The Cult: OJ Simpson
The Cult returns for 2017 with a man who once ranked among America's most popular sportsmen, but went on to become a full-blown national scandal.
Illustration by Dan Evans
The Cult returns for 2017 with a man who once ranked among America's most popular sportsmen, but went on to become a full-blown national scandal. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: Racism & The Juice
Know what the definition of Cult is? The treatment of OJ Simpson by the LAPD. Bam! Straight in there with it, like the shoulder of the Juice through the clutches of a linebacker, back when he was – with no caveats on this at all – the most popular sportsman in America. That's the kind of fame visible from space. And yet, interestingly, it was roughly one-third as famous as he was going to get. His name has now entered the shorthand section of the English language, along with things like Titanic, and using the suffix -gate to denote a scandal.
Prior to really knowing the substance of his trial, I had some half-baked sense that 'racism' was a key factor that allowed OJ Simpson to murder two people, brutally, be basically the only suspect in a 100-mile radius, and walk out of court a free man. It always crossed my mind that whatever those factors may have been, he must have had an unfathomably good defence team to work it to the point that he was acquitted. As it turned out, upon learning more about the case, racism was indeed the key – the only – factor in his acquittal. The racism of the jury, made up of nine black people, two white people, and one Hispanic person. The only truly significant achievement of his defence team was securing a jury of that profile – a jury who presumably, growing up in LA, could tell you a few stories about how racism looked when it was being used against them by the LAPD and all-white juries. OJ, a shining symbol of black success, vs. White People. Who do you think they're going to pick?
You'd think they'd pick 'justice', wouldn't you? When I was young, when life was simple, the workings of the grown-ups' legal system was as elementary as Father Christmas – it came, in the right way, to the right place. That a courtroom could feature such bristling racial grievances, a prosecution team so utterly complacent in their certainty of winning that they made every conceivable mis-step, a judge so overawed by his 15 minutes of fame he exercised all the judicial oversight of a packet of crisps, and that the jury could just palpably get bored and stop listening to the mounting, irrefutable evidence of OJ's guilt – this, to me as a child, wasn't a possibility. Grown-ups knew what they were doing.
You wonder how it is for kids now, given what they see. World Cups to Qatar. Donald Trump to the White House. Are there any kids naïve enough to believe the adult world works as it should?
Point of Entry – High
Thought it'd be low, huh? Are you out of your mind? Via the power of his Cult persona, OJ Simpson managed to defeat the kind of evidence that, if you presented about an eighth of it in an average case, would get 100% of everyone locked up for life without parole. Blood from OJ Simpson was found at the house of his murdered ex-wife, Nicole. Blood from Ron Goldman, her lover, who OJ had never met, was found on the inside of OJ's car parked outside his house. A limo driver dispatched to take OJ to the airport on the evening of the murder had clear evidence that OJ was not, as he claimed, at home the entire time. Oh, and the LAPD had what amounted to a case-closed history of OJ beating the shit, repeatedly, out of Nicole, to the point that she was making 911 calls like the one below.
But OJ had been assiduously courting the LAPD for years, to the point that they stopped by at the house of this NFL Hall-of-Famer unannounced, to take a swim in his pool and listen to some old war stories. The great irony of the racist forcefield thrown around OJ by the jury – and one beautifully captured in Jeffrey Toobin's The People vs. OJ, the only book you need on the subject – is that by the time of the murder OJ was basically a stereotypical white person. His milieu was corporate golf events, country clubs, obsequiously good relationships with the local police. His richest period was when corporate America fixed on him as a good person to advertise products to white America far more than black. Nonetheless, black America, or at least the black America that a complacent prosecution team couldn't really be arsed to prevent the defence from weighting the jury with, saw him as an example of one of their own who'd made America bow. I think inside a whole lot of Americans beats the desire to do something on the big stage, when all the cameras and lights of that cultish ferment are poised – and here, for any of them on the jury, was a chance to stick it to the LAPD's treatment of them, which at that point sometimes included having the front wall of your house caved in by a tank in case there was evidence of gang activity going on inside.
I'm ambivalent as to whether OJ getting off was unfair. Of course, via the legal system, it was unfair, and it's good that about five minutes later and by a somewhat more focused prosecution team he was found entirely guilty in the civilian case, and karma hasn't exactly afforded him a happy life since. But in the context of the American black experience with the legal system, was it unfair? Something to think about.
The Moment – The prosecution screws up 'the glove that didn't fit'
About the most famous line from the trial was 'If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit', used by OJ's defence lawyers regarding a glove found dumped behind buildings on his property. Here are some facts about those gloves, to demonstrate quite what a car-crash the prosecution was. One was found at the murder scene, the other near OJ's house. That, your honour, is pretty compelling. They were rare as fuck – 'You have no idea how rare these gloves are', said the general manager of Aris, the gloves' manufacturer. They were only sold in the U.S. at Bloomingdale's, and only a fraction of them in an extra large size. And wouldn't you know it, Nicole Simpson had a credit card receipt for two pairs in extra large. I mean seriously, in a fair trial a team comprising a horse and a goldfish with a day to prepare could win this case.
But, amazingly, the gloves didn't fit OJ when he demonstrated trying to put them on in court. Just kidding – they didn't fit when he demonstrated trying to put them on in the manner of someone trying to not fit a pair of gloves, like something you picture in a Charlie Chaplin film. This is where another car-crash element comes in: the judge, Lance Ito, who had been so addled by the whole frenzy that he simply let OJ stand there clowning. And the prosecution, sinking beneath the disorientation of realising they might actually lose this case, couldn't find the will to prevent it either.
The jury, who were already convinced, were convinced.
Journalist to OJ's successful defence lawyer, Robert Shapiro, 2016: "And you believe the killer of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman has never faced trial?'' Shapiro: "I think there's a strong possibility that that's the case."
Should be some golden rule about what it means when someone uses 10 words instead of saying 'yes'. Interesting side-note: the only one of Simpson's supposed 'dream team' of defence lawyers who actually seemed effective was Johnnie Cochran, a black man. And finally: Rob Kardashian, father of the brood, who in popular mythology has become a part of that defence team, was really just gooning around in the background and telling the Juice how much he liked him.