The case that won't go away
Twenty years after the murders of his ex-wife and her friend, O.J. Simpson still elicits fierce emotions about the criminal justice system
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 06/11/2014
There’s irony and tragedy that O.J. Simpson is back in the news again, 20 years after the June 12, 1994 murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman at her condo on Bundy Drive.
Simpson was back in the news this month after filing a 102-page petition plea with the Nevada Supreme Court to grant him a new trial on his robbery, kidnapping and weapons convictions in 2008, crimes for which Simpson is serving a nine- to 33-year sentence. The petition and the 20-year anniversary of the murders sparked some speculation over whether Simpson has a legal leg left to stand on. He’s already been turned down by Nevada courts on a request for a new trial, and his one half-hearted request for clemency to President Obama last January was more a laugh line than a serious hope that Obama would even acknowledge the appeal. His latest effort to get out of prison will likely go nowhere and Simpson will almost certainly serve every minute of the minimum of his sentence.
This will satisfy the court of law, but it will never totally satisfy many in the court of public opinion. The reason is simple. Simpson’s acquittal on double-murder charges a year after the slayings still sticks in the craws of many Americans. The bloggers and legal pundits who had anything to say about Simpson’s petition for a new trial spent little time on that and nearly all their time talking about the murders, and how a murderer supposedly gamed the system and skipped away scot free. If Simpson could live long enough to serve every day of his maximum sentence, that would not be good enough for many.
From the day that he beat the double-murder rap and walked out of a Los Angeles court a free man, his ill-gained notoriety and perverse celebrity virtually guaranteed that the legal hammer would drop especially hard on him at the first whiff of criminal wrongdoing. There was no chance that given the savage public mood toward him and with the one-person truth squad of Ron Goldman’s father, Fred, continually wagging the guilt finger at him that Simpson would get the benefit of the doubt on any future charges against him. He, of all people, should’ve known that.
A poll taken after Simpson’s Las Vegas bust in 2007 found that a majority of people asked still seethed that he was a murderer who skipped away, and that his murder trial and acquittal was a blatant travesty of justice. Even many of Simpson’s one-time black supporters who passionately screamed that he was the victim of a biased criminal justice system in the LA murder trial cut and run after the Las Vegas verdict was rendered. There was not even a peep from them that the conviction had any racial taint to it. Simpson’s and his attorney’s complaint that prosecutors massaged and twisted jury selection to insure a non-black jury drew barely a yawn in media and legal circles.
Simpson didn’t invent or originate the ugly divide in public opinion about celebrity guilt, let alone the racial divide. Both have always lurked just beneath the surface. But his case propelled it to the front of public debate and anger. The horde of Simpson media commentators, legal experts and politicians who branded the legal system corrupt and compromised also fueled public belief that justice is for sale.
Simpson’s acquittal seemed to confirm that the rich, famous and powerful have the deep pockets to hire a small army of high-priced, high-profile attorneys, expert witnesses, experts and investigators who routinely mangle the legal system to stall, delay and drag out their cases, and eventually allow their well-heeled clients to weasel out of punishment. Even when prosecutors manage to win convictions or guilty pleas from celebrities, their money, fame, power and legal twisting often guarantee that they will get a hand-slap for a jail sentence, if that.
The racial divide is another matter. The fact that a mostly black jury acquitted Simpson of all charges in the murder trial ignited a near unprecedented racial hysteria with many blacks cheering the verdict, not because they thought Simpson was a babe in the woods innocent victim but because of the perceived century-long stacked deck that blacks face in a racially twisted criminal justice system. Their cheers were for the one black man who seemingly beat the odds and the rap.
Many whites that railed against the injustice of the verdict saw it as just the opposite. That race was stood on its head in the LA courtroom and Simpson walked precisely because he was black. In the decades since his acquittal, in every celebrity black man’s case, from Michael Jackson to Mike Tyson, the racial divide over their guilt or innocence has repeatedly roared to the surface.
Simpson in his Las Vegas trial did his best to convince a hostile and doubting public and jury that he was a victim. It worked once, but it didn’t work in Vegas. He simply punched too many of the public’s hot buttons on race, celebrity, gender and violence for that to happen again. Twenty years after the murders, he still does.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of “How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge.” He is an associate editor with New America Media, and he is the host of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson