A new TV drama replays OJ Simpson’s days in court in 1995. It was a murder case that transfixed a nation, writes Bette Browne.
The 10-part series, The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, began on BBC 2 last week – but the OJ Simpson trial was far more than a riveting celebrity crime drama.
The gripping TV series is based on the trial of US football star OJ Simpson for the double murder of his ex-wife and her male friend two decades ago, which remains one of the most sensational crime dramas of modern times, fuelled by the seductive ingredients of sex, wealth, celebrity, power, and jealousy.
Race became a volatile factor in the case and the trial raised profound questions about the fairness of the American judicial system.
Simpson was black and his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ron Goldman, were both white.
During a period riven by racial tensions, the trial brought into sharp relief the differences between how black and white Americans viewed criminal justice.
Some feared that if the black sports star was convicted it would tear the country apart.
And if he were acquitted, which he eventually was, would that mean justice had been denied to his ex-wife and her friend.
Media coverage, too, was in the dock.
Chequebook journalism came into its own, with one witness getting $5,000 to tell her story and another getting $12,500, though their evidence was never presented to the jury.
Celebrity journalism also went mainstream as the trial developed into a modern-day reality-style TV show.
Some of the blame was put on the trial judge, Lance Ito, who allowed a TV camera into the Los Angeles court so the case could be televised.
In the wake of the trial, many judges decided to ban cameras from their courtrooms.
As it progressed it was dubbed the “trial of the century” and became a national obsession as Americans followed its dramatic twists and turns and legal sleights of hand for almost nine months and debated it in offices, diners, and dinner parties.
Its impact on the national consciousness remains indelible.
When Americans were asked in a Zogby International poll in December 1999 what crime had the most impact on the country in the last 100 years, the Simpson case ranked fourth.
It came in behind the 1963 assassination of President John F Kennedy, the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, and the 1968 assassination of black civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
It was ahead of the Watergate break-in crime that led to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard Nixon.
The trial had an impact too on the White House, where the then president, Bill Clinton, was briefed on security measures amid fears that race riots would erupt if Simpson were convicted of the murders.
Just a few years earlier, riots that left 53 people dead were sparked by the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers for the beating of black motorist Rodney King that had been videotaped by a witness and aired across the country.
As news broke on the morning of October 3, 1995, that the jury had reached a decision in the Simpson trial, President Clinton stopped work in the Oval Office to watch the verdict.
The rest of the country and viewers around much of the world did the same.
As the verdict was being read an estimated 150 million people tuned in, making it the most watched moment in television history until the 9/11 attacks.
Trading volume dropped 41% on the New York Stock Exchange, government meetings were delayed, news conferences were postponed, and Supreme Court justices hearing a case arranged to have notes passed to them alerting them of the verdict.
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, one of Simpson’s defence lawyers, recalls in his book America on Trial that productivity plummeted in many offices around the country, costing about $480 million in lost output.
Another defence lawyer on what became known as Simpson’s “dream team” was the late Robert Kardashian, father of the now famous celebrity Kardashian clan, Kourtney, Kim, Khloé and Rob.
Kardashian was also a close friend of Simpson, who at one point found refuge in his house, where the football star apparently threatened to kill himself in the bedroom of the then 14-year-old Kim Kardashian.
Some time within the next 12 months Simpson is due to be a free man again, having served nine years in prison — not for the Los Angeles killings, of which he was acquitted that October morning in 1995, but for a bizarre robbery in Las Vegas over a decade later.
The “trial of the century” began on January 24, 1995, but the story of the relationship between OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown started about 20 years earlier.
Nicole Brown was born on May 19, 1959, in Frankfurt, Germany, where her father was stationed as a correspondent for the American armed forces publication Stars and Stripes.
While Nicole and her sister Denise (pictured below) were still toddlers, the family moved back to the United States, settling in California, where two others sisters, Dominique and Tanya, were born.
By the age of 18, Nicole Brown had begun working as a waitress at the Daisy, an upscale Beverly Hills club, and it was there that she met 30-year-old OJ Simpson, who was married at the time and in the waning years of a star-studded football career that had made him very wealthy.
In 1994, he was worth an estimated $11 million.
The two fell for each other and soon began dating.
Simpson divorced his first wife in 1979, and in 1985 he and Nicole were married at his palatial home in the upscale Los Angeles neighbourhood of Brentwood.
They had two children, Sydney, who was born in 1985, and Justin, who was born in 1988.
On the surface, it seemed they were living the high end of the American dream.
Simpson had also made a name for himself with small acting parts and had many celebrity friends.
Time magazine reported he attended Donald Trump’s glitzy wedding to Marla Maples.
But behind the walls of their home, the dream was dissolving into a nightmare.
Incidents of violent domestic abuse were apparently increasing. Friends and relatives would later recount seeing bruises on Nicole Brown’s body.
At a New Year’s Eve party in 1989 Simpson allegedly threatened to kill her.
He was subsequently charged with spousal battery, to which he pleaded no contest, which means a defendant neither admits nor disputes a charge.
He was sentenced to 120 hours of community service and two year’s probation and ordered to give $500 to a domestic violence shelter for women.
Three years later, on February 25, 1992, Brown filed for divorce. But her troubles were far from over.
A seemingly paranoid Simpson started to follow her.
“I’m scared,” she told her mother. “I go to the gas station, he’s there. I’m driving, and he’s behind me.”
She seemed to have a real sense of foreboding. But she could hardly have known the extent of the terror that would soon unfold.
On June 13, 1994, outside Nicole Brown’s Los Angeles condo, police came upon two bodies that had been viciously stabbed and slashed.
They recognised that one was that of Nicole Brown Simpson and the other was that of Ron Goldman.
Then the police made an announcement that shocked the country. They said evidence collected at the scene led them to suspect that Simpson was responsible for both killings.
Later that day, at about noon, police arrived at Simpson’s house, which was about two miles from the crime scene, handcuffed him briefly, then uncuffed him and took him away for three hours of questioning. No arrest was made.
Three days later, on June 16, the sports star appeared at Nicole Brown’s funeral accompanied by his two children.
To the horror of her family, Simpson approached the open casket, bent over and kissed the lifeless body of his former wife.
Her mother said she heard him murmur “I’m so sorry, Nicki. I’m so sorry.”
Next morning, on June 17, Simpson was charged with murder.
His lawyers said he would turn himself in at the Los Angeles Police Department at 11am.
As more than 1,000 reporters, photographers and TV crews waited outside the LAPD, Simpson failed to appear.
At 2pm police issued an “all points bulletin” for him that meant police should arrest him if they spotted him.
He had linked up with another friend, Al Cowlings, and managed to take off onto the Los Angeles freeway in his white Ford Bronco.
He was quickly spotted and dozens of police cars and helicopters began to give chase.
TV helicopters that had been reporting traffic conditions now zoomed in on the chase.
Newsrooms around America, including Reuters where I was working that day, began to crank up coverage and television networks broke into regular programming as millions of Americans tuned into the national drama.
Cowlings was at the wheel of the white Bronco and Simpson was sitting in the back seat clutching a loaded revolver and threatening to shoot himself.
Fearing that might happen, the police moved slowly in the chase and spent a lot of time talking by mobile phone with Simpson, trying to calm him and encouraging him to turn himself in.
Finally, their patience paid off. At around 8pm the Bronco pulled into the driveway of Simpson’s Los Angeles estate with Simpson still in the back seat. An army of police was waiting.
But an hour later Simpson was still holed up in the car.
WHEN he finally emerged from the Bronco about 45 minutes later, he was clutching family photos. He said he wasn’t trying to flee. But the items found in the car seemed to suggest otherwise.
They included a fake goatee and moustache with a bottle of makeup adhesive and receipts from a beauty store, along with Simpson’s passport and the gun. While in Cowlings’ pockets, police found almost $9,000 in cash.
Simpson was arrested and on June 20 was charged with both murders, to which he pleaded not guilty. He was ordered to be held without bail.
The prosecution elected not to ask for the death penalty and instead sought a life sentence.
Defence and prosecuting attorneys worked around the clock for several months to prepare their cases.
On November 3, the requisite 12 jurors, 10 women and two men, were seated. Nine were black, two were white and one was Hispanic.
As the case got under way on January 24, 1995, the prosecution argued that Simpson killed his ex-wife in a jealous rage and opened its case by playing an emergency 911 call that Nicole Brown had made on January 1, 1989.
She feared Simpson would harm her, she said, and he could be heard on the tape yelling at her in the background.
The prosecution also presented dozens of expert witnesses, on subjects ranging from DNA fingerprinting to blood and shoeprint analysis, to place Simpson at the scene of the crime.
A glove matching the one located near the bodies was found on Simpson’s property by lead detective Mark Fuhrman (pictured below), prosecutors told the court, while DNA testing connected Simpson to the blood stains left behind.
Even though prosecutors had found no murder weapon and no witnesses to the murders, they still felt they had a very strong case.
They claimed that Simpson drove to Nicole Brown’s house on the evening of June 12 with the intention of killing her.
They maintained that Brown, after putting her two children to bed and while getting ready to go to bed herself, opened the front door of her house after either responding to a knock on the front door or after hearing a noise outside.
Simpson grabbed her before she could scream and attacked her with a knife.
Forensic evidence from the Los Angeles County coroner suggested that Ron Goldman arrived at the front gate to the townhouse some time during the assault where the assailant stabbed him repeatedly in the neck and chest with one hand while restraining him with an arm chokehold.
The prosecution also called Nicole Brown’s sister, Denise, to the witness stand where she tearfully testified that on many occasions in the 1980s, she witnessed Simpson pick up his wife and hurl her against a wall, then physically throw her out of their house after an argument.
It seemed like a watertight case. But then Simpson’s “dream team” swung into action.
Led by F Lee Bailey, Robert Shapiro, and Johnnie Cochran (pictured below), they painstakingly laid out the defence case, alleging that the blood-sample evidence had been mishandled by lab scientists and technicians.
Cochran also suggested that Brown and Goldman had been killed by drug dealers who encountered them when they were trying to collect a debt from Brown’s friend and house guest Faye Resnick, a cocaine user.
They also made a damning case that accused lead detective Mark Fuhrman of racism, suggesting that had led him to plant the glove.
The appearance of the bloodied glove, which Simpson later tried on at the trial, and the racism charge against Fuhrman were pivotal moments for the defence case.
Fuhrman, as the lead detective, was central to the prosecution’s case.
He testified in March 1995 that when he had got no response at the intercom when he went to Simpson’s house to question him, he scaled a wall of the estate.
Inside, he found blood marks on the driveway. He also found a black leather glove at the back of the estate that had blood of both murder victims on it as well as that of Simpson.
Fuhrman denied on the stand that he was racist or had used the word “n****r” to refer to black people. But later in the trial, the defence played audiotapes from a decade earlier of Fuhrman repeatedly using the word — 41 times, in total.
In September, Fuhrman was called back to the witness stand by the defence to answer more questions about the discovery of the blood marks and the leather glove he had found on Simpson’s property.
With his lawyer standing by his side, Fuhrman pleaded the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination.
Later, in closing arguments, the prosecution told the jury that Fuhrman was indeed a racist, but said that this should not detract from the evidence that they said showed Simpson’s guilt.
For many people watching, the racist charge against Fuhrman and the drama surrounding the bloodied glove were two of the most dramatic moments of the trial.
IN 1990, Brown had bought Simpson two pairs of the type of glove found.
Both gloves, according to the prosecution, contained DNA evidence from Simpson, Brown, and Goldman, with the glove at Simpson’s house also containing a long strand of blonde hair similar to Brown’s.
On June 15, 1995, defence attorney Cochran urged assistant prosecutor Christopher Darden to ask Simpson to put on the leather glove that was found at the scene of the crime.
Those in the courtroom and millions watching on television held their breath as Simpson began to try on the infamous “bloody glove” and its apparent match found at the crime scene.
He struggled to get it on. It seemed too small. The gloves apparently didn’t fit.
Cochran would go on to use the “bloody glove episode” with powerful emphasis in his closing arguments in the trial.
It became one of the most memorable lines in the trial.
“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” he told the jurors.
The prosecution looked at it differently.
Seven days later, on June 22, 1995, prosecutor Darden told Judge Ito of his concerns that Simpson “has arthritis and we looked at the medication he takes and some of it is anti-inflammatory and we are told he has not taken the stuff for a day and it caused swelling in the joints and inflammation in his hands.”
The prosecution also said that the glove had shrunk from having been soaked in blood and later tested.
A photo was presented during the trial showing Simpson wearing the same type of gloves found at the crime scene.
On the day of the verdict, October 3, more than 100 police officers on horseback surrounded the LA courthouse.
After deliberating for less than four hours, jurors had actually reached the verdict the evening before.
But in order to give prosecutors and defence attorneys, some of whom had left the city, time to return to court Judge Ito left the envelope sealed until 10am on October 3.
Americans held their breath.
Times Square in New York came to a standstill as huge crowds craned their necks to see the verdict on the television above them.
A court clerk spoke to Judge Ito, who announced that the jury had come to a decision.
“You have reached a verdict in the case. Is that correct, madam foreman?” Ito asked.
“Yes,” said the jury forewoman.
Gasps greeted her announcement.
Simpson stood and faced the jury, flanked by Cochran and Kardashian, as the clerk began reading the verdicts.
“Not guilty,” she pronounced twice.
It was a unanimous verdict.
A tense smile crossed Simpson’s face. Cochran slapped him on the back. Fred Goldman closed his eyes. Nicole Brown’s family bowed their heads as if in shock.
They remained stoically silent but looked tearful.
Her father told a reporter a few minutes later: “I want to get outside and scream.” Some members of Simpson’s family cheered while others wept in relief.
Fred Goldman said the day of his son’s murder was the worst day of his life, and this was the second. “I deeply believe that this country lost today. Justice was not served,” he said.
Simpson walked from the court a free man after 473 days in custody.
Cochran later dismissed claims that he had “played the race card”.
“We choose to call it the credibility card,” he said.
He added: “Race plays a part of everything in America... In this case, it was introduced by witness Mark Fuhrman.”
Robert Shapiro was asked about the perception that wealthy Americans do better in court.
“There’s a lot of truth to it,” he said.
“It worked both ways in this case. Our small group of lawyers here were up against perhaps the most intense investigation in the history of criminal justice. If we did not have adequate resources, we wouldn’t have been able to [win].”
The prosecution admitted they were profoundly disappointed with the verdict.
Chief prosecutor Gill Garcetti in a comment seen as extraordinary at the time said: “Don’t look at this case as being how most cases are handled. Juries do the right thing — nearly all the time.”
Some members of the jury said later they thought that Simpson had committed the murders but there was “reasonable doubt” because the prosecution had mangled the case.
And so Americans who had been transfixed for over 400 days as the trial unfolded were now consumed by questions about race relations and the fairness of their justice system and whether racism and having the money to hire top attorneys were factors in a trial.
Judge Ito was criticised for allowing the trial to become a media circus and not doing enough to regulate the court proceedings.
Certainly, the trial was a major factor in wooing audiences away from the traditional networks nightly TV news programmes and boosting 24/7 cable news channels like CNN, which was just a decade old at the time.
It also helped to change the nature of news coverage, making criminal trials a form of television drama and expanding the audiences for “reality-TV” shows.
The trial also sparked a flood of books and documentaries. Even 20 years later the fascination remains.
This month a series on the trial is being shown on American and British television.
In her 1998 book Without a Doubt, lead prosecutor Marcia Clark (pictured below) concludes that nothing could have saved her case, given what she called the prominent role of race in the defence’s strategy and the predominantly black jury who heard it.
In her opinion, the prosecution’s evidence should have easily convicted Simpson.
‘’We lost because American justice is distorted by race... corrupted by celebrity,’’ she wrote.
“I felt like I’d let everyone down. The Goldmans. The Browns. My team. The country.”
The defence team’s Alan Dershowitz was scathing about how the prosecution handled the case.
In an interview a decade later with PBS television, he said: “I was not sure (the prosecution would win). I thought the most likely result was going to be a hung jury, and I was furious at Johnnie Cochran because I thought by invoking race in the [closing] argument, he would divide the jurors along racial lines.
"We knew we had two people on the jury who were white, and I was very much afraid of a 10-2 verdict of acquittal, which would have required a second trial.
“This would have been a great victory for the prosecution. They never would have tried on the gloves.
"They never would have put Fuhrman on the witness stand. They very well might have gotten a conviction on a second trial.”
The prosecution team’s William Hodgman reacted this way to the jury’s swift deliberations.
“I looked at my watch and I thought, they couldn’t have deliberated. There are issues of first- and second-degree murder.
"There’s thoughtfulness, there’s a mountain of evidence that has to be reviewed and determined.
“My first reaction [when he heard the verdict], quite frankly, was I went numb. And I had to check myself: did I just hear that, or did I imagine that?
“And I knew it was true when from behind me and to my right I could hear the sound of Kim Goldman’s [Ron Goldman’s sister] just heartbreaking sobs.
“I realised it’s true, they’ve walked OJ Simpson.”
But he didn’t walk for very long.
And neither does the story of OJ Simpson end on October 3, 1995.
This is what subsequently happened to Simpson and some of the players in his trial:
Simpson’s avoidance of the financial burdens of that judgment over the ensuing years ultimately led to disaster for him a decade later.
In 2007 he barged into a Las Vegas hotel room with gun-carrying associates to take memorabilia to sell for cash.
He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to 33 years in prison on October 3, 2008, exactly 13 years to the day since he had been acquitted of the double murders.
He will be eligible for parole in 2017.
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