, and 22 percent unsure, according to the new poll. . . .

In July 1994, 33 percent believed Mr. Simpson was guilty, according to the WSJ/NBC poll at the time — with 37 percent of whites and 15 percent of blacks believing in his guilt. By October 1995, 65 percent of whites believed him guilty while just 18 percent of blacks did.

Yes, O. J. Simpson managed to transform himself into a symbol of black America, a community he had never particularly embraced since he achieved celebrity status at USC. It is likely that as the years passed, blacks could see what O. J. had gotten out of that trial-triggered embrace but wondered what they had gotten in exchange for embracing him. Yes, the not-guilty verdict had given a metaphorical middle finger to the LAPD, but what did it change in the long run? Who benefited?

Sure, jury nullification works out great for the accused. But what about the broader community outside the walls of the courthouse?

In the documentary, O.J.: Made in America, one of the jurors was asked whether she thinks she made the right decision today, considering Simpson’s subsequent criminal behavior. “Somewhat,” the juror responded, “but deep in my heart, I done what I felt was right at that time.”

Finally, without the O. J. Simpson trial, it’s conceivable that most Americans and the world would never have heard of the Kardashian family.

In The People v. O.J. Simpson, David Schwimmer played Simpson’s late friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian, trying to impart a key life lesson to his young daughters: “In this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing without a virtuous heart.”

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