“OJ Changed My Life” may sound like a headline from the National Enquirer, but it’s true…partially anyway.
When people ask me about my relative soft shoe to the political center after decades as a dedicated left-liberal, they usually say something like: “You’re one of those 9/11 Democrats, aren’t you? Like your buddy Ron Silver.” I mostly nod. It’s hard to deny 9/11 altered my view of things considerably. But what I almost always don’t tell them is those views were already changing – because of the OJ Trial. In a sense, weird as this may sound, the Juice prepped me for 9/11.
Now, with Simpson reappearing in Vegas like one of those childhood nightmares that won’t go away – Tales from the Crypt, as it were, or The Mummy Returns – memories of the trial and that time in Los Angeles are flooding back to me. It’s also worth noting that just a few months ago, I was introduced at an event to one of the Simpson lawyers, Peter Neufeld. He seemed a pleasant, friendly guy, but I remembered how during the trial his and his partner Barry Scheck’s actions especially disturbed me – more below on that. Memories were flooding back even then. (At that recent event, I asked Neufeld, perhaps a bit disingenuously, to write a Simpson Trial Retrospective for Pajamas Media. He declined.)
It’s hard to believe how the OJ Trial dominated our lives, particularly in Los Angeles, during those halcyon pre-9/11 days, now a long thirteen years ago. It was as if a whole city stood still for the latest news of what Johnnie Cochran and his legal team were up to – whether the glove fit and you must acquit, what the latest dish on that allegedly racist (now celebrity) cop Mark Fuhrman might be, whether LA homicide detective Phillip Vannatter had completely bungled the investigation or where Kato Kaelin cut his hair. And this went on for the better part of a year.
I had had my own very glancing brushes with Simpson – whom I had met at parties and thought, like most people, to be jovial, handsome and harmless – before that night of June 12, 1994 when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were stabbed to death.
Besides doing my own writing, I was teaching screenwriting earlier that year at the American Film Institute. The students came to my house and I would ply them with cabernet to keep us all distracted. (There’s not that much you can teach about screenwriting – you can do it or you can’t.) One of the students was OJ’s personal assistant and, on my recommendation, worked on a screenplay to star the Juice. One of the things I could teach was how to use your connections – obviously of value in Hollywood. In this case the connection was clear: he was the writer’s boss.
As a class exercise in creating a protagonist, I had the student tell the group what Simpson was like. Apparently, he was non-stop womanizer (no surprise there) who liked sports and fast cars (again not much of a surprise). He was also self-centered (ditto). What evolved was a rather humdrum script about a retired NBA (not NFL – that was the clever fictional disguise) star who lived in Malibu, drove a Porsche and solved crimes. I can’t remember exactly what those crimes were, routine stuff, I think, like cocaine busts. But the script was clearly designed for Simpson, perfect for his limited range as an actor, even though his most recent films had bombed. Of course nothing happened with the screenplay. A comeback, as it turned out, was not in the cards.
At the same time, I was about to get married. Sheryl and I were already living together on June 12, looking forward to our wedding day slightly more than a month off. Like most of the rest of the known universe, we watched the Bronco chase on television in stunned amazement, never having seen anything quite like it in history and assuming (correctly, as it also turned out) that OJ was guilty. What innocent man would be behaving like that?
We were both then pretty conventional political liberals (Sheryl had helped make videos for the first Clinton campaign), although I, twenty years older than she, had had somewhat more of a radical past, participating deeply in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, even contributing my “Hollywood alms” personally on occasion to the Black Panther Breakfast Program in the seventies.
Still it never crossed our minds at the outset that the black community would be such staunch defenders of Simpson. He lived, if anything, an upper class white lifestyle, hanging out at swanky Brentwood parties in the company of well-tended California blondes; if not an “oreo cookie,” he was the closest thing you could be to it after having spent your life in professional sports. (Nothing I heard ever came out of OJ’s mouth similar to the racist diatribes recently credited to Isaiah Thomas.)
How wrong we were. By jury selection, Los Angeles was again a racially split city. But this time the roles were reversed – it was the African-American community whose behavior was racially motivated. All evidence being equal, it was hard to imagine the white population of Brentwood voting to acquit a white celebrity who had murdered his African-American wife and a bystander.
And that evidence… As a crime writer who had spent years watching trials for professional reasons, I could not remember a single murder case where there was even remotely as much. DNA alone would convict Simpson a thousand times over.
Of course we all know it didn’t. Soon enough Cochran was making a fool of the hapless Lance Ito and the befuddled Chris Darden. Marcia Clark, who was supposed to be such an ace prosecuting attorney, proved to be a paper tigress.
But worst of all for me were the aforementioned Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. These young lawyers had been doing God’s work, only a couple of years before founding The Innocence Project, which used newly-developed DNA evidence to free innocent people on Death Row. Now they were turning that on its head, exploiting their august reputations in the field, feeding false evidentiary distortions to a confused and eager jury, helping make this group of black women believe in “reasonable doubt” when Scheck and Neufeld knew bloody well the “reasonable doubt” they were selling was a trillion to one shot and that racism alone made the sale. What a shameful betrayal of their own good work. And for what? A moment in the sun? Of course they would defend themselves by saying everyone is entitled to a fair trial with a vigorous defense. But how vigorous? And at what expense? I wonder how they feel now with OJ, as I write, in custody, charged with multiple felonies.
And no one, as we all know, has since found even a remotely possible suspect in the Brown/Goldman murders other than OJ, not even someone “from the world of Faye Resnick,” as Johnnie Cochran posited in a shameless act of blatant dishonesty and character assassination.
But one thing you can say for Scheck and Neufeld – they weren’t racially or ethnically motivated. Those two Jewish men had no trouble making sure the Jewish Goldman family would be tortured for life – or if this did bother them, they certainly did a good job of hiding it.
Of course Sheryl and I and everyone else we knew in LA debated these things endlessly. We spent a lot of time personally on the OJ trail as well. We would drive by the Mezzaluna Restaurant on San Vincente, where Ron Goldman worked as a waiter, and retrace his steps to Nicole’s nearby condo, trying to make our own evaluation of events. As it happened, the home of a producer friend of mine, Paul Witt, abutted OJ’s manse on Rockingham, so I had a pretty good idea where that was and could trace the run from there to Nicole’s as well.
Even the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, where Sheryl and I had our all-too-short honeymoon that July (I was on the committee doing pre-strike negotiations between the Writers Guild and the studios and had to return), figured in the trial. As it turned out, OJ had arranged for Nicole’s father to own a Hertz franchise at that very hotel.
Not surprisingly, we had a great desire to attend the trial ourselves. But it was the hottest ticket in town and we weren’t high enough on the food chain. Early one morning, though, we decided to go downtown anyway with our friends David Freeman and Judy Gingold to see the spectacle at the courthouse. A small city of satellite dishes and media trucks had apparently been erected to accommodate the immense global interest in the trial and that alone would be worth braving LA traffic.
When we got there, however, we found there was a lottery for, as I recall, about a dozen remaining seats. Judy won and we all got in. There we were in the small courtroom sitting only feet away from people who were then more famous than movie stars or even most rock musicians – Ito, Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, Robert Shapiro, Clark, Darden and, of course, OJ himself. The witness on the stand that day was LAPD criminalist Andrea Mazzola, a poorly spoken woman whose testimony could not have helped the prosecution very much.
As she droned on, OJ, about ten feet away, turned around and smiled broadly at Sheryl. It almost seemed like he winked. Sheryl didn’t know how to react. We both agreed later on that he was flirting with her. I felt a twinge of jealousy. Wearing an expensive suit and designer tie, the man had clearly not lost his looks. At that point in the trial too, he was feeling confident of acquittal and it showed. Eventually, the sociopath turned away and fixed his attention, at least superficially, on Mazzola.
I remember looking over at the jury. The women were sitting there stone-faced, probably trying to hide their boredom with peripheral testimony. This was the fourteenth week of the trial. I started to feel sad. What had happened to America that things had come to such a pass that a group of black women were about to free a rich black celebrity who had butchered his white wife and a friend of hers? (Yes, it was pretty clear at that point that that would happen.) This wasn’t 1934 but 1994. We weren’t in the world of Richard Wright – or were we?
I searched around for an explanation … still do … for why the promise of the Civil Rights Movement had never been fully realized. These women, largely from South Central Los Angeles and similar neighborhoods, lived lives light years from OJ and his friends and yet they still bent over backwards to defend this man who essentially deserted them. The psychological reasons (shame, rage at the white bitch, etc.) were clear enough, but this stuff was as old as the American subconscious. Surely these women could rise above it. But they couldn’t.
Of course, the obvious answer, the clich√©, was that we had not done enough, not enough aid, not enough affirmative action. But sitting there that day, and in the weeks to come, I started to consider that the reverse was true. Well, not quite the reverse. We had not done too much, but we had done well enough. At the point of history America had reached, probably had already reached some years before, affirmative action had become an albatross around the neck of those who received it. Aid given to people – no matter who they are – when it is not earned carries with it a level of insult and denigration. It comes from on high to down low and carries with it an implicit message of lowness.
I began to think of Johnnie Cochran as condescending to the African-American community, as their enabler, treating them like children who would believe something as imbecilic as “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Cochran was in a way the racist in how he dealt with his own people. He was certainly a racist in the way he dealt with white people.
I didn’t say that out loud in those days, at least not very often, but I began to think it. It was the first chink in my very traditional liberal armor, the first time I thought outside a conventional wisdom that I had never questioned in my life. The groundwork was prepared for a larger questioning after 9/11. The OJ Trial began it all.
Many years later, after I had started blogging but before Pajamas Media came into existence, I was contacted via my blog email by a man who said he was a major campaign organizer and fundraiser for the Democratic Party. He invited me to lunch. I won’t reveal who that man is here, because he has asked to remain anonymous and I have an acquaintanceship with him that I wish to continue. But trust me – he is responsible for many very successful campaigns for politicians whose names you would recognize.
At that first lunch, he asked me whether I had changed my views because of 9/11. I said yes reflexively, thinking that he had done the same and not having digested, yet, the impact of the OJ Trial. To my surprise, he said he was many years ahead of me. I asked him how that came to be. “Because of what the Democratic Party did to black people,” he said, going on to talk about Maxine Waters, Jesse Jackson, et al, and how they profited from the fact that African-Americans maintained victim status.
He sounded like Larry Elder or even, in his good moments, Barack Obama.
Roger L. Simon is an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, novelist and blogger.
Art by Oleg Atbashian