U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Understanding the O.J. Verdict, Two Decades Later

johnny-cochran-closing-argumentsThis year, two television programs have brought renewed attention to the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial. Airing from February through April, FX’s miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was a surprisingly subtle and effective true-crime docudrama.  And earlier this month, ABC and ESPN presented Ezra Edelman’s truly extraordinary documentary miniseries O.J.: Made in America, which looked not only at the trial itself, but also at Simpson’s earlier career and fame, as well as his life since the verdict.[1]  One of the things that both shows successfully attempted to do was to explain why, while most white Americans greeted O.J.’s acquittal with shock and dismay, most African Americans celebrated the verdict as a victory.  Events this week have brought to mind the still only partly learned lessons of that trial and those responses.

Yesterday, in two cases that had received national attention in which police were accused of misconduct, officers were cleared of wrongdoing by the legal system. In Baltimore, Caesar Goodson, one of six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, was acquitted of all charges, including most seriously second-degree depraved-heart murder.  So far all three officers whose cases have gone to trial have been acquitted.  And in Texas, a grand jury declined to indict Eric Casebolt, the white officer who threw a black girl to the ground outside a McKinney, Texas, pool party.

Hearing these news stories yesterday, I thought back to earlier in the week, when Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a blistering dissent in a Utah v. Strieff, a 4th Amendment case involving Edward Strieff, who had been stopped by police without proper cause, but on whom they had found drugs. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence under the exclusionary rule. Though all the Justices agreed that the initial stop had been improper, a majority of the Justices ruled that the once improper stop retroactively became proper when the police discovered an arrest warrant on an outstanding traffic ticket when they ran his identity after they had stopped him.  The majority suggested this was an unusual, isolated incident.  Sotomayor disagreed, focusing much of her dissent on putting Strieff’s arrest in a larger social context:

For generations, black and brown  parents have given their children “the talk”— instructing  them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.

By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone,  white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.  We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.

Which brings me to the O.J. trial. What most people remember from Johnnie Cochran’s closing argument for the defense is a rhyme: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” But Jeffrey Toobin, author of the book on the Simpson trial that was the basis of the FX miniseries, notes in the fourth episode of the Edelman documentary that the actual “heart” of that closing argument was very different. Johnnie Cochran in effect asked the jury to ask themselves “whose side are you on?”  And Cochran did this by focusing on Detective Mark Fuhrman, the LAPD officer who found the bloody glove at the Simpson estate and who perjured himself on the stand when he denied saying racist things about African Americans, only to have audiotapes put into evidence that recorded him doing just that.  When I read Sotomayor’s descent, I was reminded of a key passage from Cochran’s closing argument:

A racist is somebody who has power over you, who can do something to you. People could have views but keep them to themselves, but when they have power over you, that is when racism becomes insidious. That is what we are talking about here. He has power. A police officer in the street, a patrol officer, is the single most powerful figure in the criminal justice system. He can take your life. Unlike the supreme court, you don’t have to go through all these appeals. He can do it right there and justify it. And that is why, that is why this has to be routed out in the LAPD and every place. Make up a reason because he made a judgment. That is what happened in this case.

One of the jurors interviewed by Edelman in his documentary even suggests that 90% of the jury probably voted as it did as payback for the 1992 acquittal of the LAPD officers who had beaten Rodney King the previous year.

If most white Americans seem not to have understood in 1995 why the Simpson jury ruled as it did – or why so many Black Americans were pleased at its decision – the critical and popular successes of The People v. O.J. Simpson and O.J.: Made in America suggest that we’re now willing to begin to understand.  Today, the public beyond the African American community is much more aware of African American anger at a legal system that is often stacked against African Americans and at police departments in which structural racism seems rampant.  Events such as those in Ferguson, Baltimore, and McKinney are now national stories.  Many outside the Black community even share in the outrage. Johnnie Cochran’s closing argument contained a ton of truth even as it was designed to paper over the horrible facts of the Simpson case itself. But, at the time, it was essentially only really heard – only really intended to be heard — by a largely African American jury and by the African American community beyond the courtroom.  That Cochran’s argument is now echoed by a Latina Supreme Court Justice and heard by Americans of all races and ethnicities is a sign of progress. But the fact that Sotomayor’s eloquence was in dissent and that cops caught using excessive force are still usually acquitted suggests we have a long way to go.

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[1] If you are at all inclined to watch a 30 For 30 sports documentary, you’ve probably already seen O.J.: Made in America or at least plan to see it. But if you are not that sort of person, I want to pause to urge you to take the time to check it out.  It’s an extraordinary look at race, class, gender, fame, Los Angeles, law enforcement, and the many other intersecting issues that came together in the Simpson trial.  And it’s just a great piece of documentary film making.  It’s currently streaming for free on demand on the ESPN app if you happen to get cable.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Sotomayor’s dissent in Utah v. Strieff is indeed eloquent and worth reading in its entirety (or at least downloading and looking through the whole thing). She makes the point, among others, that there are millions of outstanding warrants on parking tickets, minor traffic offenses, etc., and these are esp. concentrated in certain places (the majority of the population in Ferguson, Mo., for instance, has an outstanding warrant). This bolstered her argument that the existence of a warrant for something unrelated should not be allowed to ‘cure’ retroactively an illegal stop.

    Btw, in the Sup. Ct. decisions that came down today, I was interested and a bit surprised to find Sotomayor joining Thomas’s dissent in a case, not one of the major ones that came down today, but still the alignment was interesting (it was 6-2). I don’t follow SCOTUS more than quite casually, but my impression on the basis of the Strieff dissent and maybe a couple of other things is that Sotomayor is really finding her voice on the Court now.

    And the connection the post draws between her dissent and Cochran’s closing argument in the Simpson case is interesting and not something that would have occurred to me.

  2. Thanks for the post, Ben Alpers. I haven’t had the time, and don’t have the proper access, to watch either of these OJ productions. But I appreciate your reflections on the OJ case in relation to the present. I’m with Sotomayor: What about all the cases that never make it to court, in relation to incidents among those who don’t die or aren’t celebrities? – TL

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