On October 3, 1995, an estimated 150 million people stopped what they were doing to witness the televised verdict of the O.J. Simpson trial. For more than a year, the O.J. saga transfixed the nation and dominated the public imagination. Ten years later, veteran FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel revisits the "perfect storm" that was the O.J. Simpson trial. Through extensive interviews with the defense, prosecution and journalists, FRONTLINE explores the verdict -- which, more than any other in recent history, measured the difference between being white and black in America.
What began as a double homicide near Santa Monica, Calif., immediately became a media mega-story that would come to be known as the "trial of the century." FRONTLINE quickly connects the events leading to the verdict: the slow-speed chase, the "Dream Team" of defense lawyers, the bloody gloves, and the Fuhrman tapes.
In the 372 days that the trial lasted, there was nothing that wasn't recorded, discussed and analyzed on television. The media frenzy spread from the National Enquirer to The New York Times, from burgeoning cable networks like CNN to ABC's Nightline. "One of the great ironies of the trial was that the National Enquirer reminded us what good, basic journalism is about," said Nightline anchor Ted Koppel. Koppel adds about Nightline coverage, "I felt a certain amount of embarrassment about doing it on a regular basis ... every time we did O.J. the ratings went up 10 percent." And as it turned out, the case would have a lasting impact on American media.
Public opinion polls showed that America was quickly polarized along racial lines. "Most white Americans believed Simpson was obviously guilty before the trial ever started [and] most white Americans feared that the defense would do something unethical and use racism to get a predominantly African American jury to acquit an obviously guilty defendant," says UCLA law professor and former ABC News consultant, Peter Arenella.
When defense attorney Johnnie Cochran urged the jury to consider Detective Fuhrman's racism in making their decision, Fred Goldman, Ron Goldman's father, was enraged. "[Cochran] suggests that racism ought to be the most important thing that anyone of us ought to listen to in this court ... and set his murdering client free," the distraught father cried at a press conference.
FRONTLINE visits Marc Watts, who was a correspondent with CNN at the time and one of the few African Americans covering the trial. "[In] the trial, everything is about race. Black people deal with race everyday. Whites who said it's not a trial about race speak that way because they haven't been on the receiving end of injustices at the hands of a white person," said Watts.
The program also examines the aftermath of the verdict and the explosive reaction that erupted along racial lines: black men and women celebrating victory in the streets while outraged white Americans decried a miscarriage of justice. "O.J. was bigger than his body," explains University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson. "O.J. was a term that represented every black person that ever got beat up by the criminal justice system."
"This was taken personally by whites in America in a way that no other case ever affected them," says Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard University. In fact, white people from all walks of life vilified the defense team and jury as never before, forgetting what the American justice system is all about. "Tragically, the American public doesn't seem to understand the role of the defense counsel ... a defense counsel's ethical role is to make the prosecution satisfy that burden of proof," says Professor Arenella. As for the predominantly African American jury, which bore the brunt of white America's anger, Arenella adds, "Several of the jurors explained afterward that they suspected Mr. Simpson was guilty but they weren't shown it beyond a reasonable doubt. That's an action and a comment of a juror that understands their responsibility and is doing their job."
FRONTLINE visits a barbershop in downtown Los Angeles where, 10 years later, none of the customers believes that O.J. Simpson was innocent. But they agree on the fact that the police behaved as they've come to expect. "They framed a guilty man -- that's all it was," says the barber. A customer adds, "I hope that Negroes learn that no matter how high you ascend and how much money you make or how white the woman is, you [are] still a nigger in America."
Ofra Bikel's documentary memorializes the heartache, confusion and tension released by the O.J. verdict and explores some of its lasting impact. As The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin tells FRONTLINE, "The only reason that we will care about O.J. Simpson 10 years after, 20 years after, is what it told us about race in this country."