Wednesday, February 24, 2016

O.J. Simpson vs. the Criminal Justice System

You knew it had to come and here it is -- The People vs. O.J. Simpson in all its lurid details for the Millennial generation that was still in diapers when the Trial of the Century took place.  Today this show trial acts more as a footnote to the racial strife that dominates network television, where a Super Bowl halftime show becomes prime fodder for round-the-clock cable news thanks in large part to the bodice-busting Beyonce, who appears to be every white conservative male pundit's wet dream, and her controversial X.

I'm of two minds whether to watch this new crime serial or not.  On the one hand, it is from the hands of American Horror Story creator, Ryan Murphy, who is drawn to all the lurid urban horror stories like a moth to a flame.  He is using this trial to launch a new string of mini-series appropriately entitled American Crime Story.  He couldn't have started with a more juicy trial, especially with the Kardashians as a convenient reference point for the Millennial generation.  Father Rob was initially O.J.'s lawyer.  On the other hand, critics are raving over the all-star cast and many nuances this series provides, as it tries to probe beyond the sensational headlines to the real story that those old enough to remember apparently missed.

June 17, 1994 was the day it all started.  This was the slow-speed chase scene in which O.J.'s white Bronco crept along an LA freeway with seemingly all of the LAPD in tow.  It was more like a funeral procession than a chase and just about everyone assumed at this point that O.J. was guilty, choosing to savor his last moments of freedom before spending the rest of his life behind bars.

Then came the legal dream team headed by F. Lee Baily, Robert Shapiro and Johnny Cochran that would turn the case on its ear.  Wisely, a young Rob Kardashian had stepped aside, knowing he was way out of his league.  Cochran quickly took over, smelling rats in the LAPD and LA county prosecutors office, which he would expose for all to see.  What seemed like a "slam dunk" turned into the most ugly, drawn out trial since the Menendez Brothers, the previous "trial of the century" from five years before.  Only this time, it looked very much like the prosecution was in deep trouble.

America instantly took sides.  The trial was shown on C-SPAN so that you could catch virtually every minute if you chose to, or you could catch the nightly recaps on CNN and the other network channels.  Hard to believe, but Fox was not yet born.  Greta Van Susteren made her mark as the official CNN analyst for the case.  She was often joined by Roger Cossack to present both sides of the ongoing case.  Greta is now a mainstay at Fox News.

The murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman quickly became secondary to the larger implications of what O.J. Simpson's indictment represented.  He spent the year in LA County Jail, guilty until proven innocent, as he was considered a flight risk and not allowed out on bail.  Many speculated if he would even survive the year without committing suicide, so a 24-hour guard was placed on him so that he wouldn't find a convenient way to escape justice.

We did have Ron Goldman's father, Fred, to periodically remind us on CNN and other network channels that his son was the real victim here and not O.J.  Faye Resnick speedily put out a book, which just as quickly became a best-seller to remind us what a beautiful soul Nicole was, and that we should all be grieving for her.

It was hard to believe that one of America's premier sports icons could sink to such a level, but we were quickly shown evidence of previous spousal abuse that led to Nicole filing for divorce in 1992.  They were estranged at the time of the murder.  Simpson periodically visited his two children, who were 7 and 9 when the murders took place.  He had four other children from a previous marriage.

The trial lasted 134 days, keeping the nation on the edge of its collective seat.  It should more aptly be called O.J. Simpson vs. the Criminal Justice System as that is what actually took place.  It overshadowed all news, including the recent takeover of Congress by the Republicans with their Contract with America.  Nothing could compare with the sensational news that sprung from the proceedings, ranging from Mark Fuhrman's racist comments to tainted DNA evidence to a bedraggled Marcia Clark who appeared to be wilting under the pressure of all the evidence the defense team put forward to indicate that the LAPD and county prosecutor's office had corroborated to smear O.J. for a crime he didn't commit.

The interesting thing was how the country became divided over his guilt.  White America overwhelming believed O.J. was guilty, whereas Black America overwhelmingly felt he was innocent.  My mother followed the trial more closely than I did.  As it unfolded, she began to express her doubts about his guilt.  She felt that much of the evidence was circumstantial, as it tried to pin him to the scene of the  crime.  The DNA evidence had fallen apart.  The only thing the prosecution had left in the end was a bloody glove, which they were so sure would tie him to the murders that they made him put it on in court.  This proved to be their ultimate undoing, as the glove was about three sizes too small, and no amount of "shrinkage" could account for this sizable difference.  A crestfallen Marcia Clark had to know what the verdict would be at this point.

Still, much of White America insisted on his guilt, cynically observing that it was only thanks to his high-priced lawyers that O.J. was allowed to walk.  For Black Americans, it was also a case of money buying justice, although they believed it was a well deserved acquittal unlike many Blacks who remained behind bars simply because they couldn't afford a lawyer like Johnnie Cochran.

It is hard to say how deep this television series will go into the trial or if it will cover the subsequent civil trial in which O.J. was held responsible for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, forced to pay a punitive award of $25 million to the respective families.  He spent the next two decades trying to cover it, leading to another ugly trial in which he was accused of staging a robbery and kidnapping to get back sports memorabilia he felt had been wrongly taken from him.

By this point, Simpson was a shell of his former self.  No longer able to get any lucrative endorsements much less meaningful work, reduced to pawning items and writing an ill-advised book to try to cover his enormous debts.  It was the quintessential fall from grace story, where just about everyone who played a role in the "trial of the century" profited from it except O.J. Simpson, who was never found guilty of the crimes he had been accused of.

That story is still waiting to be written, maybe by O.J. himself.  He received a 33-year sentence for his latest crimes but is eligible for parole in October, 2017.  All sorts of speculation swirls around him, including concussion theories in the wake of last year's movie surrounding the high rate of concussions in the NFL.  Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays O.J. in the TV series, even thinks O.J. might have been suffering from CTE concussion syndrome at the time of the murders.  We can only speculate, as many of us still do, as to what was going on in the mind of O.J. at the time of the murders and if he really did it.

To me the real travesty was how the LAPD made up its mind from the start that O.J. did it and made no effort to follow any other leads.  Instead, they tried to assemble as much evidence as quickly as they could so that the LA prosecutor could prove his guilt beyond any reasonable doubt.  This is the major shortfall in our criminal justice system, as the accused is presumed guilty unless he can prove otherwise, not just in court but in the eyes of the public.  O.J. was able to establish his innocence in the eyes of a criminal court, but not in the eyes of the public, at least not the white public.

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