The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

DNA: The enduring legacy of the 1995 O.J. trial

Twenty years after O.J. Simpson’s acquittal in an extraordinary murder trial that stretched for months across the watershed year 1995, the legacies of the case are still contested.Simpson mug shot_public domain

The vivid clash of reactions to the verdicts read in Superior Court in Los Angeles on October 3, 1995, were widely interpreted as signaling a yawning racial divide in the United States. Many African Americans reacted jubilantly to Simpson’s acquittal; many white Americans were left despairing.

Simpson, who is serving an extended prison sentence in Nevada on criminal convictions unrelated to the 1995 trial, is a black former football star and onetime pitchman. He was accused of fatally stabbing his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald L. Goldman, both of whom were white.

Questions of race percolated throughout Simpson’s long and exhausting trial, much of which was televised and routinely attracted sizable audiences.

Analysts in 1995 were quick to interpret the reactions to the verdicts as a setback for race relations, a view that endures, even though a majority of black and white Americans now believe Simpson was guilty of double murder. But on the day after the verdicts, Richard Cohen, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote:

“We are two nations — one black, one white. Yesterday, one celebrated Simpson’s acquittal, the other did not.”

And the British newsweekly The Economist asserted the Simpson-trial verdicts made clear “what so many Americans — and so many of their friends abroad — had not wanted to believe. Thirty-odd years after the civil-rights revolution, America is two countries, not one. And they are growing apart, not together.”

But as I note in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, the “lasting effects of the Simpson trial on race relations in the United States proved to be less dramatic and more nuanced than they seemed in October 1995. While it is undeniable that whites and blacks largely held conflicting opinions about Simpson’s guilt, the … outcome of the Simpson case dented but did not reverse the trajectory of gradually improving relations among blacks and whites in America.”

That trajectory, as delineated by national polling data, is an uneven one. But trends, overall, point to greater tolerance in matters of race in America (see chart).

Gallup chart_race perceptions

Moreover, in the mid-1990s slightly less than half of American adults approved of interracial marriage, according to polling by the Gallup organization. These days, nearly 90 percent of Americans support interracial marriage.

A more nuanced and more revealing explanation for the sharply clashing reactions to the verdicts 20 years ago was that they reflected deep — and persistent — differences in views of the fairness of the American criminal justice system. Polling data have long detected greater suspicions among blacks than whites about the even-handedness of law enforcement — and during the trial in 1995, Simpson’s lawyers went to lengths to characterize their client as the victim of a police conspiracy.

The theory, at best, was only faintly plausible. But the verdicts of October 3, 1995, were certainly a rebuke to the Los Angeles police and, as I note in 1995, some of the cheering that day surely was for the reprimand the Simpson jury so sharply delivered to local law enforcement authorities.

I argue in 1995 that the most significant and lasting effect of the Simpson trial was in the popular introduction of DNA and the recognition of the decisive character of forensic evidence. “Through the Simpson case,” I write, “the American public gained a measure of familiarity with forensic DNA testing,” a familiarity that has deepened in the years since 1995.

The Simpson case was hardly the first in which complex genetic evidence figured prominently.

But it was, I note, “the first widely followed, high-profile criminal trial in the United States in which evidence about DNA — deoxyribonucleic acid, the complex and distinctive genetic material found in blood, hair, saliva, semen, skin tissue, and elsewhere — was a crucial component. At the Simpson trial, DNA testing was on display as never before. … The Simpson trial helped to settle disputes about the value and validity of DNA evidence, and to anticipate and enhance popular interest in the potency of DNA testing.”

Given the disputes in the late 1980s and early 1990s about the validity of DNA as evidence in criminal cases, it was very significant that Simpson’s lawyers during the trial neither challenged nor attacked the science of forensic DNA analysis. They accepted it.

“Instead,” I note, “they went after the sloppy and imprecise ways in which the Los Angeles police had gathered, stored, and processed the DNA evidence in the Simpson case,” blood evidence found at the crime scene — the tiny courtyard outside Nicole Brown Simpson’s townhouse in west Los Angeles where she and Goldman was slashed to death in June 1994.

And in attacking the lapses by police criminalists in gathering and handling DNA evidence, Simpson’s defense team demonstrated that evidence-collection procedures had not caught up to the science. As Barry Scheck, one of Simpson’s lawyers noted several years after the trial, the police “were using nineteenth-century evidence collection techniques for twenty-first century technology, which had more than the potential, but the reality, of producing contaminated results.”

At trial, Scheck extracted acknowledgement from police criminalists that they had mishandled or overlooked DNA evidence in the Simpson investigation.

The investigators “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.”

DNA evidence was the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case and Simpson’s lawyers effectively challenged the reliability of that evidence, demonstrating that it was too suspect and unreliable to support a conviction.

As such, Simpson’s acquittal became inevitable.

An upshot of the Simpson trial was to encourage improvements in the collection, handling, and processing of DNA evidence. Scheck noted “that if you’re going to get anything out of DNA testing, you have to collect the evidence correctly, you have to make sure that the labs are handling it correctly, so that you don’t screw up these results.” The Simpson trial made clear, he said, that proper techniques of “collection and handling of this evidence [are] essential to getting reliable results.”

The trial’s focus on DNA anticipated — and perhaps stimulated — broad popular interest in DNA and its seemingly wondrous capabilities, I write in 1995.

Just five years after the trial, the popular prime-time television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation went on the air.

CSI had a run of fifteen years and many of its episodes drew on the techniques of DNA collection and testing, and elevated that work to a dramatic level.

In other ways, too, DNA evidence has reverberated in American life since the Simpson trial.

DNA probably has contributed to the declining support for the death penalty in the United States.

Indeed, DNA evidence was a factor in the exoneration of many of the more than 150 people released from death row over the past 20 years, Phillip M. Thompson, an authority on the death penalty, wrote in a commentary in the Wall Street Journal in May. “These people in earlier generations would have been wrongfully put to death. This realization has challenged the conscience of a fair-minded country that doesn’t want to kill innocent people.”

Popular recognition of the power of DNA evidence may have enabled a new consensus to take hold, a consensus quite opposite to sentiment that prevailed in 1995 when New York State restored the death penalty. Such a move would be unthinkable in 2015.

At his trial in 1995, DNA evidence implicated Simpson — and was enough to persuade millions of Americans that he had to be guilty. But DNA failed to convict him.

Acquittal, though, brought no exoneration. The broad popular verdict — unshakable over the years — is that Simpson killed his former wife and killed Goldman. No plausible suspect other than O.J. Simpson has emerged: He became a pariah, despite his acquittal.

And he never recovered the popular esteem he basked in before he went on trial.

WJC

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