1995: The year the future began
The recent bouts of television-induced fascination with the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder case have eased, thankfully. But residual interest is keen enough that suggestions for reading in some depth about the sensational case are not an outlandish idea.
In researching my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, I encountered five works about the Simpson case that contained notably revealing insights. These are not necessarily the five best books about the Simpson’s trial and acquittal. But each offers singularly important and illuminating perspectives. Each in its own way is readable, and worth reading.
The five books are:
• American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense (1996), by Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth: American Tragedy checks in at 700 pages and tells in detail how Simpson’s defense lawyers, collectively and expansively known as the “Dream Team,” worked to secure his controversial acquittal.
Some of the book’s richest passages are descriptions of how the defense team, in advance of the jury’s visit, redecorated Simpson’s mansion in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles to emphasize African American themes and images. (Simpson was little invested in causes of black Americans.)
Out went pictures of white women, including a photograph in Simpson’s bedroom of a nude Paula Barbieri, a former girlfriend. Up, at the top of the stairs, went a framed reproduction of Norman Rockwell’s 1963 painting, The Problem We All Live With, of a black girl heading to school in the company of federal marshals.
“This [had] little to do with a search for the truth,” Schiller and Willwerth wrote. “This [was] stagecraft.”
American Tragedy includes a telling description of Simpson’s behavior during the jurors’ visit to his home. He remained outside, chatting with deputy sheriffs. An attractive alternate juror walked by, prompting a deputy to say, “Check out Fufu in jeans.”
“Oh, man,” replies a leering Simpson, “look at her in those pants. I want to get at her.”
• Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments (2001), by Dominick Dunne: This book is not exclusively about the Simpson trial; it’s a compilation of Dunne’s crime reporting for Vanity Fair. Justice presents chapters on cases other than Simpson’s, including that of the chef convicted of killing Dunne’s 22-year-old daughter, Dominique. He served three-and-a-half years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.
Dunne’s chapters about the Simpson case and its Los Angeles backdrop are chatty, knowing, and eminently readable even now. His reporting about the post-acquittal celebration at Simpson’s mansion was especially memorable.
“Simpson was a free man,” Dunne wrote. “When he arrived back at the gates of his Brentwood mansion to restart his life, a party was in preparation. His mother, Eunice, arrived in a Rolls-Royce. Limousines pulled up behind her. It was all on television. Women in pink pantsuits waved champagne toasts to the media. Everyone hugged.” Dunne, who died in 2009, was convinced of Simpson’s guilt, and his dispatches for Vanity Fair make that clear. He acknowledged slack-jaw surprise when the verdicts were read in Judge Lance Ito’s crowded courtroom on October 3, 1995.
• Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder (1996), by Vincent Buglosi. Simpson’s acquittal was probably inevitable — but it still was outrageous. Buglosi, a former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, offers hearty doses of outrage in what frankly is an entertaining polemic.
He dedicated the book to Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman, victims of the vicious killings Simpson was accused of committing. Buglosi writes that the five reasons suggested by his book’s subtitle really can be distilled to two — namely, “the jury could hardly have been any worse, and neither could the prosecution. In fact, as bad as this jury was, if the prosecution had given a A rather than a D- performance … the verdict most likely would have been different.”
Anger and disgust lurk almost every page, and Buglosi, who died last year, directs much hostility at the lead prosecutors, Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden. He assails them, for among other lapses, allowing Simpson to be depicted “to the mostly black jury — without any opposition or even attempted rebuttal on their part — not only as a football hero, but as a hero to blacks, which he never had been before the trial, and never deserved to be.”
He says “the prosecutors allowed the jury to acquit Simpson,” and is fairly persuasive in so arguing.
• The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson (1996), by Jeffrey Toobin. Toobin is the legal analyst/journalist most readily associated with the Simpson case, which he covered for the New Yorker. His book was the basis for the 10-part miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson, shown in weekly installments on FX from February-April. Additionally, extended excerpts of videotaped interviews with Toobin were shown on ESPN’s five-part docu-series, O.J.: Made in America, that aired last month.
Run of His Life is more polished and dispassionate that Buglosi’s book. Nonetheless, Toobin makes unmistakable his belief that Simpson probably was guilty of double murder.
Run of His Life claims that Simpson likely knew, before the verdicts were announced, that the jury had voted to acquit him. The jurors deliberated fewer than four hours in reaching the verdicts, which were announced the following day. Deputies guarding the jurors passed word to deputies assigned to Simpson that he had been found not guilty.
“It was the last leak in the case,” Toobin writes. “… O.J. was going to walk.”
Toobin also notes that forensic DNA evidence pointing to Simpson’s guilt had “a shattering effect among O.J. Simpson’s wealthy friends in West Los Angeles. … Now they finally knew what they didn’t want to know — that O.J. had killed Nicole.” The evidentiary value of the DNA samples was, however, neutralized by Simpson’s lawyers, who demonstrated how poorly it had been collected, stored, and processed by authorities.
The flaws notwithstanding, the abundant DNA evidence was compelling, and effectively convicted Simpson in the court of public opinion.
• I Want to Tell You: My Response to Your Letters, Your Messages, Your Questions (1995) by O.J. Simpson: This book, impressive in its wretchedness, makes this list solely because it offers telling insights into Simpson’s raging narcissism.
The book was slapped together by Lawrence Schiller from tape-recorded jailhouse interviews with Simpson and released under Simpson’s name just after the trial began in January 1995. It immediately vaulted to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, thus providing some income to cushion Simpson’s staggering legal bills.
The book ostensibly was a reply to the many letters Simpson received following his arrest in June 1994. It included such self-pitying observations as:
“I felt there were three homicides. Some unknown killers murdered Nicole and Ronald Goldman; now the press was murdering me.”
I Want to Tell You also contained Simpson’s pledge, never redeemed, to testify at his murder trial. “Let me get in front of the jury,” Simpson wrote. “Let everybody say what they’re going to say, then I’ll get up there and say my piece—and let them judge.”
He also predicted in the book: “I’m going to come out of this [trial] with my dignity intact.”
He did not, of course. Despite his acquittal, Simpson became a pariah.
As I point out in 1995 that the trial’s “popular verdict, which has proven unshakeable over the years, was that Simpson” was the killer.
“No plausible suspect other than O.J. Simpson has emerged,” I note, “and the not-guilty verdicts of October 1995 could not contradict that conclusion.”
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