Is there anyone out there who has not heard the facts, the factoids, the allegations, the half-truths, the untruths, the leaks, the smears, heard the E-mail jokes (hundreds of them, thousands, tasteless, it is always agreed, in all mitigating sanctimony, even as they are passed on: “Did you hear that O.J.’s signed a new contract with Hertz… he’s going to be making license plates for them…. The bad news is O.J.’s going to prison, the good news is that Michael Jackson’s taking the kids…. Did you hear O.J.’s last words to Nicole…your waiter will be with you shortly…. Rodney King told O.J., ‘Good thing you didn’t get out of the car, Juice…”‘), heard the theories zipping along the communications highway, crisscrossing the Internet, hundreds of them, too, thousands, vide Lauren Swann to François Coulombe, Sunday, July 10, 1994, 10:04:13 AM (“Why was nothing else but a glove found at the back of the guest house? How convenient”), vide Joan Porte to Lauren Swann, Sunday, July 10, 1994, 2:23:19 PM (“Personally I think someone saw how easy it was to make Michael Jackson fall, and had it in for O.J.”), the bloody butchery murders of Nicole and Ron (who in death achieved what O.J. earned in life, the true fame of not needing a last name for identification) a nirvana for conspiracy theorists, halcyon days, not since JFK and the grassy knoll, the three tramps, the single bullet, Zapruder frames 200 to 224.
Ninety-five million Americans in two thirds of the nation’s households tuned in on the longest, slowest chase in television history, a chase that no film director would dare stage. In the skies above, a squadron of telecopters recorded the event, while below A.C. Cowling’s white Bronco, escorted front and rear by what appeared to be most of the police agencies in southern California, made its leisurely way north from the El Toro Y, up the Santa Ana, the Artesia, and the San Diego freeways, its stately choreography reminiscent of water ballets from M-G-M’s old Esther Williams musicals.
“Wet she was a star,” Esther Williams’s producer once confided to me about his former meal ticket, and the same calculation could be applied to the passenger crouched in the back of Cowling’s Bronco, cellular telephone and .357 Magnum at the ready, the possibility that he would blow his brains out a topic of endless speculation by anchormen and anchorwomen reporting on his hegira: in an open field, wearing helmet and pads, O.J. Simpson was a star. But that was long ago, and he would end that night in handcuffs, mugged and fingerprinted, a soon-to-be forty-seven-year old man with a new identification in the Los Angeles County jail, Prisoner No. 4013970, charged in the arrest warrant with violating Section 187 (a) of the California Penal Code, to wit in count one that “Orenthal James Simpson… did willfully, unlawfully, and with malice aforethought murder Nicole Brown Simpson, a human being,” and in count two that he “did willfully, unlawfully, and with malice aforethought murder Ronald Lyle Goldman, a human being.”
The professional athlete is isolated early, anointed for the possibility of fame and fortune when still a child. In a recent interview in the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls and a practicing Buddhist, said that “…in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades, eighty percent of these kids are noticed and given privileged lives. From then on, everything is paid for. By the time we get them, at age twenty, they’ve had maybe eight years of a programmed existence where everything has been spoonfed to them. They’ve got shoe people coming after them, sportswear people, agents, lawyers—they might have an entourage of five to ten people vying for their favor.”1 For the child athlete of color from a poor family, sports offer the best, and in many cases the only, opportunity to get out of harm’s way.
The case history of Orenthal James Simpson was in no way original: a gang background, trouble with the law, truancy and grades so bad he was unable to get into college. Military service seemed worth trying. “I was gonna join the Marines and fight in Vietnam,” he told an interviewer, “but…a friend came back from Vietnam missing a leg, and I thought I had to be crazy to go there.”2 He maneuvered his way into junior college and a draft deferment, and then entered the University of Southern California, won the Heisman Trophy as the country’s best football player, and in 1969 was the first player chosen in the NFL draft.
The life of the professional athlete is an unreal, emotionally underdeveloped existence, lived at the frontier of instinct and reflex, where the difference between success and failure can be measured in microseconds; split vision, muscle memory, and hand-to-eye coordination are better refined than the vocabulary to explain them. That the athlete will never again do anything in his life as well as what he does at age twenty-five is a truth best left unstated. As long as he can perform, the athlete has an exemption from the realities of life; his physical skills will endure, and his every whim is a demand likely to be satisfied.
Sexual entitlement is a part of the package, as if the women who are drawn to him and his fame and his riches are just another bonus clause in his contract, a perk, like the suite on the road and the free rental car at his disposal. By the time he is thirty, he is professionally in decline, especially if like O.J. Simpson he is a running back with chancy knees. After sports, if he still manages to maintain his high profile, he is really famous for formerly being famous. It is a constantly diminishing psychic bank account on which to draw. He is too old to begin the kind of work that promises much reward, even if he were educated, qualified, and so disposed; chemical dependency is an expensive outlet, but rehab promises a possible profit center if a writer can be found to put its lessons in book form with the proper moral platitudes. Sports broadcasting and television huckstering allow some of the better known to trade on their names for a few more years, until a newer, fresher retiree appears. For other semi-solvent former stars, retirement becomes an endless treadmill of card shows, “fantasy camps” where aging fans pay to play ball against their childhood idols, celebrity golf tournaments, old-timers’ games, and meet-and-greet paid appearances at the weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and bar mitzvahs of strangers, every handshake rung up on a cash register, the sexual favor provided for the randy guest in the nature of a tip.
O.J. Simpson was one of the few retired athletes, and certainly the first black, to succeed in exploiting his retirement, becoming in the process more widely known than he ever was as a football player, known to a generation that had never seen him on a gridiron, a favorite of women as well as men who fantasized their own eighty-yard runs. He was the quintessential intimate stranger, the person we think we know because of his celebrity. He had the perfect marketable nickname—O.J., the Juice—he had been, in the terms of his profession, not merely good but great, and he had that smile like sunlight, the smile that must have masked, we can speculate now, how many scars from a childhood in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill projects, how many volcanic eruptions of temper, how many racial affronts. Simpson was able to transcend color not through sports but through the marketplace, product endorsements, in particular the Hertz commercials. Corporate spokesmen normally have a short shelf life, but Simpson remained the public persona of Hertz for an almost incredible seventeen years, from 1977, when he was still a Buffalo Bills running back, to the night that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were murdered.
The point of the Hertz campaign was a promise to speed the business traveler out of the airport, into his car, and on the way to his appointment. It was a nervy decision for Hertz to select Simpson as the surrogate for those white mid-level middle-class corporate managers whose lives revolved around airline hubs and the OAG Pocket Flight Guide. To see O.J. Simpson racing through an airport was at first both startling and witty, then routine and reassuring. He was always in a subdued suit and unthreatening tie, the uniform of middle management, unlike Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, the other black endorsement megastars, who in their commercials were never far removed from a basketball or a jersey. “People identify with me, and I don’t think that I’m offensive to anyone,” Simpson says in the quickie paperback O.J. Simpson—American Hero, American Tragedy. “People have told me I’m colorless. Everyone likes me. I stay out of politics, I don’t like to save people for the Lord.”
With O.J. Simpson, white Americans could congratulate themselves with the spurious notion that they were colorblind, a conclusion made possible by Simpson’s conversion of himself into a white man’s idea of an acceptable black man. He bought a large house on a corner lot in Brentwood Park, where his neighbors included Michael Ovitz, the president of Creative Artists Agency, who is ritually described as “the most powerful man in Hollywood”; Gil Garcetti, the Los Angeles County district attorney, whose office will be prosecuting Simpson on two counts of murder in the first degree, the double murder counting as a special circumstance, which means Garcetti will have to decide if he will seek the death penalty for his neighbor; Richard Riordan, the mayor of Los Angeles; and, directly across the street, Stanley Sheinbaum, the political activist, former ACLU board member, and former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission.
Simpson’s black first wife, Marguerite Whitley, the mother of his three children (the youngest of whom, Aaren, died after a swimming pool accident shortly before her second birthday), was dismissed, although it took a court order to get her out of the Brentwood house. Simpson lived the restless life of the retired upscale ex-jock: golf and high-stakes card games at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, expensive fast cars, quick trips in search of the sun, corporate conventions, some discreet drug use. Surrounding him was the sort of entourage that regularly attaches itself to superannuated former athletes, rich white sports fanatics basking in the reflected warmth of his fame as he basked in the comfort of their wealth, and the kind of celebrity lawyers who like to hang with the celebrities they represent, sharing in the overflow of drugs and girls. The entourage became to Simpson in retirement what the Electric Company, his offensive line in Buffalo, had been in his playing days, protectors of the franchise, middle-aged schmoozers and hangers-on shielding the Juice from any bad news, letting him go on thinking, as he had his entire life, that should trouble ever arrive it could be handled.
John Cheever liked staying in Brentwood Park when he visited Los Angeles, because, he said, it reminded him of Connecticut. As it happened, I lived in Brentwood Park for ten years, in a center-plan New England house on a lot with deciduous trees that seemed to shed their leaves not seasonally but whenever they got nervous. I was only a minute or so from O.J. Simpson’s house and Gil Garcetti’s house and Mike Ovitz’s house and Richard Riordan’s house; it was a neighborhood small enough so that everyone pretty much knew where everyone else lived, and had at least a nodding acquaintance with many neighbors. Brentwood is perhaps the most sedate of Los Angeles’s West Side communities, the West Side being that part of the basin stretching from Beverly Hills to the ocean. Its residents are generally prosperous and liberal and it has a high concentration of the Jewish show business community who were not particularly welcome in the established rich sections of the city.
If less so than in Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, and Bel Air, many of the older Brentwood Park houses come with pedigrees; on my old street, the director Rob Reiner lives in Norman Lear’s old house, and in an earlier incarnation Norman Lear’s old house was the house where Jane Fonda grew up. My neighbor across the street was the Brentwood Park Property Owner’s Association link with the Los Angeles Police Department. She also always had an LAPD officer or two living in the apartment above her garage, a protective presence to her neighbors, and she put out the Brentwood Park crime report: “There are 3 male and 1 female latins who are good burglary suspects who have been seen apparently casing houses. White VW Bug—1967. California license plate X8YZ 06B1. Driver is a male latin with a tattoo on inside of right arm—female face with ‘CARLOS’ above it.”
The center of local activity, one might even say its town square, is the Brentwood Mart, a ramshackle one-story collection of stalls, stores, and small businesses built around a small open courtyard. For the last twenty years, it has been presided over by the manager of The Book Nook, a tiny, perfect book store and magazine stand. The Mart is where the neighborhood gathers to read The New York Times and the movie trade papers, to sip espresso or a potassium cocktail (carrot juice, spinach juice, and two I can’t remember) or go to the drugstore or eat ribs or fried chicken or get a haircut or hand-dipped chocolates, and to check out the community bulletin board for the entry requirements for the Malibu Kiwanis chili cook-off or the lost and found notices for neighborhood pets (“Found: Kitty Kat Mostly White With Light Brown Ears. Siamese Mix? Very Blue Eyes”). There was scarcely a day when some errand did not bring me to the Mart, and occasionally I would see O.J. Simpson in tennis clothes browsing at the Book Nook, where he got his USA Today and picked up the latest Jack Higgins or Clive Cussler novel.
I mention this to point out that Brentwood is a genuine neighborhood, because when I read about it in the newspapers after the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, human beings, and the arrest of O.J. Simpson for committing those murders, the adjectives attached to it made it seem a contemporary sybaritic Sodom. “The fast lane life that flows along San Vicente Boulevard,” The New York Times said in a profile of Goldman, going on about “trendy” Brentwood, with its “opulence and glamor,” its “moneyed elite,” “young models” and “local luminaries like Nicole Brown Simpson.” In fact, there are two Brentwoods, the Brentwood north of San Vicente Boulevard with its single-family houses, high privet and oleander hedges, north-south tennis courts and heated pools, and the Brentwood south of San Vicente and east of Bundy, a considerably meaner and less homogenous place altogether, a condo district of high density “town houses,” a local answer to affordable housing for the recently divorced with pre-nuptial agreements, the provisionally separated, and the not yet married.
The San Vicente “fast lane” where the young congregate is a diversified economy of gyms, tanning salons, bad restaurants, singles bars, cappuccino bars, and outlets for expensive sweatclothes and athletic shoes. Working out is a job category more satisfying than work or study; a firm body and tight buns are in the nature of character references. It is an area populated by the beautiful underemployed, would-be actors, actresses, and models, male and female, with portfolios of 8×10 glossies passing as curricula vitae; a gig as a waiter or waitress is only a temporary indisposition, with a free meal thrown in that can be worked off on a stair-master. One has the sense that many people one sees on San Vicente are just waiting to be discovered, the way Lana Turner was allegedly discovered at Schwab’s drugstore in Hollywood, drinking a soda; the difference is in the expectation that the lightning of discovery will strike on the weight machines at The Gym or in the tanning room at Le Beach Club or while having a postworkout cappuccino at Starbuck’s. These are places, however, where no one but they go; it is as if they are trying out for each other, as if youth and beauty are constants to be squandered in pursuit of a life style they do not wish to work all that hard to achieve.
It is a world in which Ronald Lyle Goldman was an easy fit. The late film director Sam Peckinpah once told me that the only Hollywood story worth making was one he called “The Third Man Through the Door.” There is the star, Peckinpah said, there’s the star’s consort, and then there’s the third man through the door, holding it open for the other two, the one whose face is blurred out in the publicity photographs. Ronald Lyle Goldman seemed the definition of the third man through the door. He was twenty-five, a college dropout from Illinois, his looks as gorgeously unexceptional as Nicole Brown Simpson’s. What he wanted was never quite clear. He modeled once for Armani, he gave tennis lessons, he worked out on the machines at The Gym, and he waited table at Mezzaluna, a second-rate Brentwood restaurant elevated in the postmurder stories to a “hot spot.” Sometimes he told friends he wanted to own a restaurant of his own, other times that if he had not “made it” (making it at what never precisely defined) by thirty, he would like to become a paramedic. It was a life not unpleasurably adrift, and so it might have remained, had Ronald Lyle Goldman not had the misfortune to meet Nicole Brown Simpson.
We know now, as we always do in the aftermath of bloodshed, that the marriage of Nicole and O.J. Simpson prior to their 1992 divorce had been volatile, and occasionally violent. There were frequent 911 calls to settle domestic disputes, and in 1989 the Los Angeles city attorney filed a spousal battery complaint against Simpson after a fight on New Year’s Eve. “He’s going to kill me, he’s going to kill me,” she wept to the officers who answered her 911 call early that New Year’s morning. They had found her hiding in the bushes outside her mock Tudor house on North Rockingham Drive, wearing only sweatpants and a bra; her eye was blackened, her lips cut and swollen, there were scratches on her neck, and bruises on her cheek and forehead. Simpson shouted angrily at the police that it was a “family matter…why do you want to make a big deal out of it,” and sped away in his Bentley. Cooling down, and surely aware that she had no place to go offering the life to which she had become accustomed, Nicole refused to press charges. The city attorney, however, was not deterred. O.J. Simpson pleaded no contest to spousal battery and received the same light sentence that most first-time wife-beaters receive—a small fine, community service, and mandatory counseling. After sentence was imposed, the couple issued a joint statement: “Our marriage is as strong as the day we were married.”
Or at least strong enough to stagger on for another three years. Simpson was a compulsive philanderer, while Nicole was without resources except for what she received by her husband’s grace and favor; her father was also a beneficiary of Simpson’s largesse, having been awarded a Hertz franchise at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel. There had of course been a prenuptial agreement that had taken seven months to negotiate, and under which, on August 20, 1985, Nicole had signed a quit claim to the house on North Rockingham, the major asset in O.J. Simpson’s financial statement. In the divorce settlement, Nicole received a lump sum payment of $433,750 and $10,000 a month in child support for the two children of the marriage, daughter Sydney and son Justin. In his counterclaim to her divorce suit, Simpson stated: “Petitioner [Nicole] has done nothing but play, taking nice vacations, spending time exercising and entertaining, and being entertained.”
At thirty-three, Nicole Brown Simpson was essentially returning to the life she was leading when she met her ex-husband sixteen years earlier, except that now she had a white Ferrari with the kind of vanity license plate that adolescents favor—L84AD8, which decodes into Late For A Date. Nicole Brown was scarcely more than a child herself when she met O.J. Simpson. She was seventeen, a homecoming princess at Dana Hills High School in the Orange County beach community of Monarch Point. Higher education was not an option she vigorously pursued. Tall and willowy, she worked as a boutique sales clerk, and then as a waitress at the Daisy, a Beverly Hills club; and it was there that O.J. Simpson, thirty years old, shakily married to his first wife, his football career just about over, fixed on Nicole Brown.
Since the mid-1960s, when my wife and I used to go there, the Daisy has been a notorious pickup spot for men with an itch. It is useful perhaps here to pause and consider the kind of young woman still in her teens who becomes the consort of a high-profile swinger half a generation older. What the child-women who make this choice bring with them is youth, a compliant disposition, a taste for the world’s goods, and a minimal sense of their own identity. They are defined by the men they sleep with; sex is their primary vocabulary. O.J. Simpson divorced Marguerite Whitley, took Nicole Brown as his live-in mistress, and in 1985 married her. She had a personal trainer, a nutritionist, a fully staffed household, two children, an apartment on Manhattan’s East Side, an oceanfront vacation house in Laguna Beach, holidays in Hawaii and Mexico, and skiing trips to Colorado. In actuality, however, she was chattel with a wedding ring, her security a 911 emergency number she had good reason to call often.
In the neighborhood of San Vicente Boulevard, to which she gravitated with her children, Sydney and Justin, after the divorce, Nicole Brown Simpson still had the cachet of her married name; in this habitat of the young, the tan, and the beautiful she had the status of the second person through the door, and being close to her was as close as any of her new friends would probably ever get to fame. She jogged under the coral trees on the San Vicente median, turned up at The Gym and Starbuck’s, and oversaw the after-school activities of her children. She tooled around Brentwood in her Ferrari, sometimes letting Ron Goldman drive it, and at night she danced in local clubs. “She had just gotten it all together,” her older sister Denise Brown told The New York Times after her death. “She was going to start her life over.” Friends said she was enjoying her freedom, “becoming her own woman.”
What form that independence would take, however, was uncertain. Simpson claimed that paternity gave him free access not only to the house he thought he was paying for, but droit de seigneur over the mother of his children as well. He and Nicole took vacations together, they “dated,” there was an attempt at reconciliation. Other interludes were less placid. If Simpson was not exactly a stalker, he did make his ex-wife aware of his considerable and, to her and her friends, dangerous and obsessive presence. Once, according to unsealed grand jury testimony, he spied on Nicole through a window while she was having oral sex with a man she had been seeing. Last fall, during one of his high-pitched visits, Nicole was forced to make two more 911 calls. “He broke the back door down to get in…” she sobbed to the 911 operator. “He’s fucking going nuts…He’s going to beat the shit out of me.” On the tapes, as if in some primal rage, Simpson could be heard screaming in the background about the earlier fellatio he said he had witnessed as his children were upstairs sleeping.
A black ex-athlete growing older ungracefully, tenuously living a white life on the limited visa of his contract as a television pitchman; his beautiful battered ex-wife trying at age thirty-five to start over after half a lifetime on someone else’s tab; a waiter and unsuccessful male model uncertain whether to become a restaurateur or a paramedic, collecting business cards from the men on whose tables he waited in case one might decide to invest in his dream restaurant: these were characters of considerable and ambiguous particularity. With the events of June 12, however, when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were found slashed and stabbed to death, and with the arrest of Orenthal James Simpson for killing them, all three lost whatever identity they had in the frantic search to find some larger meaning that would explain the crime. The story demanded a moral: youth wasted, promise denied, spousal abuse, domestic violence, the race card; show me a hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald jotted in his notebook, and I will write you a tragedy.
In Los Angeles, the case was an experience as uniting in its way as the earthquake. Serious people, unwilling to accept what on the face of it seemed to be the facts, offered theories, even to strangers in checkout lines and movie queues: it was straight, it was gay, it was the Colombians, it was the Mafia, it was the Klan, it was a setup, it was a drug deal gone bad. On This Week With David Brinkley, the panel seemed petulant that the country was absorbed by something other than what normally came out of Washington. For several Hollywood studios, the preliminary hearing with its captive audience was an opportunity for free TV time. Universal Pictures moved an 18-wheeler truck, with ads for its new release, The Shadow, plastered on both sides, to a spot outside the courthouse where it would appear in live news coverage. “It boils down to this,” an MGM executive told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. “What’s a studio to do when they’ve got close to 100 million viewers watching?”
I spent a day in a TV studio with two of the experts covering the hearing live for ABC; one was an old friend, Leslie Abramson, the attorney who defended Erik Menendez on the charge of murdering his parents and hung the jury, the other Robert Philibosian, one of Gil Garcetti’s predecessors as Los Angeles County District Attorney. From her car on our way to the studio, Ms. Abramson called her office to get her messages. There was one of interest: a caller who did not identify himself but who appeared to be a disgruntled LAPD officer. The caller said that the Robbery-Homicide detectives who went to the Simpson house on the night of the killings did not follow investigative procedures laid out in the LAPD police manual, and that a copy of the manual should be given to Robert Shapiro, who was leading the Simpson defense, to use during his cross-examination of the detectives. That an LAPD cop might go against his own in a case of this magnitude was a factor I had not considered, and I asked Ms. Abramson why a cop would snitch out other cops. Like everyone else in the LAPD, she said, he has an agenda. Such as? He might be an O.J. fan, she said, or he might not have been promoted, or he might just hate “the schmucks” in Robbery Homicide, because Robbery-Homicide detectives, Ms. Abramson said, exhibit an excess of “attitude” that is deeply resented by many uniformed officers.
If the hearing was serious business, it was also entertainment, and ABC’s four-person legal team avidly examined the overnight ratings, which showed ABC outpacing the other two networks. In the tiny studio they shared, Ms. Abramson called Philibosian “Bobby,” although in his dark suit and serious tie he did not seem the Bobby type. Off camera, the two commentators were biting about the cast of characters, especially Kato Kaelin, the dazed-looking part-time soft-core porn actor and full-time Simpson houseguest, whose licit and otherwise duties were a source of joyful speculation. When one of the detectives grew restive during cross-examination, Ms. Abramson said, “He’s getting a little pissy.” She knew the detective from other cases. “He doesn’t like being confronted. He gets defensive.” Philibosian was equally critical of prosecutor Marcia Clark. “She’s got that smug little smirk on her face that doesn’t play well to a jury.” And later: “It’s poor technique to ask multiple questions.” On camera, none of the lawyers on any of the networks mentioned what they all knew, that the outcome of the hearing was pre-ordained: that no municipal court judge was going to take the heat for throwing the most spectacular murder case of the century out of court on a constitutional technicality, no matter how valid that technicality might be.
It was a tabloid story, and even the most sober newspapers and newscasts handled it in a tabloid way, with an unexamined inflation of rhetoric. “Hero” and “tragedy” were debased coinage, as were “mansion” and “estate”; Nicole was always “beautiful” and “blonde,” but Simpson, as Stanley Crouch pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, was never referred to as “handsome, brown, woolly-headed O.J.” The phrase invariably hung on Simpson’s defense team was “high-priced,” as if the fees allegedly being earned were a guarantee of effectiveness. In fact, during the first days after the murders, Simpson’s lawyers were almost amateurishly ineffective. Their first mistake was in allowing detectives to question Simpson without an attorney present. The explanation given by his first lawyer suggested that Simpson had relied on what he considered his celebrity exemption. For nearly thirty years, no one had ever told him what he did not wish to know, and he had the star’s total faith in his ability to talk his way out of any unpleasantness, as if nothing he said could be held against him.
“Those statements are going to come back to haunt him,” I was told by Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., a former deputy district attorney and one of the best trial lawyers in Los Angeles. (It was Cochran, an African American, who took over the Michael Jackson case, and got it out of the headlines. One of his more successful specialties is handling plaintiffs in brutality cases against the LAPD.) I asked Cochran and several other criminal lawyers with wide experience in murder cases how they would handle a client who is so used to having his own way. In essence what they all said was this: You tell him, You were in handcuffs when I arrived, this is a death penalty pop, you could go to the gas chamber, and if you want to go downtown and talk to detectives without me, get yourself another lawyer. Then you tell the cops, Arrest him, take it to the grand jury, he’s not speaking, you talk to me. You want a blood sample, get a court order.
Lawyer number one departed, to be replaced by Robert Shapiro, a Century City attorney with a roster of celebrity clients, including baseball players Darryl Strawberry and Vince Coleman; the singer Rod Stewart; Johnny Carson and F. Lee Bailey, both of whom he defended on drunk-driving charges; and Marlon Brando’s son, Christian, for whom he plea bargained a ten-year voluntary manslaughter sentence after the young Brando shot his sister’s lover to death in a drunken dispute. Spinning the media in celebrity cases was his stock in trade. Never call a homicide a “tragedy,” Shapiro once advised in an article about handling the press, call it a “horrible human event.”
Shapiro has never tried a capital murder case. “This is not the case to use as a learning experience,” Cochran told me. By claiming right off that Simpson had an alibi—that he was at home when the murders were committed—Shapiro failed to observe, in the view of most defense attorneys, lesson number one. “You don’t say a word unless you know all the facts,” Cochran said. “If you say he had an alibi and the blood places him at the crime scene, then you’re stuck with a bad alibi. If you open your mouth, you limit your options.” Nor did Shapiro make clear to Simpson, I was told by a source close to the case, that if he were charged with special circumstance murder, or horrible human event, he could not get bail. When he was finally told, when it finally sunk in that he was looking at a seven-by-nine jail cell at least to the end of his trial, Simpson and A.C. Cowlings took off in the Bronco.
Perhaps the worst early mistake made by the high priced defense team, both in pitch and timing, was the public reading of Simpson’s quasi-suicide note during the hours when he was a fugitive and prospective suicide in the back of Cowling’s Bronco. Spin was a major part of the Simpson defense, but none of the spin doctors seemed to realize how maudlin, self-absorbed, ugly, and ultimately counterproductive the letter was. “At times,” her spousal abuser wrote, “I’ve felt like a battered husband or boyfriend, but I loved her.” Ronald Lyle Goldman received even shorter shrift: “I’m sorry for the Goldman family. I know how much it hurts.”
The rest of the letter might well have been heard at a sports testimonial dinner, The Football Hall of Fame Honors O.J. Simpson: “Ahmad, I never stopped being proud of you. Marcus, you got a great lady in Catherine, don’t mess it up…Skip and Cathy, I love you guys.” There was even a salute to his current girl friend, Paula Barbieri (who has parlayed her affair with Simpson into a photo feature in the October Playboy): “Paula, what can I say? I’m sorry I’m not going to—we’re not going to have our chance…I’ve had a good life. I’m proud of how I lived. My mama taught me how to do unto others…Peace and love. O.J.”
For Gil Garcetti, the Simpson case seemed one that was all downside, with no upside. First there was the embarrassment of Simpson not voluntarily turning himself in to police—an alternative not generally available to a non-celebrity accused double murderer. “I want to say to the entire community—Mr. Simpson is a fugitive from justice,” Garcetti said in a public statement while Simpson was on the run, his whereabouts still unknown. “If you assist in any way, you are committing a felony. You will be prosecuted as a felon.” There was in this warning an odd stridence that led inexorably to its subtext: that Simpson might disappear into black South Central Los Angeles and that the police would have to go looking for him, with all the possibilities that scenario presented for a riotous conflagration.
Simpson had not, in fact, led the kind of life that would have drawn him naturally to South Central for camouflage. So assiduously had he pursued racial neutrality that he had become estranged from prominent elements of Los Angeles’s black leadership. The criticism was careful, but criticism nonetheless. “He might have kept a stronger profile in helping the community of need,” the Reverend Cecil Murray, of the First African Methodist Episcopalian Church, told Lloyd Grove of The Washington Post after Simpson’s arrest. Of the city’s black spokesmen, Murray is first among equals, and black Los Angeles’s unofficial liaison with the white establishment. “O.J. lapsed in that regard.” Among South Central’s rank and file, the lapse was forgiven as soon as telecopters picked up A.C. Cowling’s Bronco with its police escort. “They never thought of him as black before,” the “raptivist” Sister Souljah explained to a friend of mine, “and when they saw him chased by all those cops, it was the blackest thing he had ever done.”
Over twenty black churches held prayer vigils for Simpson, and T-shirts inscribed “Turn The Juice Loose” were instant street-corner best sellers. The first polls showed that nearly three quarters of the city’s blacks had some degree of sympathy toward Simpson, as opposed to 38 percent of Anglo respondents, and 50 percent of Latino; according to a Newsweek poll in late July, 60 percent of blacks nationwide thought that Simpson was set up by a person or persons unknown. That the trial would be held in downtown Los Angeles insured that race would be an issue. “I hate to sound stereotypical,” Cochran said, “but 30 to 40 percent of the jury pool downtown is minority, and most of that is African American.”
Eleven days after the preliminary hearing ended, Cochran, Cecil Murray, and other African American leaders turned up the heat on Garcetti in a highly publicized two hour meeting at the offices of the Urban League in the predominantly black Crenshaw District. Boxed in both by the leaders and by the geography of the venue, Garcetti felt compelled to give the absurd assurance that Simpson would be treated fairly, as if a fair trial was not a basic tenet of Anglo-Saxon law. Garcetti then moved on to a disquisition on fairness. “We’re also interested in fairness to the victims,” he added, “and interested in fairness, frankly, for the community as a whole.” The leaders urged not only that the jury be racially mixed but also that the “death committee,” or the eight senior deputy DAs who decide whether the office will seek the death penalty on any given case, be integrated, so as to no longer consist of eight middle-aged white males. The clear implication was that without such changes, blacks could perceive the proceedings against Simpson as unfair, upping the level of volatility.
The day after the meeting, Cochran himself joined the defense team; it was the best news Simpson had received since June 12. Lawyers specializing in DNA evidence were flown in from New York and at hearings late in August they vigorously challenged the prosecution’s assertions that early DNA tests indicated that drops of blood found at the murder scene proved Simpson’s presence at the site when the murders were committed. In their counterattack, the DNA specialists accused police analysts of sloppy lab work, and seized on every discrepancy relating to the number and descriptions of blood samples as showing a pattern of professional incompetence. At the same time, the defense accused prosecutors of playing fast and loose with the required disclosure of blood evidence. A defense strategy that no one would dare broach publicly began taking shape: if acquittal on grounds of reasonable doubt was impossible, Simpson’s lawyers would try to hang the downtown jury, and then plea bargain. “Even if the jury consisted of the Buffalo Bills starting eleven and O.J. Simpson’s mother,” W. William Hodes, a professor of law at the University of Indiana wrote in a letter to The New York Times, “there is no possibility of an acquittal, and the defense is not trying to achieve one.”3
It was a strategy that presented Garcetti with another vexing problem (still unresolved at this writing): whether or not to seek the death penalty. There are nineteen special circumstances in the California penal code calling for a consideration of the death penalty, including murder of a law enforcement officer, murder by torture, murder committed during the commission of an ancillary felony, murder by bomb, and, as applicable in the Simpson case, multiple murder. The death penalty, however, is rarely sought in domestic homicide cases, even when there is more than one body. Of the more than 2,800 men on death row nationwide, according to the Los Angeles Times, only 34, or 1.2 percent, killed their wives.
If Garcetti did not ask for the death penalty, however, many defense attorneys, including Leslie Abramson, whose client Erik Menendez is awaiting trial once again in a death penalty case, were prepared to claim that the district attorney was selectively charging. Some argued that Garcetti would be giving a break to a high-profile defendant, with a history of spousal abuse, and a nolo contendere plea for same, both because Simpson was a celebrity and because the district attorney was afraid of another riot should there be a conviction. Ms. Abramson noted that unlike Simpson, Erik Menendez has no prior record of violence, and a history of violence is one of the criteria for seeking the death penalty. But if Garcetti did go for the death penalty, he faced the difficulty of finding a jury that would sentence someone who has run through their living rooms for a quarter of a century either to the gas chamber or to death by lethal injection, the choice to be made by the condemned.
Even more vexatious for Garcetti is the public perception that his office is not very competent. Although it prosecutes 70,000 felonies a year, with a 93 percent conviction rate (most of which are plea bargains), the office, over the past thirteen years, has stumbled so repeatedly in high-profile trials that, as Garcetti admitted to the Los Angeles Times, “people are poking fun at us.” For example, David Letterman. After the two Menendez juries hung, Letterman said: “I’m not sure I believe this, but a friend of mine out there told me he got out of a speeding ticket last week by telling the cops he was on his way to murder his parents.”
There have been successes—the fraud conviction of S&L king Charles Keating and the murder conviction of the serial killer nicknamed the Night Stalker—but the flops get the attention, especially now with blanket television coverage the factor it has become. There was the Hillside Strangler case, which was so botched by the DA that the trial judge assigned the case to the attorney general of California. There was the McMartin case, in which the proprietors of a “preschool” were charged with hundreds of counts of sexually molesting dozens of children; the McMartin case, which should never have been brought in the first place, ended once in a hung jury, and after a second trial with an acquittal. There was the Twilight Zone case (in which the film director John Landis was accused of recklessly endangering the lives of three actors, two of them children, killed in a helicopter stunt he conceived and directed), which ended in the acquittal of Landis and his co- defendants. The cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted, and the blacks who beat Reginald Denny in 1992’s LA Riots convicted only of lesser charges; the Menendez cases, described by prosecutors as a “slam dunk,” ended in two mistrials.
Garcetti now faces a dilemma: a hung jury, a plea bargain, or a conviction on lesser murder or manslaughter charges will be regarded as still another flop. A murder one conviction, however, brings with it the possibility that Los Angeles might once again burn.
In the end, it is likely that the Simpson trial will be just another diversion for a public with an insatiable appetite for diversion. While the concept that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is the bedrock of our criminal justice system, recent events have shown us that most Americans believe in it only selectively; it is an abstract idea that they feel should not necessarily apply to the Menendez brothers or the cops who beat Rodney King or to Orenthal James Simpson. More and more, “agendas” are what count. Gloria Allred and a consortium of women’s groups, including both pro-choice and anti-abortion spokeswomen, sought, on behalf of Nicole Simpson, the same kind of audience with Garcetti that the black leadership had, in this case to demand that the district attorney seek the death penalty. One of the investigating detectives told a psychiatrist he left the Marine Corps because of “the Mexicans and the niggers”—and his lawyer has threatened to sue the defense attorneys, Simpson, and The New Yorker, where the charges were first printed, for circulating this and other allegedly racist remarks.
There were so many preposterous images on the periphery of the case that at times it seemed as if both the victims and the seriousness of the crimes against them were forgotten: Simpson and Kato taking O.J.’s Bentley to McDonald’s for takeout just prior to the murders; the loyalist gofer, A.C. Cowlings, becoming a star on the Z-list party circuit (e.g., the Adult Films Dinner), even as prosecutors wrestled with how to deal with him, postponing indefinitely his indictment on charges of aiding and abetting a fugitive. This was the district attorney’s way of squeezing Cowlings, so that the threat of future prosecution might deter him from testifying for Simpson—a risky assumption at best. Robert Shapiro installed an 800 line, ostensibly to help the Simpson defense team and also to buck up O.J. “Hello, this is the law offices of Robert L. Shapiro,” the voice mail operator says. “Thank you for your call. If you have any information or evidence regarding the O.J. Simpson case, press 2 now. If you are an expert in a field relating to the O.J. Simpson case and would like to offer your services, press 3 now. If you would like the address where you can send a letter of support to O.J., press 1 now. If you are seeking legal representation from the offices of Robert Shapiro, press 4 now.” Taste prevailed, and “4” was quickly dropped.
Within days, according to Shapiro, the 800 line received 250,000 calls. The received wisdom was that the 800 line was a public relations ploy of doubtful benefit, but a New York homicide detective I know marveled at its tactical cunning. “It’s a cop’s nightmare,” he said. “It means LAPD has to check out every lead, even the cockamamie ones. Let’s say of the 250,000 calls, 249,000 are garbage, even 249,500. That leaves five hundred to check before the trial starts. No one has that kind of resources. Then at trial, the defense finds something not checked out; bingo, reasonable doubt.”
Any trial is a ritual, with its own totems. Calumny is the language spoken, the lie accepted, the half-truth chiseled on stone. The victims unable to speak for themselves will be put on trial and presented as co-conspirators in their own murders. It is well to remember that what we will read in the newspapers or see on television is not necessarily the same story the jury is hearing. Reporters covering a trial are less qualified than they sometimes think to comment on the way the facts admitted into testimony affect the collective mind of the jury. There are reasons for this. Reporters are privy to what the jury cannot hear. They have access to the lawyers, and to the conflicting spins of the adversarial system. They hear the judge’s rulings on motions when the jury is out of the room. They have transcripts of the sidebar conversations between the bench and opposing counsel. Most of all, the reporters, with their excessive knowingness, are available to each other, refining and polishing a story by accretion, a narrative that may or may not tell the story of what actually happened. The stories the jurors eventually devise on their own proceed from a limited and narrowly defined set of facts. It is already accepted, by those who argue the pros and cons of the case on the television talk shows, that O.J. Simpson has “lost in the court of public opinion.” Perhaps he has, but he will be tried in a court of law, where an irreparably tarnished reputation is still not a capital offense.
—August 25, 1994
September 22, 1994