Close observers say the O.J. Simpson trial was a watershed in Americans' perception of the law. Some say they could teach a semester's course on American culture, race and the legal system using just the Simpson trial. Commenting on this, and on the trial's legacy, in these excerpts from their FRONTLINE interviews, are Alan Dershowitz, member of the defense team; Michael Eric Dyson, author and professor of humanities, Univ. of Pennsylvania; Scott Turow, attorney and bestselling author; Shawn Chapman Holley, managing partner, Cochran Law Firm; William Hodgman, member of the prosecution team; Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Harvard law professor; Donald Jones, law professor, University of Miami; and others.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Harvard law professor and director of Harvard's Houston Institute for Race & Justice.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr.
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… What is the significance of the O.J. trial today … 10 years later?
The one thing that's amazing about the Simpson case ... [is that] no one's mind has changed in a decade. The whites who thought he was guilty haven't budged an inch, and the blacks who thought he was not guilty haven't budged an inch. They both saw the same program played out on American television, and they both had very different views about it.
And in both cases, their views were influenced by their experiences with race and their experience with the criminal justice system. Whites assume that if there were enough accusations, Simpson would be convicted. Blacks assume that here's another black man drawn into the criminal justice system. But this time he had Johnnie Cochran; this time he had resources; this time he had experts like [criminalist] Dr. Henry Lee and [forensic pathologist] Michael Baden. This time he was somebody who could fight back to a system that is frequently unfair, and to make it show its many flaws. …
Was it a watershed case? If so, why?
This case was a watershed case in an important respect: It placed the issue of race and justice squarely before the American public, and we had to confront the ugly underbelly of the criminal justice system.
It was a watershed case for African Americans because it helped them celebrate the fact that when there's a doubt in the system, people will be found not guilty. It was a watershed case for whites because it led to remarkably short-sighted and dangerous suggestions about revamping the criminal justice system because one man was found not guilty; that we would give up hundreds of years of justice and a jury system that worked, hundreds of years of a jury system [that] became more representative because people of color and women could finally serve in it -- to give up all the benefits of a system because one man was found not guilty.
And thank God that, ultimately, justice prevailed. The system remains intact, and the reactions that followed the verdict didn't allow us to make a terrible mistake to try to adjust a system because one person was able to get the benefit of a doubt in a major criminal case. …
Alan Dershowitz, member of the Simpson defense team and Harvard law professor.
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… Is it worth revisiting this topic now, 10 years later?
Oh, I think it's very much worth looking back at the O.J. Simpson case 10 years later, because it was a transforming case in American social, racial and legal history. You can't understand the legal system in America without understanding the O.J. Simpson case. You can't understand the reaction people have. It still continues to have an effect on some jurors. Jurors expect a higher level of proof today. Jurors are much more suspicious of policemen and police testimony today. I think all in all, it probably had a beneficial effect on law in America.
You can really list all the beneficial effects very simply. Los Angeles now has a wonderful police commissioner, chief of police [Bill] Bratton, who is very sensitive to civil liberties, very sensitive to honesty. There has been a sea change in [the] Los Angeles police department as a result of this case. The DNA labs all over the country are changing dramatically. I've recently won two cases based on labs that we were able to expose for having made serious, serious mistakes. Juries are much more skeptical of police testimony about how searches were conducted. So-called testi-lying is now part of the American vocabulary. Everybody knows that there's "testi-lying." You no longer believe a policeman just because he's a policeman wearing a badge. And I think we've all become more expert on the legal system.
The one downside of the O.J. Simpson case is the proliferation of talking heads on television. The lawyers who are put on television to explain the cases, who nobody would ever hire to be a real lawyer, these are only pretty faces and gentle voices, but they don't know anything about the law. …That's a very big negative of the O.J. Simpson case.
Many people came away from the trial with the impression that money will buy you justice in America. What do you think about that?
Well, if anybody thinks money will buy justice, ask Martha Stewart, Leona Helmsley, Mike Milken and many other people who have spent a long time in prison with all the money in the world. What money will do is buy you a chance at getting justice. Poverty will assure you injustice. Money gives you some chance of leveling the playing field and getting justice.
Is that what O.J.'s money bought him, a level playing field?
Look, O.J. was lucky. O.J. had the resources. He was lucky that the two prosecutors in the case were as inept as they were, that the policemen were as villainous as they were, and that the combination of circumstances allowed a jury which was going to be skeptical of many of these presentations made by the prosecution. So again, it was the perfect storm for the prosecution as well: bad prosecutors, inept decisions, bad witnesses and defense attorneys who were prepared to exploit every weakness that [the prosecution] had -- and they had many. …
Did the system work in the end?
The problem with this case is that the system worked, and it worked too well. It worked too well because it showed what the defense is capable of doing if they have the ability to use all of the constitutional protections that are given them by the Bill of Rights and by constitutional and other statutory rules. It showed what can happen if the defense has access to the best experts and good lawyers and experts in various other scientific areas. So it showed that the system can work very well, and that in fact the system will operate on the principle of better 10 guilty go free than one innocent be wrongly convicted.
And you know what? The public doesn't like the system. The public much prefers the old system, the old system in which the prosecution really doesn't have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt; the prosecution really doesn't have to abide by the Constitution; the prosecution really doesn't have to play fair with all the evidence. The public saw the system working, and they didn't like it. …
Michael Eric Dyson, professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and author of numerous books on race in America, including Is Bill Cosby Right?
Michael Eric Dyson
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How important was the O.J. trial?
… I think it was a racial earthquake, so to speak; a race quake. It didn't create racial tension; rather, it revealed the fault lines of bigotry and bias that trace beneath our common lives together. But it did reveal to white and black America that, first of all, we see things enormously differently. There is contrasting and almost contradictory viewpoints that animate black people and white people around the issue of race, and O.J. revealed that in the sharpest of terms. ...
In what way?
Well, first of all, what the O.J. Simpson fiasco did was show that many white Americans felt that on the surface, evidence is evidence. Doesn't matter who contaminates it, who plays with it, if it says you're guilty, you're guilty. Whereas many black people bring a different lens to race in America. They provide a different context. For black people evidence is never merely just evidence. It depends on who has had it, who has handled it, what they intend to do with it, and what [they hoped] the outcome [would] be. So in that sense, black and white people see things differently. …
One of the reasons we can point to to suggest why this was such a powerful case is because so many people had staked their lives on believing the world operated in a certain fashion, and O.J. came along to challenge it. O.J., in the technical lingo, provided a paradigm shift. ... O.J. forced a new theory about how the racial world operates, and many white people had not been used to thinking about that. …
Donald Jones, law professor at the University of Miami School of Law.
… I think this case touches on our deepest fears. Just imagine you've drilled down into a reservoir, and it starts squirting up. Well, those fears have to do with race. We, as a society, are in a state of denial, a denial about the continuing significance of race, a denial about the fears that we have of each other, a denial about the extent to which unconscious bias still haunts all of us and especially our courtrooms.
And I think that what the O.J. Simpson trial did was in a sense take a lid off the pot. That pot of fear, that pot of stereotypical thinking has been boiling for a long time, and all the O.J. Simpson trial did was take it off. And he simply happened to be the person that a lot of energy was projected on, a lot of fears, a lot of anxiety. And the problem with a [trial like the] O.J. Simpson [trial] is that we have a tremendous problem in this country that has yet to be resolved, which is that we have different expectations based on the color of someone's skin, different fears, different assumptions about who that person is. I still remember our mayor of New York, who said he feels uncomfortable in black neighborhoods, especially at night. Those are the kinds of fears that went into this case. …
What has been the legacy of the case?
Well, if you ask me what are the good things that come up about the case, what it showed is that we have a lot of work to do. That we have yet to understand each other as communities. That we're two communities who are looking at each other from opposite ends of the table. And we need to think about why that is. …
Ted Koppel, anchor and managing editor of ABC's Nightline.
… I think that race is the great unresolved issue in this country. … And in many respects, the O.J. Simpson trial, coming as it did toward the end of the 20th Century, served as an exclamation mark. It was a way that black Americans could say, "Way to go. Yeah, we may think he was guilty, but by gosh, it's nice to see one of our rich guys finally do what your rich guys have been doing all along, and that is beating the system by getting a really good lawyer." And that should not be ignored. The notion that you get the kind of justice in America that you can afford, is another great shame and something that we need to focus more attention on.
In theory, a poor man or woman who is accused of a crime ought to be able to get the same kind of justice as a rich man would. The reality is that they don't. … I mean, I've spent a lot of time in American prisons. And the fact of the matter is that you do have a disproportionate number of inmates of color. Whether they be African American or Hispanic, there you have it, in black and white. Roughly nine or ten percent of the population is African American, so in theory, your prisons should hold roughly nine or ten percent African Americans. They don't. The percentages are far, far higher. That still has not been addressed. …
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, professor at the UCLA School of Law and the Columbia University School of Law.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
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… The O.J. Simpson trial was a revelation about the ongoing patterns of racial difference in American society. It is longstanding; it is historical. But over the 20 years or so since the civil rights movement, there had been an ideology that forced people away from racial conversations, away from recognizing that there were still tremendous disparities both in life experience and opinion, primarily among African Americans and white Americans.
The O.J. trial ripped the veil off of that denial and made people confront directly that we were still living in a history, we were still living in a reality, and it couldn't just go away by wishing it away. …
What do you think are the ramifications of the case?
The ramifications are incredible. I think that what it suggested to us is that we are a post-apartheid society, and I don't mean that as a time. It's not a temporal statement; it's a substantive description of who we are.
We are a society that has been structured from top to bottom by race. You don't get beyond that by deciding not to talk about it anymore. It will always come back; it will always reassert itself over and over again. So I think it raised the question: Has the cost of being a society that is structured by race and we don't talk about it, has [the cost] gotten so high, has [it] come to a point that we all agree that we can no longer ignore it? That's what I had hoped the O.J. Simpson case would represent to all Americans.
But it didn't.
I think the fact that there were options to get around black subjectivity -- let's circumvent; let's not consult them; let's change the rules so we don't need their agreement; let's punish them; let's ostracize them -- the option to use power to solve the problem rather than reconciliation to discuss the problem is a long-standing habit. That's what being a post-apartheid society means. …
Jeffrey Toobin, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Run of His Life.
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… I thought the only reason we will care about this case 10 years after, 20 years after, is what it told us about race in this country. The rest is passing entertainment. But this case showed that when it came to law enforcement and belief in the police and the judicial system, black people and white people in 1995 lived in different countries, and that was something that the country really didn't want to be reminded of, but this case sure brought it home.
Did you know it all along?
Well, I think we all suspected; we weren't naive. We knew that racial issues still percolated in a serious way in this country, but I don't think anyone had any idea -- I certainly didn't -- the degree to which we were living in two countries. And this case just boom, told us that in the second that it took to react to the verdict. …
Now, on the bigger question of "Are the country's attitudes about race different than we saw on that October afternoon in 1995?," I don't know. I hope so -- kind of doubt it. We have not had a national Rorschach test about race in this way since October 1995, so it's hard to establish any sort of control. I've seen no great evidence of change. …
William Hodgman, member of the prosecution team.
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… Did the O.J. Simpson trial change anything about the criminal justice system?
Absolutely. Some years ago, I was speaking to a group of forensic criminalists in Colorado, and the basic subject matter of my remarks had to do with high-profile cases and media cases and the like. And during a break, a criminalist from the state of Colorado came up to me, and he said, "You know, O.J. was the case that changed everything." And it's true.
I've talked to groups of judges, prosecutors, detectives, civic leaders, cops, criminalists throughout the country, and all of them talk about the O.J. Simpson case as kind of a benchmark. And many of them took the O.J. Simpson case as a catalyst, as inspiration to examine their own procedures and protocols. ... What if [they] had a case of this magnitude occur in their community? How would they react? How would the coroner's office react? How would they protect the integrity of their evidence? What sort of resources would have to be drawn upon in order to affect the trial of the case?
Many a detective, many a criminalist looked at what was happening to [Detective] Phil Vannatter and Dennis Fung from the LAPD crime lab, and thought, there but for the grace of God go I. And so they took steps to improve how they went about their business, to do it better. So in that sense, and I think in a systemic sense, [the case] changed rules here in California [from] attorney commentary during a trial to how judges now more rigorously enforce the jury service and compel people to come in and follow up with prospective jurors. … All of these things have happened as a result of O.J. …
So some good came out of it?
There was certainly good that came out of it. Some people have suggested to me that it took the train wreck of the Simpson case, that judicial disaster, to bring about this sort of reform and to heighten the awareness of the importance of jury service by everyone, to heighten the awareness of domestic violence in our society, and how for a long time it could be argued the system [turned] a blind eye to the scourge of domestic violence. …
Kerman Maddox, Los Angeles businessman and community activist.
… There was nothing ordinary about [the O.J. Simpson] case because it touched on all the issues that are so interesting and controversial in society: wealth, power, sex, race. It hit them all. You've got this wealthy crossover African American athlete, who was loved by everybody -- heck, I went to USC as a kid because I watched O.J. Simpson, and I was a big fan of his -- and then he crosses over and marries this white woman, who was strikingly attractive. You know, black people aren't supposed to marry white women. …
So I think there was just incredible rage in the white community in Los Angeles: 1) how could he get away with it?; and 2) how dare those black people celebrate something like this? It's God-awful! But they never quite understood why there was such excitement and jubilation in the African American community because their life experiences are so different. They've never walked in the shoes of a lot of those people in Compton and Inglewood and south L.A., who were poor and whose relatives and family members have been abused by this criminal justice system or discriminated by it.
Many whites say that the verdict was payback, what do you think?
I think that's an appropriate term. I think a lot of people in the black community thought absolutely it was payback. A lot of people would say, "Yeah, it was payback because for years and years and years we have not had anything close to justice in that system. Now you, white America, you now know what we've been going through for years." So yeah, payback: "Take it."
Wasn't it just payback for Rodney King?
No, it wasn't just Rodney King. I think the LAPD would like you to think it was just Rodney King, but you know if you've lived in this town for a long time, and you're an African American male like I am, you're going to have run-ins with LAPD and the sheriffs, and it's not going to be good. The only thing that was different about Rodney King is that white America they seemed to be shocked because it was caught on video, and they thought, "Oh, my God, how could this happen?" Black people in southern California, we've seen incidents as bad as Rodney King or worse, but they were not caught on video, so when we saw it, our reaction was, "About time they see what's been going on down here." …
Has anything changed since then?
In terms of race relations, I don't think race relations are any better today than they were back then. …
Gerald Uelmen, member of the Simpson defense team and professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.
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… Did things change in Los Angeles over the 10 years that have passed?
Oh, that's a real disappointment to me. I thought there were lots of lessons for LAPD and the L.A. County District Attorney's Office from this trial, but they both seem impervious to change. They both simply ducked their heads and went on about their business, doing things the way they had done them in the past. I'm sure there are still Mark Fuhrmans in the LAPD. The L.A. County District Attorney's Office still reacts to losing a high-profile case by bashing the jurors. It's like they haven't learned a thing. They're just going to keep on doing what they've been doing for all these years and do it the same way.
The law has changed.
Some of the law changed, yes. The legislature reacted to the public outcry over the verdict by changing the evidence code so that evidence that was kept out of the O.J. trial would be admitted in future trials. They enacted new hearsay exceptions. They enacted new rules with respect to domestic violence cases now that let everything in; all prior incidents are now going to be admissible. So the law has changed quite dramatically.
To the good?
It makes it easier to get convictions in these cases. I don't think it's necessarily to the good. I think the prior rules were the basis of many years of experience showing that, in fact, this kind of evidence would prejudice juries and would make it more difficult for them to assess guilt or innocence based on what happened in this case. I think we're seeing more and more trials where the trial isn't focusing on what happened in this case; the trial is focused on what kind of person is the defendant. Is he a bad person, and should we convict him and lock him up simply because he's a bad person, regardless of what he did in this case?
That's not good.
That's not good. …
Peter Arenella, law professor at UCLA.
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… Ten years later, has anything changed?
There are good and bad things that have come from the Simpson criminal trial experience. On the good side, we have criminalists who do their jobs better. The LAPD [crime] lab and labs across the country learned valuable lessons about how not to collect evidence, about how to do their jobs in a more professional and competent fashion. ... We have defense lawyers across the country that learned valuable lessons from Barry Scheck and the defense team in how to attack the reliability of DNA evidence so that lawyers across the country went to school based on things that they saw in the Simpson trial. … But my own view is that the negatives that come from the Simpson legacy easily outweigh those positives.
... The negative legacy of the Simpson trial focuses mostly on the public's perception of our criminal justice system, the public's misunderstanding of the defense counsel's role, which I believe was a problem before the Simpson case [and] was only aggravated by the distrust generated by the media's framing of the defense playing the race card from the bottom of the deck. So the public's understanding of the defense counsel's role, which was never good, was probably confused even further by their reaction to the defense counsel's function in the Simpson trial. [This] is ironic since the defense counsel in Simpson performed admirably and showed the adversarial system as it is supposed to function in a criminal trial, and yet they were harpooned for that by the public's reaction to it.
I think that the media's role in how it covers the criminal justice system has taken a turn for the worse, because we've really gotten to a point in this country where we see criminal trials as forms of mass entertainment. … Trials aren't supposed to be entertainment for the masses. They're supposed to be serious public processes in which juries are asked to do a very difficult job. … A criminal trial is supposed to be conducted in a particular way with a sense of separation from the rest of the world. The jury isn't a democratically accountable decision maker. They're not supposed to reflect majority viewpoints; they're not supposed to do what the public wants. They're supposed to reach a verdict based only on the evidence before them.
That's what the Simpson jury did, and they were absolutely crucified for what they did. …
Mickey Sherman, celebrity defense attorney and frequent legal commentator on network and cable television.
… Was the Simpson trial important from a legal standpoint?
… It was important only because it was a turning point for this country's interest or disdain in the criminal justice system.
… After the O.J. trial, a lot of folks in this country had and still have a really bitter taste in their mouth. They think that the system didn't work, that it was not corrupted but that it was contaminated. That all the lawyers were responsible for pulling the wool over people's eyes, that perhaps the prosecutors didn't do as great a job as they should, that the jury didn't give a darn, and decided the case based upon the fact that he was a celebrity or perhaps even on racial grounds, and that in general, somebody got away with murder. …
It's been ten years, and when we talk to a jury and say, "Does the system work," everybody says, "Well, there was O.J." I mean, it is the synonym for dysfunctional criminal justice. … And it's going to take a long time for those perspective jurors and the public to get over the O.J. case. To get over the skepticism, to look at all of us in the system -- the judges, the prosecutors and the defense attorneys -- the same way without seeing that kind of a black eye that that trial all gave us.
You think that perception is not justified?
It wasn't justified. This was one case. It was a bit of an aberration, and there's no reason why the entire system should feel this because of one case. The system generally works. …
Scott Turow, attorney and author of bestselling legal thrillers, including Burden of Proof and Presumed Innocent.
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… Why was the Simpson trial such a huge event across the country?
Because it combined so many American obsessions. Simpson himself was a complex figure. He was a poor African American raised in the poorest part of San Francisco. He went on to great success as a college athlete, winner of the Heisman Trophy, then broke the rushing records in the National Football League, the greatest running back in history. And not only did he have that kind of success as an athlete, but he then went on to become an actor, a spokesman for a national car rental company. Everybody loved him; he was gorgeous to look at. …
And so it combines America's obsession with celebrity, movie stars, star athletes, the beautiful and race, all of these things that are sort of deep at the root of American fantasies about our lives.
So all of that was bundled up in O.J. And then you come in with the familiar theme that "O, how the mighty art fallen." And of course envy and resentment are an inevitable part of life. Plus there's jealousy, intrigue with the police department.
I always say when I'm asked about the Simpson case that I would have loved to have made it up. It would have been a really successful novel. …
And looking back on it 10 years later, it still seems significant to you?
Again, I think the O.J. Simpson case was a watershed in American perception of the law. We are much franker about our discussion of the law. Every network now has a legal reporter, which frankly, few of them did. We have whole shows on the cable networks dedicated to the law. It has changed the American landscape.
Applications to law school zoomed up after the Simpson case, and they've never gone back down to the pre-Simpson levels. The Simpson case was an important event in the United States. It was something to change public consciousness, and I think it's well worth reflecting on 10 years later.
First and foremost, it taught everybody a lot about the way the criminal law operates. It taught everybody a lot about race and how enduringly different the experiences of African Americans and white Americans in particular are. It taught us about what it means to be a celebrity. And it taught people a lot of lessons firsthand about what good lawyers can do. Anybody who says they weren't fascinated watching Johnnie Cochran give that closing argument is lying. It was a magnificent performance, just a magnificent job by a defense lawyer. So it just taught people a lot.