1995: The year the future began
Nineteen years ago today, former professional football star O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder in the slayings of his former wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman — dramatic verdicts that closed what often was called the “Trial of the Century.”
But as I discuss in my forthcoming book about the watershed year of 1995, Simpson’s acquittal was certainly justifiable and perhaps inevitable, given how thoroughly his defense team impugned the prosecution’s evidence.
This is not to say that Simpson was innocent: Most assuredly, he was not. At a civil trial in 1997, he was found liable for the killings, which occurred in June 1994 outside Nicole Simpson’s townhouse in the Brentwood section of west Los Angeles.
But the criminal trial — which spanned much of the year, from late January to early October 1995 — was a spectacle in which Simpson’s lawyers, led by Johnnie L. Cochran, often outmaneuvered the prosecutors, keeping them off-balance and forcing them on occasion into jaw-dropping errors.
The most stunning of those failures came in June 1995, when one of the prosecutors, Christopher Darden, asked Simpson to try on the blood-stained leather gloves that the killer was believed to have worn in attacking Nicole Simpson and Goldman.
Facing the jury box, Simpson appeared to struggle in pulling the evidence gloves over the latex gloves he was required to wear during the demonstration, to avoid contamination. Simpson grimaced repeatedly and was heard to mutter: “Too tight.”
The evidence gloves, as I write in the forthcoming book, 1995: The Year the Future Began “did seem small for Simpson’s hands. But 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 widely recognized as a pivotal moment in the trial ….”
The bungled demonstration inspired a rallying cry for defense lawyers — an idiom that remains familiar nearly two decades later. In his closing remarks, Cochran recalled the glove demonstration and told jurors: “[R]emember these words; if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
And they did, after deliberating less than four hours. Simpson never took the stand in his defense.
Bungled police work also undercut the prosecution’s case — which lacked a murder weapon, a persuasive motive, and witnesses to the crimes. Prosecutors did have substantial DNA evidence in the blood stains and droplets that pointed to Simpson’s having been at the scene of the crimes.
That evidence was adroitly challenged by Simpson’s high-powered defense lawyers, whom the news media, indulging in hyperbole, often referred to as the “Dream Team.”
During cross-examination at the trial, Simpson lawyer Barry Scheck did not challenge the validity of the science supporting forensic DNA evidence. Rather, he challenged how the evidence was collected. Scheck extracted acknowledgements from police criminalists that in the Simpson case, they mishandled or overlooked DNA evidence.
“They had placed DNA evidence inside plastic bags where they were prone to degradation,” I note in 1995. “DNA samples were placed in a police evidence van that lacked air-conditioning. Crucial blood evidence was collected at the gate near Nicole Simpson’s townhouse three weeks after the killings. A portion of a reference sample of O.J. Simpson’s blood was spilled at the police laboratory where DNA evidence samples were tested.”
The inept and questionable police work allowed the defense to argue that Simpson was framed by Los Angeles police. It was an far-fetched argument, but not utterly implausible, given the series of screwups in gathering and handling DNA evidence.
The screwups impugned the evidence that otherwise might have convicted Simpson.
In the end, the most important and lasting contributions of the Simpson case centered around DNA: The trial helped settle disputes about the value and validity of DNA evidence in criminal cases. The trial also anticipated and arguably enhanced popular interest in the potency of DNA testing.
As I write in 1995:
“The trial marked a delineation in the recognition of forensic DNA testing as decisive in criminal trials and Simpson’s acquittal encouraged a push for improved procedures in collecting, storing, processing, and analyzing DNA evidence.”
More from The 1995 blog: