Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Confessions of a Former OJ Junkie

Last Friday, October 3rd the wire services announced the verdict convicting O.J. Simpson on charges of armed robbery in an attempt to retrieve what he said was sports memorabilia that had been taken from him. With a heated presidential campaign and a scary financial crisis with its proposed controversial Congressional bailout dominating the news, not many paid much attention. But exactly thirteen years ago to the day, an eagerly awaited verdict surrounding this same person was witnessed live by an estimated 150 million viewers!

For those readers who are not old enough to remember the OJ Murder Trial or want to refresh their memories, an excellent resource is the 2005 PBS Frontline documentary commemorating the 10th anniversary of the verdict which for those with access to a broadband connection can be viewed online in its entirety
in this link. For those wanting a more concise summary of the trial, check out the Wikipedia article.

I was one of those 150 million viewers watching on a large screen TV set up at a nearby shopping mall food court so we could watch the verdict during our lunch hour. I was an OJ junkie. I often talked about the trial at work during lunchtime and at the water fountain. When I came home, I caught the end of the day’s trial proceedings on TV. And every weeknight, I watched Rivera Live or perhaps Larry King Live depending on who had the most interesting OJ guests on that night. Besides Geraldo, there were Stan Goldman, Jeffrey Toobin, Gerry Spence and other commentators who were regular ‘guests’ in my living room each evening.

And when they announced the “not guilty” verdict over the TV at the mall to the hundreds assembled, I was one of those in the crowd who yelled obscenities at the TV saying over and over “You’ve got to be (bleep)ing kidding me!” “There’s no (bleep)ing way he could have gotten off!” “I don’t (bleep)ing believe it!” Some of the other white people sitting around me were yelling some of the same things. But some of the black people in the crowd were applauding. At the time, I didn’t pay too much attention to that, but when I saw the news accounts of the huge cheers of black groups in response to the verdict, it became clear that this was going to be one of the most controversial legal verdicts ever — but split very much over racial lines.

It’s hard to say when I first started to become so engrossed in this trial. Perhaps the daily installments from the courtroom gave it the flavor of a soap opera storyline. You never knew what unforeseen twist or turn was going to happen each day so you just had to tune in. But in one important way (other than the reality of the trial), this story was very much the opposite of the traditional soap opera murder trial storyline. Usually in the soap operas, one of the good guys (or gals) gets charged with a murder that we know they didn’t commit (because we got to see the murder taking place). And after several months of dramatic suspense, the true murderer is finally revealed to all! But in this real trial, for many of us the evidence against Simpson appeared to become more and more overwhelming. And what became my obsessive reason for viewing was to see justice be done especially to help the victims’ family members get some closure and possible healing someday. After showing the courtroom celebration of Simpson and his legal team at the news of the acquittal, the camera then panned over to the stunned agony of Fred and Kim Goldman, the father and sister of one of the murder victims, Ron Goldman. Seeing their anguish made me a whole lot angrier than just seeing Simpson acquitted.

Even today, the OJ Murder Trial is talked about if not studied in many law schools. This law school website for example, outlines the mountain of
incriminating evidence that in my mind is every bit as convincing today as it was back then. While differing beliefs on whether there was a reasonable doubt of OJ’s guilt is understandable, when the differences were so split based on race, there just had to be something else behind all of this. After all, it makes no sense that blacks and whites can look at the same evidence and come up with mostly opposite conclusions from one another.

But as time passed and OJ apparently had no luck in “finding the real killers”, more members of the black community came to admit that they cheered for the verdict not necessarily because they thought Simpson was innocent, but because of what they felt was a racist criminal justice system (especially the LA Police Department) getting taught a lesson. As Simpson defense team lawyer Alan Dershowitz said as part of a
PBS Frontline interview:

Frontline: Was the verdict intended to send a message to the LAPD?

Dershowitz: Well, Johnnie Cochran's closing argument was, you have to teach a lesson to the police of Los Angeles. And it's interesting, because he was reviled for that, and I was, and many others were. And then the police scandal emerged in Los Angeles just a little while later. I got a number of public apologies on radio talk shows, from hosts and others saying: "You alerted us to this scandal before it happened. We could have stopped it. We wish we had listened to you."
If like me, you do not believe in the logical fallacy that two wrongs make a right, then it was no less wrong to release a double murderer just because the racist treatment of the black community by the LAPD was wrong. For those who feel differently, would they like to make this argument face-to-face with members of the murder victims’ families?

It is ironic that the recently concluded O.J. Simpson Las Vegas Robbery Trial revolved around this same principle. Simpson admitted to taking sports memorabilia, but justified it based on his assertion that these items were stolen from him. The prosecution said that even if those items were stolen, it’s no less of a crime to steal them back (especially at gunpoint). Despite what were said to be plans for an acquittal party, the jury rudely put a damper on those party plans by convicting Simpson and sending him to prison, perhaps for the rest of his life.

And while nothing can bring Nicole and Ron back, we can only hope that Simpson now behind bars will at least bring some belated closure and healing to their family members and allow them to move on.

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