1995: The year the future began
The week brought word that Martin Sheen plans to produce a docu-series claiming O.J. Simpson was innocent of the brutal slayings in 1994 of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.
The dubious basis of such an interpretation notwithstanding, news about Sheen’s intentions served as latest evidence of the renewed and striking pop culture fascination with Simpson’s criminal trial, which spread across much of 1995 like an indelible stain on a watershed year.
Interest in the case has bloomed vigorously since early February and the debut on FX of a popular if crassly exploitative 10-part miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson, which reaches its conclusion Tuesday. Tomorrow, the Esquire cable channel is to air a 12-hour O.J. marathon, drawn from archival footage of the 1995 trial and called The Real O.J. Simpson Trial.
And in June, ESPN’s five-part documentary about Simpson, O.J.: Made in America, is to debut on ABC.
So why all the interest? What accounts for the popular fascination with an old case that centered around a narcissist celebrity, former star footfall player, and onetime car-rental pitchman and who has been in prison in Nevada since 2008 for armed robbery and kidnapping?
The fascination certainly is driven by much more than lingering or misguided intrigue about Simpson. And it is driven by more than gauzy nostalgia for the 1990s, itself a recurring phenomenon in American pop culture.
Part of the explanation, at least, lies in perverse but enduring interest as to how Simpson beat a double-murder rap, how he spent millions of dollars on a team of defense lawyers who shredded the prosecution case and won his acquittal, hollow though it was.
Most murder cases do not go to trial. Most end in guilty pleas. The Simpson case was anomalous in both respects: His trial stretched for months, from late January to early October 1995. His copping a plea was never seriously considered. And his lawyers effectively impugned the best evidence against Simpson — the traces of his DNA, and that of the victims, found in blood at the crime scene, in his Ford Bronco, and at his mansion in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles.
DNA was the prosecution’s most compelling evidence in a case that produced no witnesses, no murder weapon, no confession of guilt. The forensic evidence, I note in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, “implicated Simpson but failed to convict him. By the end of trial, Simpson’s acquittal was predictable — or should have been — given how effectively his lawyers had shredded the prosecution’s case and had injected serious doubts about the integrity of the DNA evidence.”
Simpson’s narcissism, crass conduct, and refusal to buckle at any point in face of the evidence and accusations against him, also help explain the resurgent fascination. Simpson’s conduct was repugnant — flamboyantly so. Right after winning acquittal, Simpson issued a statement read by his eldest son, Jason, in which Simpson pledged to “pursue as my primary goal in life the killer or killers who slaughtered Nicole and Mr. Goldman. They are out there somewhere.”
It was an empty, gratuitous vow that Simpson surely never meant to redeem.
That night, behind the high walls of his Brentwood mansion, friends and family gathered to drink champagne and celebrate the Simpson’s acquittal. “It was all on television,” Dominick Dunne wrote in Vanity Fair. “Women in pink pantsuits waved champagne toasts to the media. Everyone hugged. . . . Jubilation reigned.” It was an offensive conclusion to the televised spectacle that was his trial.
Also explaining the latter-day fascination with Simpson and his trial is wide recognition of the exceptionality of the case. The proceedings were commonly known as the “Trial of the Century,” an epithet that was, I note in 1995, “invoked both in irony and in all seriousness.” Yet even now, 21 years later, the Simpson case remains a standard against which other high-profile murder trials are measured — and inevitably found wanting.
What has come close in recent years? The Casey Anthony murder trial of 2011? The more recent Oscar Pistorius case in South Africa? Both were televised trials featuring unappealing defendants. But neither trial captured the broad and even riveting interest of the Simpson case, which gave rise to such extravagant metaphors as “the Othello of the 20th century,” “a great trash novel come to life,” and “a Bayeux tapestry of contemporary American culture.”
The Simpson trial was an extraordinary focal point of 1995 and as the verdicts were about to be read in a Los Angeles courtroom on October 3, the country stood still in anticipation. No murder trial in memory has been so riveting as to shut down the country. Not even Simpson’s civil trial of 1996-97, at which he was found responsible for the deaths of Nicole Simpson and Goldman.
The 1995 criminal trial was distinguished by an astounding succession of plot twists, which easily lend themselves to dramatization on cable TV. A number of these plot twists — including the ill-advised, in-court demonstration in which Simpson was unable to tug on leather gloves the murderer was believed to have worn — have been fairly well-depicted in the FX miniseries. On other occasions, though, the FX producers have injected gratuitous exaggeration, as when they depicted the collapse in the courtroom of a prosecutor stricken with a heart ailment.
The Simpson trial supposedly told us something about race and a yawning racial divide in America; that’s an interpretation the FX miniseries has been pushing. There’s no denying the case influenced perceptions of white-black relations in America, for a short time. Simpson is black; the murder victims were white.
When the verdicts were read, many blacks reacted with joy while many whites were crestfallen.
But as I discuss in 1995, 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,” I write.
That trajectory, as delineated by national polling data, is an uneven one. But overall, trends point to greater tolerance in matters of race in America (see chart).
And almost no one remembers that as the Simpson trial was lurching to its conclusion in early fall 1995, a boomlet for Colin Powell was cresting across America. Powell, the black former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of State, was flirting then with making a run for the presidency in 1996. His memoir came out in September 1995 and his book tour attracted large crowds.
In the end, Powell decided against seeking elected office.
Inevitably, perhaps, the Simpson case became a magnet for conspiracy theories — that someone other than O.J. was the killer or that Los Angeles police detectives hatched a spontaneous and sprawling plot to frame Simpson by planting blood evidence against him. Neither account is supported by compelling or persuasive evidence. Indeed, the popular verdict in the criminal trial was that Simpson was guilty of the murders, a judgment that has solidified over the years.
But conspiracy theories can be a refuge of the fantasist, and in a double-murder case that won no convictions, such feverish beliefs can fuel the fascination.
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