My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Mommy, please call me back. I want to know what happened last night. Why did we have to go to the police station? Please answer, Mommy. Please answer, Mommy. Please answer, Mommy. Please answer. ‘Bye.” ~ Eight-year-old Sydney Simpson on her mother’s answering machine the morning after
I like Jeffrey Toobin’s true crime. They are not merely recounts; they are in-depth analysis of entire cases, including enlightening portraits of the principals and with clear and engaging explanations of forensics, legal machinations, and jury dynamics.
Factoid 1: The O.J. Simpson trial was not the first to be live-broadcast as it happened, but it was the one that proved the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, that the very act of observation changes the outcome. Since this trial, judges have been much less inclined to allow the media to turn criminal trials into reality TV. Thankfully.
Factoid 2: This trial was the first big one to include DNA evidence, and the science was new and confusing, perhaps not to be trusted by a jury that, for the most part, was not educated beyond high school. Barry Sheck and Peter Neufeld, co-founders of the Innocence Project that has used DNA technology on old physical evidence to prove that hundreds of rape and murder suspects were wrongfully convicted, were the DNA specialists who effectively twisted the DNA science for the Simpson jury. Reading about their work for the Simpson defense cost them several notches on my esteem-o-meter.
Factoid 3: Pat McKenna, the lead private investigator brought in by F. Lee Bailey for the defense, later worked to help acquit Casey Anthony,* and is in fact now living with her. The elite world of criminal defense is a small one.
I found it helpful to supplement this book with interviews given by a couple of the O.J. Simpson jurors. Even without that, though, when you look at it from a point of view of what the sequestered Simpson jury was actually given to work with, without news reports and all the media sensationalism, without the back-and-forth between legal teams and the judge, without the 20/20 vision hindsight gives, then it’s a bit clearer how the verdict came to be.
The “Dream Team” ultimately managed to do what it was paid millions of dollars to do: plant reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. But they did it in particularly slimy fashion. It is no longer permitted in criminal courts to slut-shame rape victims, but still almost de rigueur to defend a murderer by trashing the victim, in this case by intimating that Nicole Brown Simpson somehow deserved to be hacked to death on her own front walk with her children sleeping in the house. (And let’s not forget Ron Goldman, who is so often overlooked and whose grieving family has worked so hard to keep a murderer from profiting from his crimes.) The defense, principally Johnnie Cochran, very deliberately turned the “Trial of the Century” into a racial maelstrom. Robert Shapiro later stated, in what to me is a jaw-dropping admission, that they played the race card early, and they “dealt it from the bottom of the deck.” Ignore the veritable mountain of damning physical and circumstantial evidence, folks, and ignore his previous abuse of his ex-wife as well–O.J. Simpson is only sitting at the defendant’s table because he’s black. Was Simpson acquitted partially because his jury was preponderantly black? Almost certainly. But it’s disingenuous to dismiss the importance of race and the weight of entire lives shaped by being on the receiving end of constant and insidious institutionalized racism. A country that insists on marginalizing a good part of its population cannot pretend to be surprised when that population closes ranks to protect its own, particularly when the accused is a celebrity.
Still, in my view, the biggest factors in Simpson’s acquittal were the prosecution and the LAPD itself. Not only did the LAPD bungle some of the physical evidence–and their entry onto O.J. Simpson’s property amounted to a Fourth Amendment violation–they had spent decades engaged in a concentrated war against the people of color in Los Angeles. Without these factors, perhaps the defense would not have been able to weaponize them so effectively. As to the prosecution, it was outmatched in the talent department and often painfully bumbling, clearly unsuited for this particular trial. Marcia Clark was hot-headed and arrogant and convinced that black women on juries loved her despite a professional jury consultant telling her they actually thought she was an uppity white bitch. Chris Darden, who could have been particularly effective as a black prosecutor convinced of Simpson’s guilt, was too easily baited and given to childish outbursts and sulking. Prosecutors worthy of the name should have been able to demonstrate how, despite what a flaming bigot Mark Fuhrman actually was (and he was), he could not have planted O.J.’s right glove and smeared the victims’ blood around O.J.’s home and Bronco without being both a precog and a teleporter. Calmer heads more inclined to cool-headed strategy, damage deflection, and, you know, actual trial and witness preparation may have prevailed here. We’ll never know.
All of this is not to say O.J. was innocent. He was absolutely positively one hundred percent guilty, and if you still doubt it, read his memoir If I Did It, if you can stomach it. (Factoid 4: If I Did It was ghostwritten by Pablo Fenjves, who lived sixty yards from the Simpson murder scene and heard the mournful barking of Nicole’s dog that night.) But reading this book has helped me understand the verdict a bit better. But only a bit. When you can see the evidence and hear the testimony,** all of the various factors pale. “Not guilty” heard twice in that courtroom was abominable.
An eye-opening, highly informative read.
*I was in the small minority who, even without hindsight, believed the Casey Anthony verdict was correct. It was ludicrous for the prosecution to expect a jury to convict and impose a death sentence when they couldn’t even show exactly what crime was committed, when whatever-the-crime-was was committed, where whatever-the-crime-was was committed, how whatever-the-crime-was was committed, and had virtually no physical evidence to support any thesis at all.
** I did not watch the FX dramatization based on this book. I’m not a TV watcher anyway, and I’ve seen several reviews of the book pointing out that the book is more accurate and complete. Hollywood liberties are the reason I read instead of watching.
Bookshelves: true-crime, in-the-news, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous, misogyny -rules, racism, as-seen-on-tv, social-commentary, controversial, non-fiction
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