The People vs. O.J. Simpson

90By now you may have heard about a recently concluded television series on AMC called “The People vs. O.J. Simpson.” You may have heard that David Schwimmer (yes, the guy from “Friends”) gave a really bad performance as O.J.’s buddy Robert Kardashian. You may have heard the series dismissed as “sensationalist” or “pop culture.”

Don’t let any of that deter you. Watch it instead. It’s on Amazon, Hulu, and FXNow.

Even though is it a bit overdone, this television series deals head-on with several major issues of our day: racism, police misconduct, the criminal justice system and the role of wealth and celebrity in our society. The shocking thing is that even though the series is set in 1994-95, the time of the murder of O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife Nichole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman, and Simpson’s trial for the murder, it could just as well have taken place last summer in Ferguson, Missouri or in Baltimore, Maryland. All of the issues that the show deals with are equally at the forefront in 2016 as they were in 1994-95, and that may be the most important reason to watch this show.

The series is based on the book “The Run of His Life,” by Jeffrey Toobin. After every one of the 10 episodes, I found my shaking my head and muttering “That can’t really have happened. They must be making that up…” Each time, I went back to the book, and the television show was indeed based on fact.

We begin with the night of the murder. We see a depiction of events based on the evidence that is undisputed, and we are left to form our own conclusion as to guilt or innocence based on those facts. Then we watch as the prosecution, the defense, the judge and the jury twist, interpret, botch, and wrestle with the presentation and meaning of those facts.

We all remember the “Dream Team” of defense lawyers. Supposedly the lead defense lawyer was Robert Shapiro, played with surprising conviction by John Travolta. Shapiro is shown to be a shallow lawyer, quick to want to settle, and primarily concerned with appearances and his own ego.

Shapiro’s best move was to bring in Johnnie Cochran, who was the real leader of the defense attorneys. Cochran is played brilliantly by Courtney B. Vance. He is flamboyant, devious, and totally without scruples, but he is motivated by a deep-seated feeling of racial injustice and inequality. He epitomizes the maxim that “the end justifies the means,” and by utterly amoral (and perhaps immoral) tactics, he achieves his larger goal of exposing racism in the police in the arrest and treatment of black defendants, as well as his immediate goal of securing acquittal of a man whom almost everyone (including best buddy and assistant defense attorney Kardashian) regarded as guilty.

The prosecution is overmatched, lily-white, and incredibly out of touch with its community. Sarah Paulson gives a perfectly brittle performance as the lead prosecutor, Marcia Clark. She is repeatedly out-smarted and out-maneuvered by Johnnie Cochran. In his opening statement, Cochran mentions upcoming testimony from twelve witnesses whom he had never before identified to the prosecution. Clark’s co-counsel becomes so upset by this maneuver that he has a severe health episode and is forced to withdraw from the prosecution team. His place is taken by a very earnest but inexperienced black prosecuting attorney, Chris Darden, whose naiveté and earnestness is well-portrayed by actor Sterling K. Brown.

Johnnie Cochran was, at one time, a prosecutor with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, and he was a mentor to – you guessed it – Chris Darden. Throughout the trial, Chris Darden is conflicted about standing up to his former mentor, at times acquiescing to Cochran and at other times reacting violently and emotionally to Cochran’s excesses.

Darden’s emotions and impulsiveness led to the single most important tactical blunder by the prosecution – allowing O.J. Simpson to try on the glove found at the murder scene. Simpson, who did not testify in his defense, would not have been allowed to try on the glove if the prosecution had not pursued a particular line of questioning about the glove. Darden was specifically instructed by Clark not to pursue that line of questioning, but he was goaded by defense co-counsel F. Lee Bailey, and in a fit of mano-a-mano against the defense team, Darden charged right into the trap. Without his over-reaction on this point, there would never have been the trial-changing line: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

If Darden made the worst tactical blunder, Clark was responsible for the overall mistake of strategy that doomed the prosecution, and that mistake reveals the prosecution’s total insensitivity to, and lack of understanding of, the black community in Los Angeles, and basically showed the entire white legal establishment’s lack of understanding of race relations and racial inequality.

Marcia Clark made her case about abuse of women. O.J. Simpson was a wife-beater. Clark viewed the murder as the logical end-result of Simpson’s pattern of abuse, and she expected the predominantly female jury to respond accordingly. She never thought the case was about race. She was shocked when she realized that Cochran was heading in that direction, and she thought that Cochran’s race angle would never succeed.

Cochran, on the other hand, understood that the overwhelming majority of blacks in Los Angeles totally distrusted the police, felt that the police would stop at nothing to convict another black man, perceived the police to be racist in all aspects of their work, and expected abuse from the police at all turns. Only the black prosecutor Darden understood this, and his pleas for the prosecution to address these issues fell on deaf ears. The violent arrest of Rodney King in Los Angeles had occurred only 3 years before the Brown/Goldman murders, and its memory was still in the minds of many. The prosecution resented Cochran playing the “race card,” but had no understanding of the power of that card or the deep-seated feelings that gave it such power.

This massive blind spot to the feelings of the black community showed itself most starkly in the prosecution’s use of Mark Fuhrman as a witness. Fuhrman was one of the police officers who investigated the crime scene on the night of the murders. He was revealed to be a virulent racist, yet, prosecutor Clark decided to put him on the witness stand. She thought that the evidence would speak for itself and that the hateful attitude of one of the policeman collecting those facts would not affect the jury’s view of that evidence. She played right into Cochran’s hands.

In the end, Cochran put the Los Angeles Police Department on trial, with Mark Fuhrman as the lead defendant. A jury of nine blacks, one hispanic and two whites convicted the police department, and in the process they let O.J. Simpson go free. If you doubt this conclusion, consider this: after the acquittal was announced and the jury was filing out of the courtroom, Juror #6, a tall black man in the second row, turned toward Johnnie Cochran (not O.J. Simpson) and gave a black power salute, an upraised closed fist.

These are the same issues in our headlines today – allegations of racist police, problems of insensitivity to the effects of racism among institutions of the criminal justice system, and unjust results of that system as a result of prosecution and police incompetence, affluent defense attorneys and manipulation of the media.

The irony of the O.J. Simpson case is that the defense’s exposure and exploitation of these factors led to the acquittal of a man who almost certainly was guilty. To some, was and still is a travesty. To others, it’s the racist criminal justice system’s just desserts. Usually that disagreement follows racial lines. In many ways, then, we are still very much in the same state today as we were at the time of O.J. Simpson’s trial. “Run, O.J., Run” from 1994-95 has been replaced by “Black Lives Matter” today. That’s why this is compelling, must-watch television.

Rob Steeg

 

 

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