The Pop Culture Case of the O.J. Simpson Trial

Some 20 years after the ex-athlete's acquittal on murder charges, the story of the sordid saga drags on.

Credit: AFP/Getty Images

It was a made-for-TV moment, a sequence ingrained in anyone who watched it unfold live or in countless replays since: the disgraced gridiron great, his lawyer's hand on his shoulder, uncoils his clenched frame with a burst of relief, mixed perhaps with a hint of surprise, upon hearing the magic words "not guilty." 

Still, the emotions O.J. Simpson betrayed as he was acquitted 20 years ago Saturday of killing his ex-wife and her friend seemed static compared to the range of reactions from across the country. No matter where you stood on the question of the former football star's guilt or innocence, in that moment the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the subject of a protracted, at-times lurid spectacle, were never more real to the mass audience.

The verdict offered both surface resolution and a deep, gnawing emptiness to the climax of a case that can never be fully resolved – barring a confession from the murderer, or the "real killers," as Simpson infamously put it.

Long before "Serial" and long after "Perry Mason," there was the O.J. Simpson double murder trial, a national soap opera and obsession that so engulfed, enraged and entertained people it became too easy at times forget the two innocent lives lost in a fury of bloodshed on June 12, 1994.

As for what the so-called Trial of the Century means two decades later, easy explanations are as scarce as witnesses to the killings. The requisite anniversary reflections leave us to focus on what the case wrought, rather than seek elusive, pat lessons.

As previously noted, the blanket media coverage of the fall of one of the country's greatest athletes, whose crossover appeal made him a beloved celebrity, presaged the Internet-driven, incessant stargazing mania. TMZ (via Harvey Levin, one of many reporters to cover the case) is a direct descendant of the trial – as is "CSI" and any crime lab-driven shows where DNA is the key acronym. 

From the Bronco Chase to the verdict, the Simpson case played like a national Reality TV show – one filled with catchphrases ("If it doesn't fit, you must acquit"), high-end brand-name references (Bruno Magli, Louis Vuitton) and a cast of compelling characters (Kato Kaelin, Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, among them). The saga also included a Kardashian (the late family patriarch Robert Kardashian, probably Simpson's closest confidante).

For those of us who spent even a modest amount of time in the Los Angeles courtroom, the proceedings packed the odd feel of being at the taping of a familiar TV show – even if there was only one Judge Ito and he wasn't dancing.

The trial's TV arc culminated not with the verdict, but with widespread coverage of the split reaction beyond the courtroom. The images of those celebrating and those decrying Simpson’s acquittal, along with subsequent polls, exposed a divide, if far from monolithically, along racial lines.

A recent Washington Post-ABC survey indicates the nation is closer to agreeing on Simpson's guilt than it was on Oct. 3, 1995. If nothing else, the results suggest the case still prompts strong feelings, and won't be leaving the mass frame of reference anytime soon. Anyone who wasn't around for the Simpson circus will be able to get a peek through the upcoming FX series, "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson," which stars Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Simpson, if he chooses to watch, likely will be doing so from the Nevada prison where he's serving 33 years for robbery and kidnapping, stemming from a dispute over memorabilia he says was stolen from him. The remnants of past glories represented just about all he had left, even if he probably wasn't planning to sell it to pay off any of the millions he owes to the Brown and Goldman families after losing a wrongful death civil suit in 1997.

The athlete once known as “The Juice,” if only relatively briefly, regained his freedom in 1995, a luxury the victims never had. If she were still alive, Nicole Brown Simpson would be 56 and perhaps hanging out with her pal, Kris Jenner. In a better world, Ronald Goldman, by age 47, would have achieved his dream of opening a restaurant.

The anniversary of the trial’s end likely will mean repeated showings of O.J. Simpson’s reaction to the verdict. Not likely to be seen near as much is the other memorable, more searing image from the courtroom that day: Kim Goldman weeping for her brother as her father, Fred, comforts her and shakes his head in disbelief.

Whether or not the tens of millions witnesses to the verdict reacted with relief or disbelief, all can agree the jury’s rendering didn’t close the debate on a crime that, unlike just about everything else associated with Simpson case, occurred far away from any cameras.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

Copyright FREEL - NBC Local Media
Contact Us