Instant History "Flashback" by Bryce Zabel
Now that O.J. Simpson has been arrested and facing jail time yet again, it seems like a good time to think back the moment when that first verdict came down in the O.J. Simpson double-murder case here in Los Angeles. As far as newsmagazine coverage of this case is concerned, it began with controversy, prompting the only pulled-back cover in Time's history, probably created more cover-stories than any other single news story short of 9/11 related coverage.
Time led its October 16, 1995 "O.J. Simpson Verdict: Special Report" with an extended essay from Roger Rosenblatt that was titled, perhaps way too optimistically, "A Nation of Pained Hearts: Americans, black and white, may be able to use the O.J. verdict as a chance to embark on a pilgrimage toward and candor and charity."
"At least there was one moment of visible black-and-white unity last week. It occurred on Tuesday, shortly after 10 a.m. Pacific time, when crowds of citizens, gathered together in the streets like extras in a War of the Worlds movie of the 1950s, stood staring up at outdoor television screens, waiting for the word. They were united, briefly, in an anxious silence of the heart. As soon as the verdict was read, however, they split apart; they could watch themselves do it on the split screens. On one side jubilation, on the other dismay. Afterward it was said that America should have seen it coming, that the division of the races cut so deep, it ought to have been obvious that two nations had always been hiding in one."
Like JFK's death, the moon landing and 9/11, many of us have a memory of how we heard the news and what it meant. I was in pre-production on the pilot for what would become an NBC TV series, Dark Skies, and we had offices at the Lantana business park in Santa Monica. When the word went out that they were about to read the verdict, people pored out of their offices into the building lobby where there was a big-screen television. I'm talking something like fifty people, probably a dozen of them African-American. When the words "not guilty" were read, I think everybody in the room was shocked and surprised. Without exception every white person recoiled and, simultaneously, every single African-American began to applaud and cheer. Keep in mind that we were all co-workers and that everybody was well-educated and employed. The difference between everybody in the room was race and nothing else.
Back to that issue of Time. The actual coverage began after the essay, and showed us that famous photo of O.J. with the very strange smile on his face being hugged by Johnnie Cochran as Kardashian and Bailey, his other (white) attorneys, continued to listen to the verdict.
"A mug shot, two gravestones, a smile. The trial can be reduced to these emblems. Or to entries in a specialized gazetteer: Rockingham, Bundy, Brentwood. A bestiary: barking dog, white Bronco, blond Kato. Names on a list: Marcia and Johnnie, Darden and Shapiro, Fung, Lee, Scheck, Ito, Fuhrman. A weird alphabet: DNA, O.J., A.C., LAPD, the N word. All were signposts to a greater geography, one uneasily contained on the premises of the California Superior Court. Television viewers saw the proceedings and were captured by the legal dramatics; and yet there were always hints of unseen details and untold tales."
One of the things I found most interesting in this coverage is how the defense felt about Judge Lance Ito. Apparently, they disliked him about as much as the prosecution did.
"Says defense attorney Peter Neufeld: 'I was very disappointed with Judge Ito, the fact that he was so concerned with his status as a celebrity, his willingness to entertain personalities in chambers, to show the lawyers little videotapes of skits on television.' One day, says Neufeld, Ito brought all the lawyers into chambers to show them a clip of the 'Dancing Itos' from Jay Leno's Tonight Show. 'You may find that amusing on a personal level, but I can assure that on a professional level it is so unacceptable, for a judge who is presiding over a murder where two people lost their lives in the most gruesome and horrible fashion, and where a third person has his life on the line, to bring the lawyers into chambers to show them comic revues.' Ito even told the lawyers Simpson jokes he had heard. Says Neufeld: 'As someone who has tried cases for twenty years, I found it deplorable and I was shocked.'"
So now O.J.is arrested again, this time on charges related to him using a gun trying to get back some sports memorabilia he says belonged to him. Were those buyers looking to own a souvenir from a sports hero or the murderer who got away? Maybe that depends on race, too. It's sad if it does because no race should have to bear the burden of defending a murderer. But that's America these days.
O.J., of course, has had over a decade to continue searching for "the real killer" as he so famously promised and, so far, has not turned anyone up. Maybe his break with reality has been so complete that he doesn't realize he's looking right at him every day he shaves.