The O.J. Verdict
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thoughts and anecdotes

Some personal stories and final assessments of the O.J. Simpson trial from Kerman Maddox, Los Angeles businessman; Alan Dershowitz, member of the defense team; Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Harvard law professor; Carl Douglas, coordinating attorney for the defense; Ted Koppel, anchor and managing editor, ABC's Nightline; Michael Eric Dyson, author and professor, University of Pennsylvania; Donald Jones, law professor, University of Miami; William Hodgman, member of the prosecution team; David Margolick, covered the trial for The New York Times; Scott Turow, attorney and bestselling author; and others.

Scott Turow

Scott Turow, attorney and author of bestselling legal thrillers, including Burden of Proof and Presumed Innocent.

Scott Turow

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… If I was a law professor, or frankly a professor of American culture, I could probably teach an entire semester about the O.J. Simpson case -- the way sometimes one book of James Joyce's will make for an entire semester course.

There are lessons about the law. There are lessons about policing. There are certainly lessons about what's effective and not effective in a courtroom. You will never have a better example of the courtroom maxim of "Never ask a question to which you do not know the answer." You'll never have a better demonstration of it than Christopher Darden's inexperienced suggestion that O.J. Simpson should put on a glove which by the prosecution's own theory had been blood-soaked and thus likely to have shrunk. And of course Simpson couldn't get it on his hand, leading to Johnnie Cochran's famous doggerel that "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."

There are, of course, lessons about American culture, about the profound difference in perceptions between minorities and the white majority. There are lessons about the place of law in American culture when you consider the virtual circus that the Simpson case became. And there are lessons about the way the legal system operates, and the way it's perceived to operate, that emanate from the Simpson case. …

Alan Dershowitz

Alan Dershowitz, member of the Simpson defense team and Harvard law professor.


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… How sure were you that you'd win?

I was not sure. I thought the most likely result was going to be a hung jury, and I was furious at Johnnie Cochran for his closing argument, because I thought by invoking race in the [closing] argument, he would divide the jurors along racial lines. We knew we had two people on the jury who were white, and I was very much afraid of a 10-2 verdict of acquittal, which would have required a second trial.

A second trial would have been a great victory for the prosecution. They never would have tried on the gloves. They never would have put Fuhrman on the witness stand. They would have cleaned up their act, and they very well might have gotten a conviction on a second trial. So I was very concerned about a hung jury, [but] I never really thought there was going to be a 12-nothing for conviction. …

One of the interesting statistics is that people who watched the case every day on television were less surprised at the verdict than the people who got their news about it secondhand, from newspapers and from brief television accounts, because the secondhand accounts clearly had him undoubtedly guilty, whereas watching the trial itself made you aware that there were doubts in this case. This was a very, very weak prosecution, not because of the lack of evidence, but because of that lack of skill by the prosecutors and the reliance by the prosecutors on flawed witnesses. …

Four months after the trial ended, you participated in a mock appeal in Boston of how you would have argued Simpson's appeal had the first trial ended in conviction. You lost that appeal. Why?

Oh, I told everybody from day one, if this case were ever, ever to result in a conviction, we would never ever win the appeal; that the court would find whatever the errors were -- they were harmless errors; [and] that because of the so-called mountain of evidence, any jury would have convicted had the evidence been presented to them in any way. Appellate courts often do that. They make a mistake thinking they understand the trial dynamic, thinking they can count up all the evidence on one side and all the evidence on the other and decide how a jury would have decided.

The appellate court would have been wrong to hold harmless error, but nonetheless, I predicted that no appellate court would ever reverse this conviction, just like no judge would have thrown out the evidence. The only institution that could have acquitted O.J. Simpson was 12 jurors who disappear back in the community. No judge could have done that. ...

Kerman Maddox

Kerman Maddox, Los Angeles businessman and community activist.

Kerman Maddox

… I think a lot of [black] people today, now that they look back on it, think he had something to do with it and many people even admit, "Yeah, I think he's guilty." But they still like the verdict and many of them will not admit that publicly.

There are a lot of black people in this town that have told me privately, "You know I agree with you, I think he did it, but I never tell anybody that," because there's this kind of racial code or something, this camaraderie, there's a line -- if you cross that line, somehow you're not in sync with the thought process in the black community. You're not loyal, or you're a sellout or something like that. But there are a lot of black people in this town today, not back then, but today, who think he did do it, he was guilty. But they never say it publicly. …

Charles J. Ogletree Jr

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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… Everybody thinks that O.J. Simpson and that case created Johnnie Cochran. Johnnie Cochran had been a liberator for three decades. Johnnie Cochran had been helping mothers, whose sons were dying from chokeholds, have a day in court. That had never happened before. Johnnie Cochran was able to free, after twenty-seven years in jail, [former Black Panther] Geronimo Pratt for a murder he did not commit. Johnnie Cochran was there whenever the community called.

So it wasn't about O.J. It was about the lawyer who used his resources, his intellect and his good judgment to prove the flaws in the system. So we celebrate Johnnie Cochran. And O.J. Simpson happened to be the beneficiary of his brilliant legal skills. …

Carl Douglas

Carl Douglas, coordinating attorney for the defense team.

Carl Douglas

… Before Johnnie Cochran, there probably was no national reference point of an African American lawyer that anyone could look to. I remember in the weeks after the verdict, I was asked to sign autographs from people. And initially, I was very reticent. And then I stopped, and I thought about it, and I said, "You know, they are looking up to me because I am a lawyer. And how better is it that they look to black lawyers as opposed to a black athlete, or as opposed to a black rap star? I want my kids as well to look up to black lawyers." And from that point, I always began signing autographs with great pleasure. …

Marc Watts

Marc Watts, covered the Simpson trial as a correspondent for CNN.

Marc Watts

… I'll tell you something that I've never said publicly. I was even arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department. So I can process all this suspicion of the Los Angeles Police Department and all this mistrust and all the incompetence and all the frustration that people in Los Angeles of color have towards the department. And I can see the trial through that prism. And as I listened to the defense team try to build a case of a prosecution that rushed to judgment through sloppy police work and poor evidence gathering, I could understand that case as well….

… I was almost one step ahead of the defense team as they attacked the credibility of that evidence, based on my own experiences with the Los Angeles police department. I could see the train coming, ready to hit the prosecution, before Johnnie Cochran or Barry Scheck or F. Lee Bailey or Robert Shapiro or Gerald Uelmen even got up to cross-examine the person. I mean I knew where they were going with Mark Fuhrman long before it even came out. So in that sense I was able to process it different than my white colleagues. …

Michael Eric Dyson

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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… Did the African Americans rejoicing at O.J.'s acquittal really believe he was innocent?

Absolutely not. I don't think we should make the mistake of believing that black people who celebrated, A) thought O.J. was innocent, or B) were even concerned most about O.J. as opposed to their Uncle Charlie or Bubba or their sister Shanaynay or their Aunt Jackie, who had been screwed by a system that never paid attention to them. Again, O.J. was beyond his body. O.J. was a term that represented every black person that got beat up by the criminal justice system, and now we have found some vindication, and guess what white America? It was with a black man that you loved. It was with a black man that you said was better than us. It was with a black man that you said wasn't like us. He was different than we are. He wasn't a trouble maker. He didn't cause racial consternation, or he wasn't controversial. Ha, ha, ha. The very guy you thought was so perfect turns out to be the one who turned the tables on you. That was a delicious irony of the victory as well. …

… There's no question that O.J. got the benefit of all of the righteous anger that black people had over righteous cases where we knew that a white guy like Byron De La Beckwith, who was eventually charged with murdering Medgar Evers, had gotten away with murder. Which is why black people said to white America, "You can't be simply upset that somebody got away with murder, because then you'd be concerned about the four little girls who got blown up in the church in Birmingham, [Ala.] You'd be concerned about Medgar Evers' murderer, who was going around bragging that he had killed him. So if you're upset, be upset at that. You can't be upset at O.J. He's not the first person to get away with murder." …

So a hidden message in that was: "See, this is what we've been saying all along, white America. That even when you said that the rules were being played by, you knew [the system] was immoral. … So now you need to reexamine the legal system to see if it can be improved, and if it can be improved, it should help black people as well." …

David Margolick

David Margolick covered the O.J. Simpson trial for The New York Times.

David Margolick

… What was it like covering the trial?

It was the most intense experience of my journalistic career. Because it was unrelenting. It went on day after day after day. And all of us in journalism are sort of used to covering things that the rest of the world isn't watching, and we all have the opportunity to describe that world any way we want. It's a very subjective thing and we usually get away with it because other people don't know anything about it. In this instance, everybody was watching over our shoulders, you know? …

There were very few black correspondents covering this case. I can remember two. And as I recall, there was very little discussion between us and them. I mean, I suppose the [racial] chasm was probably-- if we had thought about it--apparent in the press room, because I remember I didn't have much of a relationship with either of the black reporters covering the trial, and I don't remember much discussion ever between us and them on the racial issues underlying it. And maybe it was just sort of a taboo, you just didn't talk about it. And we didn't. And the overwhelming majority of people covering the trial were white. …

We all had a pool to guess what the likeliest outcome would be: conviction or acquittal, and how much time it would take. And there must have been 20 or 30 of us who entered the pool. And all of us were wildly off. I think that the winner picked acquittal in five days. And, of course, it wasn't even close. …

Ted Koppel

Ted Koppel, anchor and managing editor of ABC's Nightline.

Ted Koppel

… During the trial, serious journalists said they didn't think of race.

Well, they didn't, and we didn't. Because, as I say, we perceived O.J. Simpson as being sort of beyond race. He had fame, he had money, he had popularity. Surely a man like O.J. Simpson -- who could walk into any restaurant, any hotel, any business in America, who would be welcomed at any country club in America if he wanted to play golf with people -- he, surely, of all the African Americans in this country, would not believe himself to be [the victim] of prejudice.

And that's where I think Johnnie Cochran ran a brilliant defense in that he was able over the period of time to say, "No, no, no, no. You know, popularity, money, fame -- none of that is as powerful as the perception of the Los Angeles police department that when they are dealing with a black man, they treat him differently than they treat a white man."

And that resonated clearly with the jury. And it resonated with African Americans throughout America. And I think, by and large, white people sort of looked at that and said, "So ridiculous. That can't possibly make a difference in the outcome of this trial." And the looks of disbelief that you saw on the faces of white Americans when the jury's verdict was read, was a function of "He's guilty -- of course he's going to be convicted." There was no doubt in anybody's mind. Well, yes there was. There were doubts in the minds of the jurors. …

Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Toobin, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Run of His Life.

Jeffrey Toobin

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… One of the things I do for a living is go to trials and go to talk to people about trials, and it's always the first case that comes up. It is the immediate point of reference for everybody about the legal system. ... Jurors ask a judge, "Is this going to be a long trial like O.J.?" If it's a woman prosecutor, it's like, "Oh, looks like Marcia Clark. " ... [If] a well-dressed attorney, they say, "Oh, you dress like Johnnie Cochran."

Everybody's immediate point of reference is the Simpson case, and no one ever has to explain their references. Everybody knows what you're talking about. …

One of the interesting things about the passage of 10 years is that, as the phenomenon has had this life, [and it] really is a significant part now of American history, the man himself has disappeared. Who cares what O.J. Simpson thinks or does or says? It's what the case represented; it's not the person. …

William Hodgman

William Hodgman, member of the prosecution team.

William Hodgman

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… When did you know you had lost the case?

I could not read the jury. I didn't know what to expect. We had had some jury readback the first day of so-called deliberations. And the readback had to do with a witness, Allan Park, the limousine driver, who I felt was a very good witness for us -- in many ways, one of the critical witnesses in the whole case. So I felt encouraged by the fact that that readback had occurred, but I didn't know how to place it. How did this come up? Why did they need to hear that?

And it was not long thereafter that we received word that the jury had verdicts and that the verdicts were going to be taken the next day. And I looked at my watch, and I thought, they couldn't have deliberated. There are issues of first- and second-degree murder. There's thoughtfulness, there's a mountain of evidence that has to be reviewed and determined, and I didn't see how anyone exercising reason or common sense could come to conclusions one way or the other that fast.

But I didn't know that going into the next day. I was certainly hopeful. And as I stood there in court, any trial attorney will tell you, time seems to stand still in that ritual as the verdicts come around and the judge reviews them and then ultimately the clerk reads them. Your heart stops as you listen to the first words, you know, "We the jury in the above entitled action find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson not guilty." My first reaction, quite frankly, was I went numb. I literally felt like I lost all feeling and almost had what you might call an out-of-body experience. And I had to check myself: Did I just hear that, or did I imagine that? And I knew it was true when from behind me and to my right I could hear the sound of Kim Goldman's just heartbreaking sobs. It just cut through everything and cut through this little fog I felt myself in, and I realized it's true, they've walked O.J. Simpson. And that's when I knew.

Gerald Uelmen

Gerald Uelmen, member of the Simpson defense team and professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.

Gerald Uelmen

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… I was concerned right up until the end that we were going to have a hung jury. But when we got word that the jury had come back so quickly, I think we all felt quite confident that we were going to get a good result. That it would have taken them longer to find him guilty than to find him not guilty, just in terms of all of the questions they would have to answer and the forms they'd have to fill out. …

Did you feel any backlash, personally?

I certainly got my share of hate mail, even from alumni of this law school. That really shocked me. I mean, you would think, God if anybody should understand what the role of the defense lawyer is and how our system is supposed to operate, it should be somebody who went to law school.

What did they say?

Saying, "How can you hold your head up, you should be ashamed of what you did." And I didn't feel any shame … I felt quite proud of what I did. …

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posted oct. 4, 2005

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