The OJ Simpson verdict - 6 October 1995
The Congress suspended business for 15 minutes, airlines delayed flights, bank tellers stopped counting bills, empty streets were remarked on in the big cities across the whole country, as just before 10 in the morning in California and one p.m. in New York, the television commentator started what one called "the countdown", which was this time not as 33 years ago, a word clocking the launching of John Glenn's capsule, but the calling off of the minutes as they ticked away towards the verdict in the case of the people of California versus OJ Simpson.
Not so long ago, a folk hero sometime actor, the greatest running back in the history of American football, but from the moment of his arrest almost 16 months ago, the Los Angeles district attorney's office, the prosecutor, chose rather to cast him as an American Othello, a man whipped by jealousy to the point of murdering the woman he loved not wisely but too well.
In the beginning, in June 1994, seven months before the trial began, everything we heard that might be evidence in the trial ran against OJ Simpson. Quite simply here is an outline of the undisputed plot. After midnight of Sunday June the 12th 1994, Mrs Simpson was found savagely slaughtered with many stab wounds, outside her house in a posh section of Los Angeles, by her side was a young man a waiter who'd come to return some eye glasses Mrs Simpson's mother had left the evening before at his restaurant.
About an hour before, a chauffeur had picked up Mr Simpson at his house Ð the Simpsons were separated Ð and driven him to the airport to keep a long planned business date in Chicago. Of course, he flew back shortly after he arrived at the Chicago Hotel and after the funeral, police charged him with the double murder. He agreed to turn himself in. Instead he disappeared, leaving behind a sad rambling letter protesting his innocence, conceding he had a good life and was saying goodbye.
The police eventually tracked him in a white car speeding at a great rate along one of the Los Angeles highways, and a friend who was driving him, reported over a cellular phone that Simpson was holding a gun to his head and threatening suicide. The car followed a roundabout course and at last went back to Mr Simpson's house, where he stayed slumped in the car for an hour before the police managed to coax him out. He was taken into custody and two days later pleaded not guilty and was held without bail. The trial was set on the docket for late in the year, but it took forever to choose a jury and various other niceties of the Californian criminal code had to be observed Ð remember this was not a federal trial Ð a code that is in some ways more stringent than most, and stuffed with precedents, which the counsel were quick to cite on very fragile pretexts.
Finally, in the middle of January this year it started and ended nine months later, by which time the court had lost 10 jurors in all through sickness, minor misbehaviour of some sort, admitted prejudice, one or two I feel fairly certain hadn't thought too deeply about the meaning of sequestration and under whatever pretext were silently crying, "let me out of here." Sequestration...
In California, a judge may, and in this case did, order the juries exile from normal life to a degree that a dictator held on a house arrest would very likely protest before the International Court of Justice. The jury, after interminable challenges, queries, manufactured indignation from both sides, consisted of nine blacks, two whites and one Latino. They along with the originals had been told the trial might last a few months, they must brace themselves to obey the rules, they would be sequestered in a hotel separated from the other guests, would be led to their meals, were not allowed to read newspapers, magazines, listen to radio, watch television. Movies were chosen for them, which they saw together. The married were allowed, from time to time, conjugal visits.
When at last the jury began their deliberations at nine o' clock last Monday morning, the commentators, mostly lawyers, legal scholars, prosecutors and so on, settled down to speculate and guess at the verdict. And the overwhelming consensus was that the jury would take a week or two to declare itself a hung jury. Suddenly in the middle of the day, the word went to the judge, "We have reached a verdict." That was a stunner for everybody, but the judge said the secret would remain sealed overnight and this gave us all time to guess now, which evidence had been decisive. The DNA analysis of the bloodstains perhaps? It took four days to explain to the jury. My own sense was that in general, juries distrust medical expertise especially when the doctors disagree and that this jury might well have believed the defence, that the Los Angeles Police Department had been sloppy in analysing the blood and storing it and might have contaminated some of it.
Now the prosecutions case was that Mr Simpson was the only villain, a known wife beater, who once he knew for certain that he'd lost her and she was living her own life, couldn't bear the loss of his control over her, so one June night he went berserk. He left his house, drove off to her house, murdered her and Mr Goldman, drove home, changed, buried or hid the clothes and the weapon, took a shower, dressed and packed for Chicago.
The defence said, by the way, that by the prosecution's estimate of time, he would have had to do all that in five minutes, but the chauffeur had to wait 41 minutes for him and when he appeared he said he'd overslept and he had to take a shower. The prosecution maintained that nobody saw Simpson for over an hour during which he had ample time to commit the two murders. Since there were no witnesses, both sides had to stress the physical evidence, of which there were two items, all agreed were crucial. One was a bloody glove, the other a bloody sock, both found by the police in Simpson's home. It was not disputed that the rescued droplets belonged to nobody in the world, but Mr Simpson and that, for the prosecution, was conclusive proof of his guilt. But the defence lawyers touched the nerve of all doubt when they asked, who found the glove and when? The answer was one Mark Furhman, the detective who, without a warrant, climbed over the fence to Simpson's home and later produced the glove, the blood still moist seven hours after Mr Simpson dropped it Ð if he did! A chemical impossibility, two doctors testified and why did it take two months for the bloody sock to appear, after two months of exhaustive searching of houses and gates and grass, driveways, cars, furniture, everything? The defence's contention, which seemed very melodramatic when it was first launched, was that this same Fuhrman, was a racist, who chose with one other detective to frame Mr Simpson and actually planted the glove and smeared the sock.
Mr Furhman was challenged on the stand about his reputation as a racist. He denied any hint of it. In 10 years he'd never used the word "nigger." I must say he sounded plausible at the time, and the prosecution ridiculed the whole macabre nonsense of a conspiracy contrived by two or more of the police of the Los Angeles Police Department, which we should not forget and the jury didn't, has had an unsavoury reputation over many years for its powerful minority of race-hating cops.
Alas, for the prosecution's ridicule in a turn that marked the collapse of their case, a screen writer was found who had over three years recorded many hours of taped interviews with Detective Furhman in which he used "nigger" 43 times, in which he told of police initiatives in framing blacks at one point he wished all the blacks in America could be piled up and burnt.
It seems to me very naive to say that these disclosures from a foul bigot would not deeply affect a jury with nine black members however high-minded their final discussion. Off in retirement in the mountains of Idaho, former Detective Furhman was quoted as saying: "If I go down, the case goes down." and so it was.
All our analysing and judgements made in retrospect, were swept aside by the one item of evidence out of 45,000 pages of it, that the jury had asked to be read over. It was the testimony of the chauffeur who picked up Mr Simpson and drove him to the airport. It came out that in the first two minutes of their deliberations, the jury voted ten to two for acquittal, but they decided to take Miss Clark, the chief prosecutor at her word, that the root of the evidence was the time line. The jury's decision, whether or not Simpson had time to drive to Mrs Simpson's home, perform the double murder, get home, clean up, hide the clothes, the weapon, shower, dressed and be ready for the waiting chauffeur. The jury trooped back, they heard the chauffeur's testimony: he got the time of arrival at Simpson's house wrong by an hour but corrected himself. He didn't see OJ's car because, the prosecution held, Simpson had not yet driven it back. The jury cut off the rest of the chauffeur's testimony, they'd heard enough. They went back and reached a not guilty verdict within the hour.
There is a point that worried some of us from the start, who were heavily inclined to believe in Simpson's guilt. It's the ferocity of the murder, calculated by both sides to have taken at least 10 minutes, 32 stab wounds in Mr Goldman Ð did he put up a fight?ÊÐ Mrs Simpson practically decapitated, yet Simpson revealed, after his arrest, not a bruise or a blemish on his body and no blood on anything he subsequently wore. Altogether, the incriminating blood evidence was very sparse, the jury thought, sparse enough to have been planted.
When the verdict was announced and travelled in seconds the length and breadth of the country, there was great and thunderous rejoicing among blacks everywhere from the most famous black university to the seediest inner city slum. There's one consolation for the people who think justice was denied Ð there were no riots anywhere.
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