News

Why America Is Still Obsessed with OJ Simpson

His 1995 murder trial was all about race, sex, and policing—issues that haven't exactly disappeared from the national radar.
02 March 2016, 5:00am

OJ Simpson confers with his lawyers during a pre-trial hearing January 12, 1995. (Photo by Lee Celano/WireImage)

With a time code rolling in the lower left corner, a grainy hand-held video shows a black man being beaten by a bevy of white police officers near the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street in Los Angeles in 1991. It is quickly followed by news footage from the next year announcing that the four LAPD cops who assaulted him were found not guilty of assault charges in the attack. Riots break out in South Los Angeles as angry protestors loot local businesses, set buildings aflame, tip over cars and buses, and violently clash with police.

These archival TV clips set the stage for FX's new ten-part miniseries, The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. Leaning on a star-studded cast including Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ, the true crime show chronicles the spectacle of Simpson's arrest and trial for the double-murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1994.

That this dramatized version of events has captured the attention of millions of viewers and set an FX viewership record for an original drama premiere speaks to the enduring fascination of the grisly tale behind it**.** With a mountain of evidence stacked against him, including a bloody glove found at his house and a bloody shoe print at the crime scene that was just his size**,** Simpson's "not guilty" verdict in 1995 was the product of an explosive era in Los Angeles policing.

"The war on crime and the war on drugs were coming in full throttle," explains Joe Domanick, author of Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing. "The black community really saw the exoneration of OJ as their triumph."

In fact, the black community was so desperate for a win in the legal system—redemption for the acquittal of the Rodney King officers, among other civil rights issues—that "whether OJ was innocent or not was not their concern," according to Domanick, who serves as associate director of the Center on Media, Crime, and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ Simpson. Photo by Ray Mickshaw/FX

It didn't matter that Simpson probably got the "best treatment from the LAPD of any black person in Los Angeles," as Domanick puts it. After all, Simpson used to host officers at his mansion to take a dip in the pool or play a game of tennis, and he even attended Christmas parties thrown by the LAPD's West LA division. Simpson also beat his wife Nicole so badly that she ended up in the hospital, and he was finally arrested in 1989 after police had been called on eight previous occasions. (Thanks to a friendly judge, he did no jail time.)

In 1990, the LAPD was about 61 percent white, 22 percent Latino, and 14 percent black, according to data published by the Los Angeles Times__. Homicide detectives and the LAPD elite within the predominantly white police force operated with independence and impunity in part because the police chief at the time, Willie Williams, allowed them to.

So it came as no surprise when Simpson's star-studded defense team accused police investigators of mishandling evidence, ignoring chain-of-custody requirements, and illegally searching Simpson's home. Detective Mark Fuhrman was accused of hopping Simpson's fence without a search warrant on the night of the murder and planting the bloody glove on his property. Adding to the sense of intrigue, the defense obtained audiotapes and transcripts of Fuhrman spouting racial slurs during an interview.

Fuhrman was in fact "cocky" and embodied the "hard-nosed white cop detective attitude" that was emblematic of the time, according to Domanick. In today's LAPD ranks however, it would be difficult for a cop like him to flourish.

"The LAPD is a very different department, both in terms of its policing philosophy and what it's trying to do... to change its relationship with minority communities," Domanick says.

These days, the department is 33 percent white, with the dominating demographic being Latinos at about 46 percent, according to February 2016 statistics obtained by VICE from the LAPD. While only 11 percent of the current police force is black, a downtick from 1990, LAPD ranks in general have moved closer to mirroring the actual demographics of the city the officers serve.

The end of the LAPD's wild west era came a few years after the Simpson trial, when in the late 90s dozens of officers in the department's Rampart Division were accused of gross misconduct, tampering with evidence, and physically abusing suspects. As a result, under the oversight of the Department of Justice and a federal juge, the LAPD was placed under a consent decree that changed the shape of the department, according to Lieutenant John Jenal, a 29-year LAPD veteran.

Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ Simpson. Photo by Byron Cohen/FX

This legally binding agreement was intended to "promote police integrity" and established a new behavioral tracking system that tallied complaints, lawsuits, and use-of-force incidents against each officer so supervisors could keep tabs on shady behavior, Jenal explains. It also required police to conduct more extensive investigations into each use-of-force incident, and it mandated they publicize officer-involved shootings on the public LAPD website.

But even if the LAPD has changed, the OJ Simpson story remains irresistible. As the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum over the last year and a half, and the tally of black men killed by police climbs, the Simpson case lingers in the national imagination.

"What makes the story feel so topical is that it's fundamentally a story about race and the criminal justice system," says author and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

The FX show is based on Toobin's book, The Run of his Life: The People vs. OJ Simpson. The journalist had a special role in the case from the start: As a reporter for the New Yorker in 1994, he was the first to publicize the defense's aggressive strategy of invoking racial bias on part of local law enforcement.

Until now, the Simpson case was one of the most famous events in American history never to be properly dramatized—a "perfect combination of everything that obsesses the American people," as Toobin puts it.

Murder defendant OJ Simpson listens to the not guilty verdict with his attorneys F. Lee Bailey and Johnnie Cochran Jr. in 1995. (Photo by MYUNG J. CHUN/AFP/Getty Images)

Those things include celebrity, sex, and murder.

"It's very hard to imagine the same set of circumstances [today] because they were just so bizarre," Toobin says.

Fanaticism surrounding the case was largely a product of the pre-internet, pre-social media environment in which it took place. The country was collectively enraptured with the Simpson story and united by the relatively few news sources that were there to deliver it. If the case were to proceed in 2016, Toobin believes, it'd be much easier for the public to ignore it or get past the sensationalized coverage by changing the channel or clicking on a different website.

Beginning with the slow-speed Bronco chase that interrupted network broadcasts of the 1994 NBA finals between the Knicks and Rockets, Simpson's story played out in front of a national audience. Televising the more than 130-day proceedings was in and of itself controversial, as having cameras in the courtroom had a tangible impact on the Simpson case, Toobin maintains. Lawyers and witnesses often played to the cameras, trying to either get publicity for themselves or shape public opinion in a way that could ultimately influence the jury.

VICE reached out to many of the prosecutors and defense attorneys directly involved in the Simpson case. While some did not respond to emails, others declined to participate. Lead defense lawyer Robert Shapiro—played in the show by an effete John Travolta—wrote in an email that it's his "longstanding policy not to comment on the matter," while co-counsel F. Lee Bailey wished to see the entire FX series before commenting for this story.

OJ Simpson appears in court with attorneys Gabriel Grasso and Yale Galanter prior to sentencing at the Clark County Regional Justice Center December 5, 2008 in Las Vegas, Nevada.(Photo by Issac Brekken-Pool/Getty Images)

Simpson may have been found not guilty of the criminal charges in this case, but in 1997, he lost a civil suit and was ordered to pay a total of $33.5 million to the families of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Then, in 2008, Simpson was convicted of kidnapping and armed robbery for busting into a Las Vegas casino hotel room and stealing hundreds of pieces of sports memorabilia at gunpoint. Simpson claimed the items, including relics from the hall of fame NFL career that made him a socialite in Laguna Beach, belonged to him, and he was merely trying to get them back.

Now 68, Simpson is currently incarcerated at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada, serving a sentence of nine to 33 years. The prison doesn't get FX or allow DVDs, so Simpson presumably hasn't seen the show chronicling his own case. But he reportedly thinks Cuba Gooding Jr.'s head is too small to play him, and he is "upset" that the show insinuates he's guilty.

Simpson will be eligible for parole as early as next year.

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