It has been nearly 22 years since former Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers running back-turned-actor O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in one of the most controversial and well-publicized trials in modern history. Accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, on her front walkway, the trial tapped into the underpinnings of a city still haunted by the ghosts of police misconduct and racial tensions, and a community that felt it was asked to accept too much without getting enough in return.
With news that Simpson may be a free man come July, those underpinnings become relevant again. In the intervening years, some have been addressed. The proliferation of social media and instantly shared video has flushed many of the elements of everyday life for the Black community out of the shadows and into the light. The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, highlights the growing frustration with seemingly unaddressed and under-addressed issues with the police-related killings of unarmed Black adults and children.
Others, however, have not. The upcoming rape trial of Bill Cosby, for example, reopens the debate that justice — if one has enough money or fame — can be bought. While the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office was arguably competent and though it had a mountain of evidence to prove its case, it was grossly overmatched by Simpson’s “Dream Team” of law professors, vetted trial attorneys and field researchers. This despite the fact that most Americans — Black and white — have come to accept that Simpson killed his wife and Goldman. With the cult of celebrity today stronger than it has ever been, there is the possibility of history repeating itself.
In light of the announcement of a July parole hearing on Simpson’s nine-to-33-year sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping charges because of allegations of theft of his personal memorabilia, it is worth taking the time to ask a simple question: If the Simpson double-murder trial was held today, would Simpson still be acquitted?
“The Trial of the Century”
In the 22 years since the double-murder trial, Simpson’s life has dramatically changed from what it was during his “Naked Gun” days. Gone are the legions of adoring fans and endless endorsements. In their place is the permanent shadow of suspicion made tacit by the civil suit finding him responsible for the Simpson-Brown murders.
During his tenure as Lovelock Correction Center prisoner No. 1027820, Simpson has retreated to a life of modesty, cleaning the prison’s gym, working out to stay in shape and causing no major waves to draw the attention of gossip hounds. Outside the prison, however, Simpson’s life has been under constant examination, culminating in the FX drama series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and the the ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America.”
The trial created wakes that are little appreciated today, but the effects of which can be readily seen. O.J. Simpson, before the trial, was that rare example of an African-American who had found success among both Black and white audiences. Simpson was a Heisman Trophy winner, an NFL Draft first pick, the first NFL running back to run for more than 2,000 combined yards in a single season, the current record-holder for single-season yards per game and the fastest to gain 1,000 rushing yards in a season, and the only NFL player to rush for 2,000 yards under the 14-game regular-season format.
Simpson was able to transition this success into roles in “Roots,” “The Klansman,” “The Towering Inferno,” “The Cassandra Crossing,” “Capricorn One” and “The Naked Gun” movies. He was a commentator for NBC Sports and his perceived charisma and friendly attitude translated into endorsement deals for Hertz and Chevrolet.
At the time of the trial, Simpson was one of the nation’s most beloved personas and he was going up against arguably the most publicly scarred police department in the country. Even today, the Los Angeles Police Department remains one of the nation’s most controversial law enforcement agencies, with city police officers videotaped shooting a homeless man while he was lying down after being tasered in 2015, followed by the police shooting of a pursuit suspect following a car crash. The police department’s response led to protests and calls for Chief Charlie Beck’s resignation.
Los Angeles in 1995 was one year off from the Rampart Scandal, in which more than 70 LAPD officers assigned to the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums anti-gang unit were indicted on offenses including unprovoked shootings and beatings, the planting of false evidence, the stealing and dealing of narcotics, bank robbery, perjury and obstruction of justice. CRASH officers were involved in the burglary and shooting of Javier Ovando, paralyzing him while framing him for allegedly attacking the officers. Ovando was sentenced to 23 years in prison but was released after four once one of the officers, Rafael Perez, recanted his testimony. Ovando was paid $15 million in compensation.
Three years prior, Los Angeles was the site of the Rodney King Riots, which were sparked following the acquittal of four LA police officers who were videotaped beating King after a high-speed pursuit on March 1991. Only one of the four of the officers was charged with the use of excessive force, despite the video showing all four striking King. The riot lasted six days, resulting in 58 deaths, more than 11,000 arrests and the destruction of over $1 billion in property.
The Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department of 1991 found that excessive force against the public was rampant among a significant number of the LAPD’s officers and that these officers regularly ignored departmental policies on the use of force. The commission found that the problems came from LAPD’s management and its refusal or inability to monitor its police force, despite the availability of data suggesting a problem. Many of the police officers targeted by the commission as repeat offenders were rewarded by the department with promotions and positive evaluations.
In light of this, many African-Americans in L.A. rightfully felt animosity toward the police. This feeling was likely shared by the Simpson trial’s jury, which was three-quarters Black. Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor for the Simpson double-murder trial, has gone on record saying that she does not believe the evidence made a difference in the jurors’ calculation.
“But, at the end of the day, the evidence didn’t wind up mattering because there was a fundamental large issue standing in the way of seeing the evidence,” Clark said to NBC News. “You had this enormous mistrust of everything LAPD, everything officer related.
“Honestly, I don’t know whether he would be convicted today,” Clark continued. “Because in the wake of all these police shootings and all the racial mistrust that has been exposed, probably what would result, in my opinion, is a hung jury.”
An Assault on Civil Liberties
Clark was referencing the Black Lives Matter movement, which has developed not only as a response to police-related shootings of unarmed African-Americans but also the seeming lack of accountability in both acknowledging there may be a problem with law enforcement’s treatment of the Black community and with the official response to such activity. In the years since the trial, police brutality ceased to be just L.A.’s problem and became the headache of the entire nation.
This growing animosity can be seen in the case of Dontre Hamilton, for whom the city of Milwaukee recently approved a $2.3-million settlement for his police-related shooting and death in 2014. Hamilton, a known schizophrenic, was shot 14 times following two police checks while he was sleeping on a park bench.
The Milwaukee Police agreed to wear body cameras as a result of Hamilton’s shooting, but similarly to the LAPD, a lack of managerial oversight became a flashpoint with the shooting of Sylville Smith, who reportedly shot at officers with a semi-automatic rifle while attempting to flee on feet. The shooting officer, Dominique Heaggan-Brown, shot Smith twice – once in the arm, which effectively disarmed Smith and knocked him to the ground, and a second time to the chest, killing the newly unarmed Smith.
Heaggan-Brown, who is Black, was charged with first-degree reckless homicide. Smith’s death triggered a riot that was, in part, fueled by the city’s extreme segregation and history of police violence. “This isn’t just, ‘Oh, my gosh, all of a sudden, this happened,’” Sharlen Moore, who lives in the neighborhood where the shooting and riot took place, said to the New York Times. “It’s a series of things that has happened over a period of time. And, right now, you shake a soda bottle and you open the top and it explodes, and this is what it is.”
Incidents such as this have brought the Black community-police strife to the surface, giving fresh air to the sense of frustration and deep hurt.
“Unfortunately, not much has changed in society with regards to race relations since the O.J. Simpson trial; yet, the probability of Simpson being convicted is higher today than it was back then,” Mario Almonte, a partner at the public relations firm Herman-Almonte and a political writer, said. “The Trump administration’s almost tacit acceptance of racism hasn’t increased racism in the U.S., but simply given it a more supportive environment to express itself, couched under the umbrella of free speech.
“We are bombarded with almost weekly headlines of white police officers killing unarmed Black men — and being acquitted. As a result, the police department has become more emboldened to protect their own, finding quick support from many politicians and the alt-right media, who suggest that, somehow, it was the victim’s fault for the police using deadly force.”
The times we now are living in are different from the time of the trial. We are living in a world where there was a Black U.S. president and where the highest-paid actor in Hollywood is a Black man. We also are living in a world where the current president’s only qualification prior to taking office was being owner of a private business and being a television reality show host. This is a world where celebrities come from every stripe of life and hold a larger influence than at any other time.
The proliferation of social media has made it easier for a would-be celebrity to reach culture saturation. Many of the largest celebrities today, such as the Kardashians, were famous before making a single film, television appearance or song. Kim Kardashian’s fame came through association — first, through her father and O.J. Simpson, then from being an friend of heiress Paris Hilton, and, lastly, through her leaked sex tape with singer/actor Ray J.
With Simpson being the first mega-celebrity by the modern definition, with a presence that seemed to be everywhere and embraced by everyone at its peak, if one was to weigh how Simpson would be judged today, one should look at another mega-celebrity currently being tried.
At the height of his popularity, Bill Cosby was America’s dad. His “The Cosby Show” was a blockbuster hit, breaking television viewing records and influencing programming decisions and the shape of the family-friendly sitcom for decades. Cosby’s portrayal of two affluent Black professionals and their family was, for many, the first televised look at a successful Black family unit, breaking the narrative of poverty or dysfunction that previously plagued other portrayals. “The Cosby Show” was universally loved by all demographics, elevating Cosby — who was already well-known for his friendly, storytelling style of comedy, his work with kid-friendly fare such as “Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids” and “The Electric Company” and his appearances on “I Spy” — to superstar status.
Since the 1960s, Cosby has been accused of sexually assaulting women by drugging them. However, it took a viral onstage performance from comedian Hannibal Buress to drive public interest in these allegations to the point that a formal response was called for. Cosby is accused of assaulting more than 50 women from 1965 to 2008, with Cosby admitting to the illegal use of Quaaludes with a series of woman in a deposition that was unsealed in 2015.
Cosby is currently charged with a single count of sexual assault, the only one that has not timed out under Pennsylvania’s statute of limitation. The accuser, former Canadian basketball player Andrea Constand, has previously secured a civil suit settlement from Cosby. The deposition, which was unsealed on the argument that Cosby himself broke the nondisclosure agreement sealing it, gave the Montgomery County District Attorney Office leverage to charge Cosby in December 2015 — one month before the statute of limitation was to expire.
While there are similarities between Simpson and Cosby, there are key differences. First, there is a large demographic of both African-Americans and whites that believe Cosby is guilty. The public outcry over the accusations has effectively ended Cosby’s career, with a planned comeback special for Netflix canceled and reruns of “The Cosby Show” pulled from syndication. It is reported that one-third of the Cosby jury pool has already formed an opinion on Cosby’s guilt or innocence, with a third saying they or someone they know has been sexually assaulted.
“As a statue of Cosby is removed from Disney World’s Hollywood Studios, as Bounce TV stopped airing reruns of ‘The Cosby Show’ and as a Change.org petition asking President Obama to rescind Cosby’s Medal of Freedom circulate, Cosby’s shocking betrayal of his own legacy will lead to consequences far worse than any court could issue,” Mark O’Mara wrote in an opinion piece for CNN. “Even President Obama weighed in, skirting a question about revoking Cosby’s Medal of Freedom by giving a definition of rape.”
Given the factors, would O.J. Simpson be acquitted today?
The short answer is that it is anyone’s guess.
“I remember watching the Simpson trial with great interest,” Stuart Shiffman, an Illinois trial judge and former prosecutor, said. “Technology has advanced quite a bit since the O.J. trial. It might make the presentation of the evidence somewhat easier, and jurors, after years of CSI programs, might find the evidence more persuasive. But the Simpson verdict was the product of many things — prosecutor error, police ineptness, a bad, very bad trial judge and the emotions of the time. Many of those factors could not be recreated today, but others might arise at a trial held in the present time.”
“I do think we live in a very different world today than we did back then,” Nenad Cuk, a co-founder of CroatiaTech who witnessed the original Simpson trial, added. “Still, while some things occurred that set the African-American community back, some of these same events have brought the community together, as well as brought issues to individuals that aren’t part of that ethnicity or community.”
Many of the same issues that were in the background of the Simpson trial still exist today. Nevertheless, the reality is that O.J. Simpson changed the world with his acquittal. An entire class of prosecutors and judges have studied the Simpson case as course material, changing the way many now go through the criminal justice system. Juries familiar with the Simpson case have grown more likely to bring back a conviction in the hope of “getting it right.”
“On the emotional side, jurors are quicker to ‘turn against’ a Black person, especially in an age when so many high-profile Black men have proven to be flawed,” Almonte added. “It’s almost as if the court system wants to put Black men ‘in their place’ by bringing back a guilty verdict.”
While it may be difficult to say if Simpson could get a fair trial today, it is easier to say that the lessons of the Simpson trial have yet to be learned. It may be in the recognition of society’s flaws that the trial’s legacy lies. It may also be that forcing America to be honest with itself regarding policing and celebrity make the Simpson trial, while still a burden on society’s patience and on jurisprudence, a necessary pain.