The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

When America stood still: The O.J. verdicts, 20 years after

The watershed year 1995 produced two flashbulb events in America — moments so powerful and memorable that for years afterward people remembered where they were, and what they were doing, when they heard about them. One was the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.

The other flashbulb moment came on October 3, 1995, when verdicts were announced in the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in Los Angeles, proceedings that were televised, stretched on for months, and at times were enthralling as they were repellent.

On October 2, 1995, a jury of nine African Americans, two whites, and one Latino had decided the fate of Simpson, a popular black football star turned occasional movie actor and rental car pitchman who was accused of the gruesome fatal stabbings in June 1994 of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, both of whom were white.

The presiding judge, Lance A. Ito, deferred unsealing the verdicts until the following day at 10 a.m., Pacific time.

As that hour approached on October 3, almost everything in America went on hold, in what was an astonishing national vigil.

To be in a position of not knowing the outcome was simply intolerable. So almost everyone it seemed found a place near a television set or a radio receiver to get news of the verdicts, which were to be announced live from the ninth floor courtroom in downtown Los Angeles where the trial had played out since late January 1995.

Nothing that day could compete with the announcement of the Simpson verdicts. Beaches near Los Angeles were reported to be almost deserted, even though the weather was pleasantly summerlike. In northern California, truck drivers pulled to the side of highways to concentrate attention on their radios. At international airports in Atlanta and Chicago, airline passengers refused to board flights and gathered around television monitors in waiting lounges. Boston was reported to be “strangely still” as at the hour of Simpson’s reckoning.

In Washington, the State Department’s midday briefing was delayed. Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut rescheduled a news conference that had been set for 1 p.m. “Not only would you not be here,” Lieberman told reporters, “but I wouldn’t be here, either.”

The communal-like anticipation on that October day was remarkable: No news event in recent American history — save, perhaps, the first lunar landing in July 1969 — was awaited by such vast audiences and characterized so thoroughly by uncertainty.

The audiences awaiting the verdicts that day were more than merely curious: They felt invested somehow in the fate of a celebrity and former sports star who long ago had transcended race, who once told the New York Times: “My biggest accomplishment is that people look at me like a man first, not a black man.”

The national vigil was an extraordinary close to a legal saga smothered in hyperbole: It was called, with some justification, “The Trial of the Century,” an epithet invoked in irony and in all seriousness. There were other outsize and extravagant characterizations, too: The trial was likened to “a modern day Greek tragedy” and to “a great trash novel come to life.” It was “the Othello of the Twentieth Century,” the “Super Bowl of murder trials.” It was, wrote David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, “a Bayeux Tapestry of contemporary American culture.”

It was hardly surprising, then, that nearly everyone in America stopped what they were doing on October 3, 1995, when time came for the reading of the verdicts. The Simpson case had embraced those rare and salient features that make for an exceptionally high-profile trial: The defendant was, at least before the trial, well-liked and popular. The crimes of which he stood accused were appalling and the victims were especially vulnerable; they had had little chance to defend themselves from their killer.

Hot-button social issues, such as domestic abuse, police misconduct, and race relations, crowded into the case.

Precise data are elusive, but perhaps 100 million people or more were watching on television in the United States as the clerk in Ito’s courtroom began to read the verdicts, the culmination of a trial that took more than eight months to complete, far longer than had been reasonably expected.

The trial had produced more than 850 exhibits, heard from more than 120 witnesses, and generated a court transcript that exceeded 50,000 pages. Yet the jurors reached their verdicts after deliberating fewer than four hours.

And now, on October 3, Simpson was told to stand and face the jurors. His several lawyers stood, too. Simpson looked slightly befuddled as the clerk read the first verdict, to the charge that he had killed Nicole Simpson:

Not guilty.

Simpson sighed deeply and smiled slightly.

To the second charge, that he had killed Goldman:

Not guilty.

Simpson, who had been in custody since shortly after the killings nearly 16 months before, now was free. Within an hour he was heading to his mansion on North Rockingham Avenue in west Los Angeles, to a party celebrating his acquittal.

This essay was adapted from “O.J., DNA, and the ‘Trial of the Century,'” Chapter Three of 1995: The Year the Future Began

WJC

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