1995: The year the future began
O.J. Simpson’s parole hearing today in Nevada may have been widely watched and much-anticipated. But it was no “flashbulb moment,” not an occasion so rare and powerful that it will be remembered for years by many thousands of people.
Indeed the hearing in Nevada, which closed with Simpson’s being granted parole, was more meeting expectations than drama-filled or memorable.
It was only faintly reminiscent of the “flashbulb moment” of October 3, 1995, when the verdicts were read at Simpson’s double-murder trial in Los Angeles.
On that occasion, as I discussed in my book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, the United States essentially stood still, in a rare moment of nationwide anticipation.
Simpson that day in 1995 was found not guilty in the vicious slashing deaths of his former wife, Nicole, and of her friend, Ronald Goldman, and Americans stopped what they were doing to hear the reading of the verdicts on television and radio.
The parole hearing in Nevada today was televised live and streamed online. And while it allowed the country an up-close look at Simpson after his nearly nine years behind bars, it was not a moment fated to be long remembered or often recalled.
Simpson, now 70, is stooped and slow afoot. But he is still talkative and self-absorbed. He went before the parole board seeking release from a prison term for armed robbery, kidnapping, and other crimes stemming from an encounter in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2007. Simpson essentially led a small posse to retrieve memorabilia he said had been stolen from him.
For those offenses, he was sentenced to 9 to 33 years in prison. The outcome of today’s hearing means will be released as early as October 1.
Simpson apologized many times during the hearing for his role in the Las Vegas robbery, saying he wished the encounter had never happened. But he also he revealed flashes of ego and self-absorption that characterized his high-flying celebrity lifestyle before 1995. He told parole board members he was “a good guy” and a “straight shooter” and insisted, without a smirk:
“I’ve basically spent a conflict-free life, you know?”
He blamed other participants for the encounter in Las Vegas having spun out of control. He was unaware, he said, that handguns had been brandished.
And he made no reference to the killings of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman; their slayings were not germane to today’s hearing.
But a question that was relevant in 1995 lingers after the hearing. It’s a question sure to resonate anew when Simpson is released from Lovelock Correctional Center in remote northwest Nevada. That question is:
What drives the seemingly endless media and popular-culture fascination with O.J. Simpson?
The Simpson-fixation can be connected, in part, to the nostalgia that embraces the 1990s these days. CNN, for example, has begun a seven-part documentary series that revisits the decade. Simpson’s trial in 1995 has to place among the top 10 events of the decade, at least in America.
It was, after all, commonly referred to as the “Trial of the Century.” While it wasn’t as consequential as the rise of the Internet, the fall of the Soviet Union, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, or the genocide in Rwanda, the Simpson-murder trial was among the decade’s top “flashbulb moments.”
Simpson-fascination also can be attributed to perverse interest in how he won acquittal in 1995 despite the considerable evidence — notably, forensic DNA evidence — that was arrayed against him.
In the face of that evidence, and in face of the intense pressures of a months-long trial, Simpson kept his composure. He didn’t buckle. He remained the center of attention, although he didn’t testify, as he said he would. But even then, his legal team cleverly found ways for Simpson to insist, in the courtroom, that he was innocent.
Polls showed that most Americans didn’t buy it: Their popular verdict was that Simpson killed his former wife and Goldman.
But fascination endures as to how he beat the rap.
A broader explanation for the continuing fascination lies in Simpson’s stunning fall from grace — from admired and wealthy celebrity to convicted felon who has spent years of his dotage behind bars in Nevada, as inmate #1027820.
Simpson once seemed to have it all: He was a professional football star who made it to the sport’s Hall of Fame. He was a TV sports commentator, a so-so movie actor, a prominent pitchman for a rental car company. He was well-liked, even esteemed. And all that, he lost.
What in his psyche or his makeup led that to that happening?
That question, probably more than any other, fuels Simpson-fascination.
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