Why O.J. Still Matters
On June 12, 1994, the bloody, and mangled bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were found in the walkway of Simpson's Brentwood, California apartment. Though the gruesome murders happened a decade ago, it seems that time has stood still. Tongues still furiously wag at the mention of the murders, and the name of the man accused of committing them, O.J. Simpson. If a poll were taken today, a majority of whites would still rage that Simpson is a murderer who skipped away scot-free, and that the trial and his acquittal were a farce and a blatant travesty of justice. In the same poll, a majority of blacks would rage that Simpson was victimized by a white racist criminal justice system and the verdict was a just one.
That's not guesswork. Whenever a big name black athlete or entertainer most notably Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant, or Michael Jackson winds up on the legal hot seat, polls are instantly taken to measure what blacks and whites think about their cases. The results are always the same. A majority of whites say they are guilty as sin, and a majority of blacks say that they're being railroaded because they're black. The gulf in black and white attitudes has been just as predictable in the polls that have measured their views on the Iraq war, President Bush's domestic policies, racial progress, where the blame lies for crime and violence, and failing public schools.
Simpson didn't invent or originate this sometimes ugly, and always frustrating racial divide. It has always lurked just beneath the surface. But his case propelled it to the front of public debate and anger. The carefully orchestrated TV shots of jubilant blacks high-fiving his acquittal and rejoicing that a brother finally beat the system stood in stark contrast to the shots of grim faced whites railing that a murderer got away. This reinforced the notion that there are two Americas, one black and one white, and each one continues to see the system in wildly divergent ways. In times of racial stress and tension, their frustrations, hostilities, and fears explode in an orgy of racial recrimination, blame and finger pointing.
The murders of Simpson and Goldman also heightened public awareness about domestic violence, stirred rage against the double standard in the treatment of rich and poor in the legal system, and elevated celebrity murder cases to media tabloid sensationalism. Prosecutors in the trial skillfully painted Simpson as an irresponsible, abusive and violent husband. This shoved the issue of spousal abuse and domestic violence from bedroom privacy to public outrage. A number of states passed stiff laws mandating arrest and jail sentences for domestic assaults. Police, District Attorneys and judges nationwide promised to arrest, prosecute and sentence domestic batterers. The Simpson case insured that domestic violence would remain a compelling public policy issue that the courts, lawmakers and the public could never again ignore.
The horde of Simpson media commentators, legal experts and politicians that branded the legal system corrupt, compromised also fueled public belief that justice is for sale. Simpson's acquittal seemed to confirm that the rich, famous and powerful have the deep pockets to hire a small army of high priced, high profile attorneys, expert witnesses, experts, and investigators that routinely mangle the legal system to stall, delay, and drag out their cases, and eventually allow their well-heeled clients to weasel out of punishment. Even when prosecutors manage to win convictions against celebrities such as Winona Ryder, and Martha Stewart, their money, fame, power, and legal twisting often guarantee that they will avoid doing any jail time.
Then there is the media. The major TV networks and newsweeklies took the tabloid's favorite obsessions: sex, drugs, violence, the antics of high profile celebrities, and eagerly applied their shock reporting to the Simpson case. In the process, they turned much of the public into gossip junkies. In the decade since Simpson's acquittal, newspapers and the TV networks have force fed the public with the a bloated diet of Simpson style gossip, and rumor in the Beltway sniper, Laci Peterson, Robert Blake, and Phil Spector and other celebrity or sensational murder cases. This is a carbon copy of the type of overkill saturation coverage they perfected in the Simpson trial. That's still the case even with Simpson today. NBC and Fox News recently duked it out to see which one would be the first to land and air a Simpson interview for the tenth anniversary of the murder case.
In the near decade after the media labeled the Simpson case, the "trial of the century," some ask what did we learn. That's easy to answer. Race continues to divide, tabloid sensationalism sells, and justice more often than not is for sale. The Simpson case punched too many social, racial, and emotional hot buttons for it to ever permanently recede from public view. Ten years after the murders, it still won't.