The O.J. Simpson murder trial exposed many painful truths. None hit harder than the idea that white and black people often look at the same facts and see different realities.
Today, 20 years after the case divided the nation, few opinions about the saga have changed. Despite two decades’ worth of increasing racial acceptance, the Simpson case still reflects deep-rooted obstacles to a truly united America.
Most people still believe that the black football legend killed his white ex-wife and her friend, polls show. But for many African-Americans, his likely guilt remains overwhelmed by a potent mix: the racism of the lead detective and the history of black mistreatment by the justice system.
For these people, Simpson’s acquittal is a powerful rebuke to what they see as America’s racial crimes. Others simply see a murderer who played the race card to get away with it. Across the board, emotions remain vivid.
“It was very tense at work,” recalls Carlos Carter, who at the time was one of the few black people working in the trust department of a Pittsburgh bank. “The whites felt like O.J. was guilty, they were rooting for their team. We thought he was innocent, that he was kind of framed, so we were on the black team.”
He adds: “We were consumed with it. Like Sugar Ray Robinson fighting the great white hope. ... It represented something bigger than the case, the battle between good and evil, the battle between the white man and the black man. It was at that level.”
This sentiment, widespread in the black community, was confusing to Shannon Spicker, a white woman who was working her way through college in Ohio at the time.
“Most of us didn’t understand why it was racially charged,” she says. “We didn’t understand how people could defend him just because he was black, is what it felt like. We knew he was guilty, but they defended him because he was black. It was weird.”
The perception gap grew from a perfect storm of race, sex, history, celebrity and media.
On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were found knifed to death outside her condo in the wealthy Los Angeles enclave of Brentwood.
Suspicion quickly focused on Simpson. He had beaten and threatened his former wife in the past. Police said they found blood on his driveway, and a bloody glove and sock on his property. He had a cut on his hand. Nobody saw him at the time of the murders.
Several factors heightened and complicated the drama:
Simpson had a mixed-race marriage in a nation that had historically punished black men who dared to explore interracial sex. He was the target of a Los Angeles Police Department that had a reputation for racism and corruption.
But Simpson also was a wealthy Hollywood actor and ad pitchman with little connection to the black community, a man who divorced his black wife for a young blonde and traveled in Los Angeles’ most privileged white circles.
“It becomes a very complex study in American history,” says Ronnie Duncan, who was working as a TV sportscaster at the time. Duncan, now 55, is black.
Live pursuit on tv
Simpson was supposed to turn himself in on June 17, but he failed to show up at the police station. Instead, his friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian (father of the Kardashian reality-show clan) read a rambling statement from the missing Simpson that many interpreted as suicidal. A few hours later, Simpson was spotted in a white Bronco, driven by his friend Al Cowlings. A police caravan trailed him down the 405 freeway as crowds lined the overpasses and more than 90 million people watched on live television.
“It was such a surreal scene,” said Todd Looney, a black Los Angeles native.
“What was so strange was the fact how even reactions to his pursuit were divided along racial lines,” says Looney, 46, a media company consultant. “I remember seeing people on the overpass by Sunset Boulevard, cheering as he went by, and most of them were black. I’m thinking, why are you cheering? Somebody’s about to kill himself. It was kind of disgusting, as if it was O.J. versus the police.”
Just like that, the narrative began.
“Based on well-documented stories throughout this city’s history, I did believe the LAPD was wracked with racism and corruption,” Looney said, mentioning the case of Rodney King, the black suspect whose videotaped beating by white officers led to devastating riots.
“So there was already suspicion that the police would not only bungle this case, the production and protection of evidence, but they may actually lie and bring forth things that weren’t true as evidence,” he says.
Simpson was charged with double murder, punishable by the death penalty. The trial began six months later. In his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden said Simpson was a wife beater and a stalker who murdered his ex in a jealous rage.
Simpson assembled the highest-profile lawyers money could buy. During his opening, attorney Johnnie Cochran said there was a rush to judgment by authorities who wanted to win at any cost. He said Simpson was home alone at the time of the killings, practicing his golf swing.
The prosecution had a pile of evidence, including something relatively new then: DNA analysis. Prosecutors said DNA matched Simpson’s blood to samples from the murder scene. They said they found blood matching the victims’ in his Bronco, on a glove at Simpson’s property and on a sock in his bedroom.
But the prosecution had a big problem: the lead detective, Mark Fuhrman — the one who had produced the bloody glove from Simpson’s estate.
Fuhrman was a white cop who used racist language and lied about it on the stand during the trial. (He later was convicted of perjury.) He was on tape bragging about assaulting black gang members and making them beg for mercy. Before the murders, he had arrested Simpson for beating Nicole.
Defense lawyers suggested that he planted the glove out of a racist desire to frame a black man. They said other blood evidence could have been planted, too, or at least was unreliable due to sloppy police work.
“That was huge for me,” recalls Carter. “I thought any investigation Fuhrman is part of, especially when evidence was not handled properly, he’s trying to get someone at any cost.
“I thought they compromised it so much I can’t trust the evidence. The corruption overshadowed all the other things that may have been logical to me,” he says.
Cameron Vigil, who is white, saw it differently.
“Clearly [Fuhrman] was difficult and lying and trying to obfuscate while he was up there,” recalls Vigil, a 45-year-old strategic retail analyst from Charlotte, N.C. “That’s a win for the defense. I thought it was just another nasty look at the LAPD, and not that big for the case. I kind of separated those things out.”
“Just because he is a not very smart, racist guy,” Vigil says, “I don’t know that means O.J.’s not guilty.”
The bloody glove itself, which probably was the strongest evidence of Simpson’s guilt, also was seen through very different lenses.
Prosecutors asked Simpson, in court, to try it on. The former movie star struggled and grimaced while trying, apparently unsuccessfully, to fit the glove on his hand.
Spicker laughs at the memory.
“I’m sorry, I thought it was hysterical. I laughed that day, too,” she says. “It doesn’t make any sense. Any good attorney wouldn’t make him try it on. Those were his gloves. His facial expression, it was comical. He was acting.”
But it was a big moment for Carter. He repeats the famous line from Cochran’s closing statement:
“If it does not fit, you must acquit.”
The 12-person jury did exactly that. Nine jurors were black, two white, and one Hispanic.
Duncan was at home, watching on television, as the verdict was announced. He literally jumped for joy.
“It wasn’t so much for O.J. I was jumping for joy. It was the process. … It was the victory over the United States justice system that has always had a different treatment for me and my brother.”
“I never said O.J. wasn’t guilty,” Duncan continues. “I just said he got off.”
Not all black people cheered — Looney recalls hearing the verdict while a student at Stanford business school, and being perplexed by other blacks’ response.
“Not that it made me question my identity, but I’m thinking, I don’t relate to these people,” says Looney, who thinks that Simpson committed the crimes but the prosecution didn’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
“They were cheering because black folks have always felt like the justice system was stacked against them. … Lots of disenfranchised black people experiencing the brunt of police brutality probably found a lot of solace in this.”
There was no solace for Spicker. The cheers that echoed across black America that day troubled her.
“These two innocent people were killed, and you’re cheering because their murderer was just set free,” she said. “It was a shame. It feels racist against the white victims.”
Carter now thinks that Simpson was guilty, but he makes no apologies for his feelings at the acquittal 20 years ago.
“That pride that I felt, I don’t take it back. I don’t feel I was hoodwinked. I was just living in the moment, and it was a victory for my people,” says Carter, now 42.
“I didn’t think of it then, but that’s what it was for me. A victory,” he says. “I could have cared less about O.J., but when I saw him, I saw myself.”