Life After O.J.

What have we learned from the Trials of the Century?


Joyce Millman
February 6, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

today is the first day of the rest of your life without an O.J. Trial. What will you do with the hours formerly spent in front of the tube watching legal gasbags rehash the Simpson Saga? What will you do with your anger, your frustration, your righteous indignation? To what use will you put your keen analytical skills now that they're no longer needed to obsessively ponder blood spatters and time lines and designer footwear? Where will all that energy go? And how will your newspapers, your TV talk shows, your webzines fill the space previously filled by O.J.?

Before considering an O.J.-free future, let's stop and reflect on what we have learned from the Trials of the Century.

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1. If a tree fell in the forest and a TV crew wasn't around to broadcast it, it would still make a sound, although the sound it made would not be blown out of all proportion to its weight.

To put it another way, perhaps if Judge Ito had had the guts (and the minimal ego) required to turn off the courtroom cameras the first time around, the defense's cynical and repulsive playing of the race card would not have had the ripple effect of poisoning the meager harmony that had been achieved thus far by blacks and whites in America. The "it's really about deeper issues" crap was eagerly lapped up by the media looking for an angle to justify devoting massive amounts of newsprint and air time to what is fundamentally a lurid celeb-in-disgrace story.

And as late as Monday night, the night before the civil verdict was reached, there were former Dream Teamers Alan Dershowitz and Johnnie Cochran back on TV again, directing Race Card II from their bully pulpits on CNBC and Court TV. They were backing Simpson attorney Robert Baker's motion for a mistrial after the removal last week of the only black juror on the panel. How much of that got to the non-sequestered jurors? (Cochran admitted on his show, "Cochran & Grace," Monday that he had been in on a conference call strategy meeting with Simpson and Baker.) But it all backfired. Clearly, the jurors were seized with a sense of urgency after the juror removal and wanted to get their verdict out before the whole process collapsed.

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2. The rich and famous aren't different from me and you, they're just richer and more famous.

If the first O.J. trial was "about" anything, it was about the ability of the legal system to be subverted by a defendant with money or social standing. I don't ever want to hear another word about race in this case, or about "the white verdict" vs. "the black verdict." I know for certain that my own kicked-in-the-gut feeling after Verdict 1 came in had nothing to do with race and everything in the world to do with the fact that a rich, famous and, as DNA evidence indicated, extremely guilty defendant spent a fortune assembling a team of the best (i.e. most shameless) defense attorneys money can buy and -- surprise -- they got him off.

Of course, it also helped that the prosecution in the criminal trial was too afraid to go after Simpson the way they'd go after say, a non-famous murder defendant. "We all laughed at him with the giant Afro in 'Naked Gun,'" Christopher Darden mused apologetically. So sorry to trouble you with this nasty business, Sir.

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Plaintiff attorney Daniel Petrocelli had no such qualms in the civil trial. He called Simpson a murderer to his face. And when the charismatic football hero/professional glad-hander finally had to take the stand, he looked the jury in the eye and lied -- feeble, pathetic, guilty and desperate "I never hit Nicole and those aren't my feet" lies. Unfortunately for him, the civil jury saw not the silent, iconic, beloved sports hero of the criminal trial, they saw a human being.

The most striking image to come out of the hours of verdict-watch coverage Tuesday evening was that of the Goldman family holding hands, surrounded by a wedge of motorcycle cops, walking with heads high toward the Santa Monica County Courthouse. They looked like the students in Tiananmen Square. The civil trial was not about money, as Simpson's supporters on various talk shows have charged; it was about holding O.J. Simpson, Human, accountable for the deaths of two other humans.

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3. Low-tech is sometimes all the tech you need.

Because Judge Fujisaki banned live TV and radio coverage of the verdict (as he had coverage of the trial itself), networks were forced to find other ways of feeding the verdict instantaneously to viewers. The reading of the civil verdict was a moment of televised suspense unequalled even by the criminal verdict, as news correspondents inside the "listening trailer," where a small group of reporters were allowed to hear a live feed of the courtroom proceedings, held up cards to the window -- "Y" meant "Yes, liable" -- to show us the jury's decision. Excuse the levity, but they really ought to try this on Oscar night. It was riveting.

And now, where do we go from here?

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We can get a life, or we can continue to tune in to Geraldo for the minute details of the appeal and the hunt for assets. We can refuse to give this thing any more of our money, or we can run out and buy the books by Tom Lange and Marcia Clark and Paula Barbieri and Fred Goldman and maybe Simpson himself. We can vow to never again get caught up so deeply in titillating and sad but ultimately meaningless junk news, or we can turn our attentions to the JonBenet Ramsey case.

It was ironic that since late afternoon Tuesday, the networks had been juggling coverage of the verdict-watch and President Clinton's State of the Union Address, a breaking news double-header that MSNBC's John Gibson termed "a coast-to-coast media train wreck." But maybe it was all for the good. Just before NBC cut away to the president's speech, demoting to MSNBC the pictures of O.J.'s car driving to the courthouse and the endless speculative yammering from expert legal analysts (including the Scheckmonster), Tom Brokaw testily declared, "I cannot remember a more unlikely confluence of events ... The president of the United States is about to address the nation about the issues that affect us all," and I have to admit that after almost three years of O.J. Junkiedom, I think old Tom helped me see the light. Believe it or not, O.J. is insignificant in the scheme of things and no matter what the jury decided, the republic would stand. The only people who need closure here are the Brown and Goldman families -- not me, not you, not Geraldo. So farewell to all that. I'm outta here.

But I'm still relieved the bastard finally got his due.

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Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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