AFRICANGLOBE – The O.J. Simpson murder trial exposed many painful truths. None hit harder than the idea that White and Black people often look at the same facts and see different realities.
Today, 20 years after the case captivated and divided the nation, few opinions about the saga have changed. Despite two decades’ worth of increasing racial acceptance, the Simpson case still reflects deep-rooted obstacles to a truly united America.
Most people still believe that the football legend killed his White ex-wife and her friend, polls show. But for many African-Americans, his likely guilt remains overwhelmed by a potent mix: the racism of the lead detective and the history of Black mistreatment by the justice system.
For these people, Simpson’s acquittal is a powerful rebuke to what they see as America’s racial crimes. Others simply see a murderer who played the race card to get away with it. Across the board, emotions remain vivid.
“It was very tense at work,” recalls Carlos Carter, who at the time was one of the few Black people working in the trust department of a Pittsburgh bank. “The Whites felt like OJ was guilty, they were rooting for their team. We thought he was innocent, that he was kind of framed, so we were on the Black team.”
He adds: “We were consumed with it. Like Sugar Ray Robinson fighting the great White hope. It was like a match. It represented something bigger than the case, the battle between good and evil, the battle between the Black man and the White man. It was at that level.”
This sentiment, widespread in the Black community, was confusing to Shannon Spicker, a White woman who was working her way through college in Ohio at the time.
“Most of us didn’t understand why it was racially charged,” she alleges. “We didn’t understand how people could defend him just because he was Black, is what it felt like. We knew he was guilty but they defended him because he was Black. It was weird.”
The perception gap grew from a perfect storm of race, sex, history, celebrity and media.
On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and her alleged friend Ronald Goldman were found knifed to death outside her condo in the wealthy Los Angeles enclave of Brentwood.
Suspicion quickly focused on Simpson. He had allegedly beaten and threatened his former wife in the past. Police said they found blood on his driveway, and a bloody glove and sock on his property. He had a cut on his hand. Nobody saw him at the time of the murders.
Several factors heightened and complicated the drama:
Simpson had a mixed-race marriage in a nation that had historically punished Black men who dared to explore interracial sex. He was the target of a Los Angeles Police Department that had a reputation for racism and corruption.
But Simpson also was a wealthy Hollywood actor and ad pitchman with little connection to the Black community, a man who divorced his Black wife for a young blonde and traveled in Los Angeles’ most privileged White circles. His money and fame placed him far from the poor, Black men languishing in the criminal justice system.
“It becomes a very complex study in American history,” says Ronnie Duncan, who was working as a TV sportscaster at the time.
“O.J. was in a weird place,” says Duncan, 55, who is Black. “He lived a lavish life in L.A., sunny skies, beautiful women, everyone takes you out to lunch. But one thing we recognize, you can deny it all you want, but I can be driving right now and —”
Duncan makes the sound of a police siren, then quotes a common saying among Black folk:
“You may be a million-dollar star, but when it’s finally said and done, you are still, to them, the N, the I, the G, the G, the E, and the R.”
The sirens sounded for Simpson on June 17, during the legendary slow-speed Bronco chase.
Simpson was supposed to turn himself in, but failed to show up at the police station. Instead, his friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian (father of the Kardashian reality-show clan) read a rambling statement from the missing Simpson that many interpreted as suicidal. A few hours later, Simpson was spotted in the Bronco, driven by his friend Al Cowlings. A police caravan trailed him down the 405 freeway as crowds lined the overpasses and more than 90 million people watched on live television.
“It was such a surreal scene,” says Todd Looney, a Black Los Angeles native.
“What was so strange was the fact how even reactions to his pursuit were divided along racial lines,” says Looney, 46, a media company consultant. “I remember seeing people on the overpass by Sunset Boulevard, cheering as he went by, and most of them were Black. I’m thinking, why are you cheering? Somebody’s about to kill himself. It was kind of disgusting, as if it was O.J. versus the police.”
Just like that, the narrative began.
“Based on well-documented stories throughout this city’s history, I did believe the LAPD was wracked with racism and corruption,” Looney says, mentioning the case of Rodney King, the Black man whose savage videotaped beating by White officers led to devastating riots.
“So there was already suspicion that the police would not only bungle this case, the production and protection of evidence, but they may actually lie and bring forth things that weren’t true as evidence,” he says.
Simpson was charged with double murder, punishable by the death penalty. The trial began six months later. In his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden claimed that Simpson was a wife beater and a stalker who murdered his ex in a jealous rage.
Simpson assembled the highest-profile lawyers money could buy. During his opening, attorney Johnnie Cochran said there was a rush to judgment by authorities who wanted to win at any cost. He said that Simpson was home alone at the time of the killings, practicing his golf swing.
The prosecution had a pile of evidence, including something relatively new then: DNA analysis. Prosecutors said that DNA matched Simpson’s blood to samples from the murder scene. They said they found blood matching the victims’ in his Bronco, on a glove at Simpson’s property, and on a sock in his bedroom.
But the prosecution had a big problem: the lead detective, Mark Fuhrman — the one who had produced the bloody glove from Simpson’s estate.
Fuhrman was a White cop who used racist language and lied about it on the stand during the trial. (He was later convicted of perjury.) He was on tape bragging about assaulting Black men and making them beg for mercy: “You do what you’re told, understand, n*gger?” Before the murders, he had arrested Simpson for beating Nicole.
Defense lawyers suggested that he planted the glove out of a racist desire to frame a Black man. They said that other blood evidence could have been planted, too, or at least was unreliable due to sloppy police work.
“That was huge for me,” recalls Carter. “I thought any investigation Fuhrman is part of, especially when evidence was not handled properly, he’s trying to get someone at any cost.”