The O.J. Verdict
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how the black community viewed o.j. and the verdict

What is the "delicious irony" some black Americans saw in the not-guilty verdict? Why did so many see it as justified on grounds of "reasonable doubt?" And a decade later, have black Americans changed their views about the jury's not-guilty verdict -- and their views of O.J. himself? Here, offering perspectives on these questions, in excerpts from their FRONTLINE interviews, are Kerman Maddox, Los Angeles businessman; Carl Douglas, coordinating attorney for the defense; Michael Eric Dyson, professor of humanities, the University of Pennsylvania; Shawn Chapman Holley, managing partner, the Cochran Law Firm; and Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Harvard law professor.

Kerman Maddox

Kerman Maddox, Los Angeles businessman and community activist.

Kerman Maddox

…What happens today when the conversation turns to O.J.?

… I'll give you an example. Within our family, as we got together for the holidays, things were so bad in our family -- and I come from a large, loving family, two parents, seven kids -- things were so bad in our family because we were so divided. I was the only one who thought he was guilty other than my brother, who is a cop. Everybody else was convinced that he had nothing to do with it, and my father just thought that I had lost my mind. …

And of course my father's an older man, he's a dark-complected man, and he's from the South, so his life experiences have been different from mine. He talks about an incredibly racist criminal justice system and an incredibly racist military. So my father was convinced, based on his life experiences, that O.J. Simpson had nothing to do with it. He was framed, it was a mockery, and it was all about Mark Fuhrman and planting evidence, and things like that. So my family is united in their opposition to me and my position. … But that just gives an indication of how divided even families were in the black community when one person -- in this case, me -- felt he was guilty and everybody else felt he was innocent.

Is that still true today?

It's not as bad today. I think a lot of 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'll never tell anybody that." Because there's this kind of like 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. …

How did you feel when you heard first the verdict?

I was really conflicted because: 1) I thought he was guilty, and 2) it troubled me that a person who I felt was guilty got off with it. However, on the other hand, I saw this incredible excitement by these young African Americans and some of the older ones as I drove around the community. It was sheer excitement. So then I thought, "Well, God, this is bigger than O.J. This is something where people feel it is really a part of them." They really became attached to this case because of their life experiences and their families and the whole experience of African Americans with the criminal justice system.

But then I thought, "But O.J. has never really been a part of the black community." In fact, he moved out of the black community. He married a white wife. He lived in the white community. His money was spent in the white community. I thought they were excited about the wrong guy. So I had all these emotions going through my mind at that time. …

Carl douglas

Carl Douglas, coordinating attorney for the defense team.

Carl douglas

… No one could really appreciate and understand the O.J. Simpson verdict without understanding the prism through which these jurors examined the facts of this case. In Los Angeles I dare say you could speak to seven African Americans at random, and out of that seven, five would have had a negative experience to talk to you about -- about themselves, a family member, or a friend at the hands of the police department. And no one can really properly analyze this verdict without appreciating the dynamics between the Los Angeles Police Department and the black community of Los Angeles.

Those women [the African American jurors] are the mothers, the wives, the sisters, and the girlfriends of African American men, all of whom over the years had been mistreated by the police. And therefore, they were open to the potential argument that the police might in fact plant evidence or lie against someone accused of a serious crime. …

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

Read the full interview »

… It's not that we couldn't conceive that O.J. would be guilty; the question is, one, can you legally prove that the man did what was claimed that he did?; two, did the prosecution make a compelling case to substantiate their claim that Mr. Simpson was guilty?; and three, there's a difference between being innocent and not guilty.

So black people are not naive enough to think that the proof or the lack of proof of guilt suggests that somebody is innocent. It means that the prosecution didn't meet its burden of proof -- to prove the guilt of Mr. Simpson. So black people believed, when they looked at that racism of Mr. [Mark] Fuhrman and his promiscuous use of the "n" word, when they looked at the history of justice being doled out to African American people in L.A. and the refusal of the police system to reform itself, especially under Daryl Gates, who infamously headed the LAPD -- when you put all that stuff together, there's no question that black people saw the O.J. Simpson case through the lens of race, and that lens had been colored by their immediate experience, and the texture of their lives certainly influenced what they understood was happening in the O.J. Simpson case. …

But 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 troublemaker. 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. …

Shawn Chapman Holley

Shawn Chapman Holley, managing partner of the Cochran Law Firm in Los Angeles.

Shawn Chapman Holley

… The black community has a very different view of the O.J. case. And the media did make a big deal of showing the disparity in the reactions between the white community and the black community and particularly showing black college students at Howard or one of the predominately black colleges cheering. I really don't think that that cheering had much to do with O.J. Simpson himself. I mean, O.J. Simpson had not really been part of the African American community or a hero really to African Americans in recent years. It really had to do with Johnnie Cochran: Johnnie Cochran commanding that courtroom, being brilliant, beating the system. That's really what it had to do with … And here [comes] on TV a black, brilliant attorney winning the case against all the odds. That's what the black people were cheering about.

And the weight of history?

Absolutely. A lot of history, a lot of occasions where black men have been convicted for things that they didn't do, lots of unfair trials involving black male defendants, unfair results, a system that black people didn't think was fair to them overall. Here it could all be turned around in this one instant, and that is what the celebration was all about.

Is that the same feeling now, ten years later?

… Many black people now feel more free to say that they might think that O.J. Simpson was, perhaps, guilty, whereas right after the verdict black people collectively would say, "Absolutely, he was innocent; he didn't do it." As time has gone on, I think that some black people are willing to say, "Maybe not."

But I don't think that it really changes anything at all in terms of their feeling of victory and celebration over the outcome itself because, no matter what, the verdict was correct. The verdict was correct. The case was not proved beyond a reasonable doubt. …

Charles J. Ogletree Jr.

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., professor at Harvard Law School and Director of Harvard's Houston Institute for Race & Justice.

Charles J. Ogletree Jr.

Read the full interview »

… One of the interesting ironies of this entire trial, [one] that isn't lost on the African American community in particular, is that O.J. Simpson was a guest in the white community. He was welcome in the gated community. He was loved from being a great athlete in college and professionally, a pitch man running through airports, and it was clear that the moment he was accused of this, his privilege of whiteness, his privilege of being accepted in the white community, was revoked, and he had never been and will never be accepted in that community again.

Now, [by] the same token, O.J. Simpson was raceless. He was not a person who spent time in African American communities. He was not a person who was deeply committed to African American values. In fact, he talked more about being an American than an African American. And yet the African American community has accepted him not as an athlete or a hero, but as someone in the criminal justice system who, like them, would have been railroaded, they would say, if he had not had a Johnnie Cochran there to rescue him.

And so his privilege of membership in the gated communities of white America has been revoked permanently, and he now is a persona non grata. That will never change. He's lost that view of being raceless. Before he was the prince, and now he's just a nigger. …

And the black community -- have they changed their minds?

… I think that there are probably African Americans now who still believe the system worked, but since no one else has been found, since there is no evidence leading to another suspect, I'm sure the conversation is -- I've heard it in the barbershop or heard it over coffee table or heard it after a church service -- that people are saying, "Hmm, I wonder if O.J. Simpson did it." That question can be asked to infinity, and it won't change anything, and I think the fact that people are asking about it a decade later is good. But I think the fact that people understand how the justice system worked, and it worked in this case, is even more important. …

Marc Watts

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

Marc Watts

… I could see the trial the way most white people saw it. But because I'm an African American male, I could see it through the ways where 90 percent of African Americans saw it.

How did the 90 percent see it?

Well, I'm a product of the community. I grew up in southern California. And 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 LAPD and all this mistrust and all the incompetence and all the frustration that people in Los Angeles of color have towards [them]. I can see the trial through that prism.

And I could understand the mistrust in the community, the black community who sometimes thought that the prosecution planted evidence, thought that they could railroad a black man to a murder conviction because of sloppy police work. I could understand all that on their side, where people were rooting for O.J. Simpson, and hoping that although the man had retired, they hoped that he could outrun the justice system at this point. …

And remember, the final [jury] panel had nine African Americans on it. And by and large, African American people in Los Angeles don't trust the police. So this so-called "mountain of evidence" that the prosecution had, piece by piece crumbled as the defense team chipped away at the scientific evidence, at the so-called "O.J. Simpson timeline," the window of opportunity, the motive. And when you enter into the suspicion and the fears that they have about the Los Angeles police, it was a no-brainer for me … what the verdict was going to be.

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posted oct. 4, 2005

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