There’s irony and tragedy that O.J. Simpson is back in the news again. Both came together when Simpson filed a 102-page petition the same month, June, that 20 years earlier the bodies of ex-wife Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were found butchered in her Bel Aire, California home. Simpson’s petition pleads with the Nevada Supreme Court to grant him a new trial on his robbery, kidnapping and weapons conviction in 2008. Simpson is serving a nine to 33-year sentence. The petition and the 20-year passage of the murders sparked some speculation over whether Simpson has a legal leg left to stand on. Simpson has already been turned down by Nevada courts in a request for a new trial and his one half-hearted appeal to President Obama this past January for clemency was more a laugh line than a serious hope that Obama would even acknowledge the appeal. His latest court appeal will likely go nowhere and Simpson will almost certainly serve every minute of the minimum of his sentence.
This will satisfy the court of law. But it will never totally satisfy many in the court of public opinion. The reason is simple: Simpson’s acquittal on the double murder charges 19 years ago still sticks in the craw of much of America. The bloggers and legal pundits who had anything to say about Simpson’s petition for a new trial spent little time talking about that and nearly all their time talking about the murders, and how a murderer supposedly gamed the system and skipped away scot free. If Simpson stayed alive long enough to serve every day of the maximum of his sentence he was slapped with that would not be good enough for many.
From the day that he beat the double murder rap and walked out of a Los Angeles court, his ill-gained notoriety and perverse celebrity virtually guaranteed that the legal hammer would drop especially hard on him at the first whiff of criminal wrongdoing. There was no chance that given the savage public mood toward him and with the one person truth squad of Ron Goldman’s father, Fred, continually wagging the guilt finger at him that Simpson would get the benefit of the doubt on any future charges against him. He, of all people, should’ve known that.
A poll taken after Simpson’s Las Vegas bust in 2007, more than a decade after his acquittal, found that a majority of the public still seethed that he was a murderer who skipped away and that his trial and acquittal was a blatant travesty of justice.
Even many of Simpson’s one time black supporters who passionately screamed that he was the victim of a biased criminal justice system in the L.A. murder trial cut and run after the Las Vegas verdict. There was not even a bare peep from them that the conviction had any racial taint to it. Simpson and his attorney’s complaint that prosecutors massaged and twisted jury selection to ensure a non-black jury drew barely a yawn in press and legal circles.
Simpson didn’t invent or originate the ugly divide in public opinion about celebrity guilt, let alone the racial divide. Both have always lurked just beneath the surface. But his case propelled it to the front of public debate and anger. The horde of Simpson media commentators, legal experts and politicians who branded the legal system corrupt and compromised also fueled public belief that justice is for sale.
Simpson’s acquittal seemed to confirm that the rich, famous and powerful have the deep pockets to hire a small army of high-priced, high-profile attorneys, expert witnesses, experts and investigators who routinely mangle the legal system to stall, delay and drag out their cases, and eventually allow their well-heeled clients to weasel out of punishment. Even when prosecutors manage to win convictions of or guilty pleas from celebrities, their money, fame, power and legal twisting often guarantee that they will get a hand slap jail sentence, if that.
The racial divide is another matter. The fact that a mostly black jury acquitted Simpson of all charges in the murder trial ignited a near unprecedented racial hysteria with many blacks cheering the verdict not because they thought Simpson was a babe-in-the-woods, innocent victim but because of the perceived century-long stacked deck that blacks face in a racially-twisted criminal justice system. Their cheers were for the one black man who seemingly beat the odds and the rap.
Many whites that railed against the injustice of the verdict saw it as just the opposite. That race was stood on its head in the L.A. courtroom and Simpson walked precisely because he was black. In the decades since his acquittal, in every celebrity black man’s case from Michael Jackson to Mike Tyson, the racial divide over their guilt or innocence has repeatedly roared to the surface.
Simpson, in his Las Vegas trial, did his best to try to convince a hostile and doubting public and jury that he was a victim. It worked once, but it didn’t work in Vegas. He simply punched too many of the public’s hot buttons on race, celebrity, gender and violence for that to happen again. Twenty years after the murders he still does.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.