1995: The year the future began
The highly publicized trial in South Africa of Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympics star sprinter acquitted this week of murder but convicted of culpable homicide, often has been likened to the case of O.J. Simpson, the former American football star found not guilty in 1995 of stabbing to death his former wife and her friend in an upscale section of Los Angeles.
Both Pistorius and Simpson were accused of killing attractive women, and their respective trials became long-running televised spectacles.
What’s more, news reports from Pretoria, where Pistorius, 27, was tried for the fatal shooting of his 29-year-old girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, went so far as to call the proceedings the “trial of the century” — the hyperbolic term often applied to the Simpson trial, which stretched from late January to early October 1995.
While the two cases offer some similarities, the differences between them are striking — and more pronounced and revealing than surface parallels.
A notable difference lies in the respective outcomes. Pistorius was acquitted of murder, the most serious charge against him, but found guilty of the equivalent of manslaughter — that he acted with negligence in firing the shots that killed Steenkamp at his home early on Valentine’s Day 2013. Pistorius faces sentencing next month.
Simpson beat the rap at his murder trial and was set free. He went home to his mansion in Los Angeles to celebrate acquittal. (In 1997, Simpson was found liable for the killings in a civil trial.)
Pistorius was at the scene of the crime, his home in a gated community in Pretoria. He claimed he shot Steenkamp by mistake, believing she was an intruder in the middle of the night.
Simpson, who was 47 and long past his days on the gridiron when his trial began, denied any connection to the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman. Simpson was never definitively placed at the crime scene; the killings occurred outside Nicole Simpson’s condominium in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles on June 12, 1994. Blood stains and other evidence pointed to Simpson as the killer but they were not taken as conclusive by the jurors who heard the case.
Simpson, though, had no persuasive alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the killings.
The Pistorius case was notable for its aggressive lead prosecutor — a skilled, colorful, and pugnacious jurist named Gerrie Nel. He drove Pistorius to tears as he tore into the defendant’s claims, highlighting their inconsistencies and saying they amounted to a “snowball of lies.”
In the Simpson case, the lead prosecutors were overwhelmed and outmaneuvered by a defense team led by the wily Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.
Indeed, the Simpson prosecution committed the most memorable misstep of the 1995 trial by asking the defendant to try on the leather gloves that the killer was believed to have worn, not knowing for sure whether they would fit. It was a memorably theatrical moment, which I describe this way in my forthcoming book, 1995: The Year the Future Began:
“Facing the jury box, Simpson appeared to struggle mightily in pulling the leather gloves over the latex gloves he was required to wear to avoid contamination. Simpson grimaced repeatedly and in a voice loud enough for jurors to hear, said: ‘Too tight.'”
The gloves did seem small for Simpson’s hands, I write, adding, though, that “they likely had shrunk in the testing that they had been through. Still, the ill-advised demonstration had allowed Simpson to testify in effect, without having to face cross-examination.”
It was a turning point of the trial.
Pistorius took the stand in his defense, and was exposed to Nel’s withering cross-examination. The lead prosecutor in the Simpson case, Marcia Clark, dared the defendant to take the stand “and we’ll have a conversation.” Simpson didn’t take up the offer.
Race was ever-present in and a defining element of the Simpson case. He is black; the victims were white. Issues of race never came to define the Pistorius case. He and his victim were white South Africans.
The Simpson case in the end was, I write in 1995, sui generis. To that point I quote Susan Caba, who covered the trial for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She observed that “watching the Simpson trial and using it to draw conclusions about trials in general is like reading War and Peace and saying, ‘Gee, this must be what all novels are like.’”
But was it the “trial of the century”? Was it that exceptional?
The Simpson trial was certainly sensational. It was by turns absorbing and appalling. And long-running. But according to research conducted by one of Simpson’s many lawyers, Gerald F. Uelmen, the case was just one of at least 32 during the Twentieth Century that at one time or another were called the “trial of the century.”
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