We Won’t Get O.J.-ed Again

How could we have been so stupid?

Ten years later, we should all feel a little sheepish
Ten years later, we should all feel a little sheepish

June 12 will mark the 10th anniversary of the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Predictably, the catch-us-up interviews and where-are-they-now roundups have begun, reminding us that the O.J. Simpson story—Ford Bronco, bloody gloves, Kato Kaelin, Paula Barbieri, et al.—was an international phenomenon: an indelible experience still fat with meaning.

This is strange, when you stop to consider it. After all, since O.J., we’ve certainly seen more famous people go on trial (Martha Stewart, Winona Ryder). We’ve seen more insanely violent people go on trial (Timothy McVeigh, John Allan Muhammad). We’ve seen people of far greater historical consequence go on trial (Slobodan Milosevic, Bill Clinton’s impeachment). We’ve seen the “dream team” of lawyers who defended O.J. go on to represent other famous people. (Johnnie Cochran represented police misconduct victim Abner Louima and rapper P. Diddy; Robert Shapiro represented Robert Downey Jr. and, for a while, Phil Spector. *) Yet we don’t talk about those cases ‘round the water cooler. We read about them on page A12. Still, while I know precisely what I was doing when O.J. was decided, I cannot seem to recall where I was when the Tim McVeigh verdict was returned.

In an NBC poll taken in 1999, the majority of the Americans asked deemed the O.J. Simpson criminal trial the “Trial of the Century.” But none of us seems to know quite why. Possibly the Simpson saga offered what was, in hindsight, a “perfect storm” of archetypal narratives. You had your sex plot. You had your race plot. You had your rags-to-riches, and your police corruption, and your 9-1-1 tapes. But while all this seems like an epic tale unparalleled in the courts before or since, the truth is that many of the subsequent “trials of the century” have offered similarly archetypical tales without capturing the imagination of the entire country as O.J. did. (Think of Andrea Yates as the “Mad Mother,” or Lee Boyd Malvo as “angel gone astray.”)

One of the paradoxes of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial is that, contrary to the predictions of some legal scholars, the cultural force of the event has not really diminished in the intervening years. The other paradox of the O.J. Simpson trial is that the widespread predictions that every trial thereafter would be “worse”—a greater spectacle, a madder circus—have also proven wrong. The whole thing was really just an outlier; a blip. It’s hard to know what makes one trial a “trial of the century” while another is just interesting legal news. But in 10 years, there hasn’t been another O.J. And while some pundits speculate that the upcoming Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson trials will rival it for mayhem, my prediction is they will not. They’ll be nuts, to be sure. But they won’t be O.J.

There are lots of important meanings affixed, in hindsight, to the O.J. Simpson trial, but most of them are wrong. It’s a mistake, for instance, to argue that the American obsession with celebrity trials began with O.J. People have been obsessed with the theater of trials since there were trials to watch. Aaron Burr complained in 1807 that all the pretrial publicity about his case would keep him from getting a fair trial. And it’s said that more reporters covered the Bruno Hauptmann trial for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in 1935 than covered all of World War I. As the Samuel Sheppard case revealed in the 1950s, the American public’s taste for other folks’ blood knew no bounds even then. The difference with O.J. wasn’t that we were suddenly fascinated. It’s that we were invited in.

It’s also not accurate to say that O.J. became a national phenomenon for peeling back the truth on the simmering racial tensions in America. For one thing, it’s naive to insist that the public didn’t already know what O.J. purported to reveal: that the majority of African-Americans so believe that the legal system is skewed against a black man that they would credit an incredible conspiracy narrative over seemingly incontrovertible scientific evidence. But the explosive acquittal of the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King, and the riots they triggered in Los Angeles, happened well before the O.J. verdict. O.J. didn’t reveal anything that wasn’t already crystal clear about race in America.

It’s also, ultimately, an oversimplification to suggest that O.J. was a landmark trial because it launched the era of “cameras in the courtroom,” spawning Court TV as the first “reality show.” Trials had been televised long before O.J.’s, and trials have been televised long after. The entire trial of Adolph Eichmann was carried live on television in 1961, as were the Lorena Bobbitt trial in 1995 and the William Kennedy Smith trial in 1991. None to the effect of O.J. It’s not at all clear that television caused the madness that became O.J.-mania, or merely exposed it.

All the above factors may have played some role in the circus that became the O.J. trial. But they didn’t cause it. Ultimately, the way in which the O.J. Simpson case differed from the celebrity trials that came before and after has little to do with the fact that the television cameras invited us in the courtroom, and everything to do with the fact that we showed up. And stayed. All three major networks and CNN saturated us with O.J. because we demanded it. And we demanded it because we could get it. It was a moment in history in which the public and the media became a match made in hell. Neither of us could get enough of each other.

An astonishing 91 percent of the television viewing audience watched the verdict in O.J. and a poll at the time famously showed  that 74 percent of Americans could identify Kato Kaelin but only 25 percent knew who Vice President Al Gore was. In so many ways, the trial was a watershed for everything that was worst about law, the media, and our obsession with fame. But in so many ways it was also a one-time race to the bottom. We look back on the long lunches and the skipped classes; the pundits reviewing the analysis of the earlier pundits who had analyzed the alleles in the blood samples, and we all feel a little sheepish. All sleazy one-night stands must come to an end. And the good news is, we got over it. Unless I’m wrong, and we are as stupid for Scott Peterson as we were for O.J., we won’t be O.J.-ed again

Certainly, there were other lessons to be learned from O.J., like, don’t have the defendant try the glove on in front of the jury without being certain it’ll fit. I’ve also been told by more than one criminal lawyer that juries since O.J. are far more willing to give credence to stories of police misconduct than before. And between the O.J. jurors and Barry Scheck’s testimony (and his subsequent work at The Innocence Project), it’s become a nationally understood truth that some crime labs are sloppy or worse; and that even the best DNA evidence can, quite simply, lie.

Some of the other important lessons of O.J. have been learned by the judges. Judge Lance Ito meant well, but he was out of his weight class when it came time to wrestle the media beast. Judges since have learned from his mistakes: Don’t let the media control you, for one thing. Don’t sequester your jury for 266 days. Don’t permit counsel to strut and posture like a bunch of teenage drama students. Gag everyone. Keep it all short, clean, and sweet.

Literally dozens of law review articles have been written on the significance of the O.J. trial: the role played by race; the ethics of the attorneys; the meaning of jury nullification; the significance of domestic violence; and the meaning of forensic evidence. But none of that is the real legacy of O.J. It’s just an attempt to find meaning in a trial that should have meant very little. The truth about O.J. is that for one brief moment, the law and the media went crazy and had a lot of sex, and gave birth to a vast sprawling beast that ate us all. With the trial over, life, law, and television returned us to our previously scheduled broadcast. It was all just a mistake, really. Let’s keep it that way.

Correction, June 11, 2004: This article originally stated that “Johnnie Cochran defended police misconduct victim Abner Louima.” In fact, no criminal charges were ever brought against Louima; Cochran didn’t defend him but rather represented him in a civil suit. Cochran’s name was also originally misspelled “Cochrane.” ( Return to the corrected sentence.)