The Complicated Case for and Against O.J. Simpson
When the famed football player’s verdict came, people lost their minds … for reasons both good and bad.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because justice is a funny thing. And we don’t mean ha-ha funny.
When I was growing up, if you were a boy of a certain age, people would try to relate to you via the use of some sports figure. I remember this as being semi-irksome, because the only sports I cared about were boxing and bodybuilding. But it was also irksome because of who the adults used to try to “bro down” with a preadolescent me; it often told me much about them and what they thought of me.
This is how I came to hate O.J. Simpson.
Though tough guys like Jim Brown and stylish guys like Walter “Clyde” Frazier were more my jam, I was forever being sold on the NFL superstar. Very possibly because he was traditionally less Negro during a time when people were trying to mainstream negritude after the fiery ’60s. Simpson was a good guy, and I already had an innate suspicion of “good guys,” figuring they were hiding something.
In Simpson’s case, it was as simple as his generalized distaste for being Black, something most recently recalled on Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.,” when he quotes Simpson regarding not being Black but being O.J. Which Jay-Z wearily counters with “OK.”
I, who believed and still believe Simpson was guilty as fuck, and have said as much whenever asked, started talking to Black cops.
So: OK. Simpson’s segue from gridiron glory to TV and film fame seemed as effortless as those commercials that showed him sprinting through airports. And through it all, the smiling, shucking and jiving Simpson cemented in my mind that he was the most hated of all things: a phony. That’s what people were buying, and so that’s what he was selling.
“You should turn the news on.”
The call came, pre-cellphones, from Eddie Williams, a retired cop friend. It was June 17, 1994, five days after the June 12 murder of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, a waiter from a local restaurant. Simpson, as we all know, had taken a runner and was low-speed escaping in a white Ford Bronco on the freeways of Los Angeles.
The rest unfolded like a dream. The arrest, the trial, the courtroom drama and media histrionics that declared it the Trial of the Century — all unfolded before our eyes.
Then an unexpected wrinkle: Johnnie Lee Cochran Jr., the Black head of Simpson’s legal team, zagged, and suddenly the celebrity who hadn’t bothered to be Black since he left San Francisco’s projects on the bad side of Potrero Hill was now Black. And the cops, the White cops, who had previously been more than happy to look the other way when they were called to his house on account of domestic disturbances that seemingly led to his divorce, were now racist conspirators.
It was genius. It was shameless. It was shameless genius.
At the time, I was on the tough-guy beat for Hustler, so a steady retinue of cops, crooks and crossover characters who were a little of both were my métier. While the cops weren’t crazy about being used as cat’s-paws for some celebrity’s legal maneuvering, the structural adjustments made after the Los Angeles riots had them grinning and bearing it.
The crooks, meanwhile, whispered darkly about rumors that never made it into the press: drugs, unpaid drug debt and a cast of heavy, heavy characters drawn to such things. All unproved and unsubstantiated, all out there. But there was one thing they all agreed on: Simpson was guilty.
Pursuing the story, I glowed with the kind of vindication that comes from decades of people trying to sell me on Simpson and them being proven so desperately wrong. The phony had been found out, I thought. And then, 11 months later — Oct. 3, 1995, to be exact — the jury of nine Black people, one Latino and two Whites (10 women and two men) rendered a not-guilty verdict, and the estimated 100 million people who were watching and listening for the verdict had their minds blown.
No way one person could kill two people who were that physically close to each other at the time of the attack and not alert the yet-to-be-attacked party.
There was so much other media focus that the article for Hustler never happened, but people kept calling me to dish and to get a read on what a Black man like me thought of the verdict. It had become a litmus test that cut across a few tribal groupings. Women were angry, Jews had Goldman’s back, White folks were “confused” over judicial “irregularities” that led to what felt like “a miscarriage of justice,” and stand-up comedians, the front-line rapid response team, put a face on it that would stick: This was an answer to the first Rodney King verdict … “stings a little, don’t it?”
And me? In an effort to get behind the curtain, I started talking to Black cops (I believed and still believe Simpson was guilty). Yes, the lead detective, Mark Fuhrman, was a dumbass. Yes, the prosecution was overmatched. Yes, Judge Ito had let everything get away from him, but when I asked the question of the day — “Did Simpson do it?” — they all, to a man (and they were all men), agreed: Dude had gotten away with murder.
Not only that: “No way one person could kill two people who were that physically close to each other at the time of the attack and not alert the yet-to-be-attacked party,” my cop friends said.
Meaning? “There were two attackers,” one suggested.
To date, however, no one else has been arrested for the murders. Simpson, for his part, was found culpable in civil court and later served nine years in prison for an unrelated kidnapping and armed robbery–sports memorabilia case in Las Vegas. He was released in October 2017.
The biggest surprise of all, though, came when I was breathlessly extolling anti-Simpson rebop to a pro-footballer friend of mine. A White pro-football player. “Yeah, he did it, I think,” my friend said over drinks one night. “But don’t you think it’s possible that the kind of woman who would have married him in the first place would have been precisely the kind of woman who could have caused him to commit what, based on what some of the sports’ wives I know have been up to, would be justifiable homicide?”
I’m not often stunned into silence, but I was that time. A response of “murder is never justified” seemed as facile then as it does now. Facile and much less apropos than the last few words of the Roman Polanski–Robert Towne quintessential Hollywood movie, fatalism intact, Chinatown: “Forget it, Jake. it’s Chinatown.”
It wasn’t; it was Brentwood, Los Angeles. But it was forgotten — fame trumps bad behavior way more times than we should be comfortable with — just not here.