1995: The year the future began
The quasi-confession of O.J. Simpson, the former football player and celebrity tried and acquitted in 1995 for killing his former wife and her friend, aired last night on the Fox television network, more than 11 years after it was scuttled in a bow to good taste.
The repackaged show not only was a transparent grab for ratings (it was slotted against the revived American Idol show on ABC); it revealed little new about Simpson and the sensational murder case.
Much of the show’s pivotal content — which came as Simpson haltingly described how he would have committed the grisly crimes — has been in the public domain for years. The New York Times reported in 2007 on a partial transcript of the program that Fox’s parent company, News Corporation, had canceled a few months before.
Even so, the portions of the interview shown last night were notably corroborative. Simpson’s narcissism was on full display. So, too, was his eagerness to defame his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, whom he battered during their marriage and whom he all but called a tramp in the interview.
Of his guilt in the slayings, committed in June 1994 outside Nicole Simpson’s condominium in west Los Angeles, there can be little doubt. Indeed, what person innocent of double murder would consent to be interviewed about how, hypothetically, he would have done the killing?
A salutary upshot of the program — which Fox called O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession? — may be that more people than ever are sure he’s guilty. And most Americans already believe that.
Although he beat the murder rap in 1995, Simpson at a civil trial was found liable in the deaths of Nicole Simpson and her friend, Ronald L. Goldman, who had just happened on the scene. Both were viciously stabbed to death.
Last night’s program certainly confirmed the depravity of O.J. Simpson. But it wasn’t as if words of confession tumbled out freely. Simpson was vague and coy at key points, suggesting he had an accomplice called “Charlie,” and describing the moments before the killings this way:
“As things got heated, I just remember Nicole fell and hurt herself. And this guy [Goldman] kind of got into a karate thing.”
Then, Simpson said, “I remember I grabbed the knife.”
He had to be coaxed by Judith Regan, who conducted the interview that originally was to have been aired in two installments in November 2006, to publicize a companion book, If I Did It.
But an uproar forced Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, to order the book withdrawn and the show canceled. Murdoch also apologized to families of the victims for what he said was “an ill-considered project.”
Goldman’s family subsequently gained publication rights to If I Did It, which was released with a slightly revised title: If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer. Sales of the book were put toward the $33.5 million judgment ordered against Simpson at the civil trial.
No public uproar attended last night’s show, which featured a panel of discussants including Christopher Darden, a prosecutor at the 1995 murder trial, and the interviewer, Regan, whom Murdoch had fired in late 2006. At that time, she headed the imprint that originally published (and was forced to withdraw) If I Did It.
That there was no uproar is suggestive of how popular disgust with the Simpson case has in recent years morphed to fascination. The zeitgeist has turned.
After all, a generation of young American adults doesn’t remember the televised spectacle of Simpson’s trial as it unfolded in downtown Los Angeles in 1995. That generation’s interest in the case has been stoked by popular if exploitative TV programming such as The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a 10-part miniseries that aired on FX in 2016, and ESPN’s award-winning documentary treatment of Simpson that was shown a few months later.
More broadly, fascination with the Simpson murder case can be linked to abiding if perverse interest as to how he won acquittal in 1995 despite the considerable forensic DNA evidence that was arrayed against him. In face of that evidence, and in face of pressures of a trial that stretched from January to early October 1995, Simpson never buckled.
As I described in my book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, Simpson became the trial’s center of attention even though he didn’t testify as he vowed he would. Nonetheless, his high-priced legal team found ad hoc ways for Simpson to declare his innocence in open court.
A related explanation for popular fascination in the Simpson case rests in his stunning fall from grace — from admired and wealthy celebrity to convicted felon who, a little more than five months ago, was released on parole after serving eight years in prison in Nevada.
Simpson was sent to jail in 2008 on kidnapping and robbery charges that stemmed from an armed confrontation in a Las Vegas hotel room the year before.
At one time, before his 1995 trial, Simpson seemed to have it all: He had been a professional football star who had made it to the sport’s Hall of Fame. He had been a TV sports commentator, a movie actor, and a pitchman for a rental car company. He was well-liked. And all that, all the fame and esteem, he lost.
What in his makeup led to that outcome? In showing Simpson’s narcissism and conceit, last night’s program offered some clues.
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