1995: The year the future began
Twenty-five years ago today, in his closing argument at the sensational O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in Los Angeles, lead defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran stood before the jurors and urged them to keep this in mind:
“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Cochran was referring to the prosecution’s case against Simpson and, in particular, a botched demonstration three months earlier. That was when a prosecutor asked Simpson to try on leather gloves the killer was believed to have worn in slashing to death Simpson’s former wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. The victims were attacked outside her condominium in west Los Angeles in June 1994.
The gloves demonstration was a debacle. Simpson appeared to struggle theatrically to tug the evidence gloves over the latex gloves he was required to wear. The evidence gloves likely had shrunk from forensic testing conducted before the trial.
“Too tight,” Simpson was heard to say within earshot of the jurors.
In late September 1995, as the trial lurched toward its end, Cochran recalled the botched gloves demonstration, advising the jurors more than once in his closing statement:
“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
He intended the phrase specifically, as a reference to the gloves, and as a metaphor, to describe the prosecution’s uneven case against Simpson. “Those gloves didn’t fit,” Cochran said in his lengthy closing. “The gloves didn’t fit Mr. Simpson because he is not the killer.”
That line also may be the most memorable quotation of the 1990s.
What other phrase uttered in public during the ’90s remains as recognizable or is recalled as routinely as “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”?
Bill Clinton’s finger-wagging denial-lie, told before television cameras on January 28, 1998, comes close. Clinton made the not-so-believable comment in denying a sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern 27 years his junior.
Clinton’s eyes narrowed as spat the words, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
The denial was sneering and certainly memorable, especially as Clinton’s wife was standing nearby. So was Vice President Al Gore.
But Clinton’s infamous denial-lie lacked the studied lyricism of Cochran’s “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” And Cochran’s line rather effectively summed up the Simpson case, which often was called the “Trial of the Century.”
What other lines from the ’90s might rival it?
The world of ’90s entertainment offers a few candidates. One of them certainly is “You can’t handle the truth,” which Jack Nicholson’s character famously bellowed in a closing scene of A Few Good Men, a military-legal drama released in 1992. Nicholson’s line reportedly was ad-libbed, which strengthens its candidacy as the quote of the ’90s.
But it was spoken in a movie, not in real-life drama.
“Yada, yada,” is a memorably empty phrase from Seinfeld, the dominant sitcom of the ’90s. The phrase, like the show, captured fairly well the trivia the ’90s produced. And “yada, yada” is still heard these days, still used sometimes as a cliché for glossing over unimportant details.
But best line of the ’90s?
It’s not that good.
Cochran’s memorable phrase was proposed by Gerald F. Uelmen, a law school professor and evidentiary expert recruited to Simpson’s defense team. (As I note in my 2015 book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, Uelmen had found at least 32 legal cases since 1901 that the news media had described as a “trial of the century.” Uelmen was quoted as saying in 1995, “We average a new ‘Trial of the Century’ every three years.”)
In late June 1995, a couple of weeks after the glove demonstration, Uelmen said in a memorandum to Cochran:
“The gloves not fitting was not just a home run [for the defense] from an evidentiary standpoint. I think it provides a theme that you can use to write a symphony for your closing argument. The theme even rhymes: If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. … The evidence must fit the interpretation of the facts that leads to a conclusion of guilt. If it doesn’t fit, then the conclusion must be rejected.”
Uelmen included the text of his memorandum in a memoir about his legal career. The book came out in 2016 and carried the title If It Doesn’t Fit.
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