In the beginning it was a double murder, and then it was a criminal trial that dominated America’s interest and attention as the law tried its hardest to convict a man.
A man who became perhaps the most famous criminal defendant in American history and so easily recognizable that people referred to him by his initials only. It went on and on for nine months. There were eleven lawyers representing the man in the dock and twenty five working around the clock for the largest prosecutor's office in the land.
It became the most publicized case in United States history. It was the longest trial ever held in California, costing over $20,000,000 to fight and defend, running up 50,000 pages of trial transcript in the process. There were 150 witnesses called to give evidence before a jury that was sequestered at the Hotel Intercontinental in downtown Los Angeles from January until October.
Half way through the trial, the presiding judge, who could so easily have wandered into the whole thing from Alice in Wonderland, decided they needed some recreation and arranged for them to go sightseeing in a Goodyear blimp. For added measure he sent them to the theatre and on a boat trip to Catalania Island as well.
No movie or television courtroom drama would have dared to unfold the way this one did, and it was not without coincidence that it evolved in Los Angeles, so often referred to by cynics as "La La Land," the only place in the world where you look for culture in yogurt cups. The rest of America and the world became obsessed with the empty, celebrity-dominated West Los Angeles backdrop to the crime.
On CNN, Larry King told his viewers, “If we had God booked and O.J. was available, we’d move God.” The case received more media coverage and was accompanied by more unadulterated hype than any other criminal trial since the Lindbergh kidnapping-murder case in New Jersey in the 1930's, even exceeding the notorious Manson Family trial of the early 1970's.
The media influence, in fact, became so intense that one poll showed 74% of Americans could identify Kato Kaelin but only 25% knew who Vice President Al Gore was. An incredible 91% of the television viewing audience watched it and an unbelievable 142 million people listened on radio and watched television as the verdict was delivered.
One study estimated that U.S. industry lost more than $25 billion as workers turned away from their jobs to follow the trial. 2000 reporters covered the trial. 121 video feeds snaked out of the Criminal Courts building where it was held. There were over 80 miles of cable servicing 19 television stations and eight radio stations. 23 newspaper and magazines were represented throughout the trial, the Los Angeles Times itself publishing over 1000 articles throughout the period. Over 80 books and thousands of articles have already been published, authored seemingly by everyone with any role in the trial.
But why did America go stir-fry over O.J. Simpson and the illogically classified “Trial of the Century”? When the events began to unfold, the lead actor in the greatest soap opera to fascinate the American public in the twentieth century was hardly that important. He had admittedly been a famous professional footballer, considered by some to have been one of the greatest running backs in American football history. He had won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top college football player in 1968 and his NFL records, mainly secured in his career with the Buffalo Bills, include most rushing yards gained in one season, most rushing yards gained in a single game and most touchdowns scored in a season.
But he had retired in 1979 and drifted into a mediocre to modestly successful career in sports broadcasting and minor movie roles. He was best known as the spokesman for Hertz Rental Cars. When Nicole Brown, his second wife, first met him, she had no idea who he was. When the lead prosecutor against him was approached by a LAPD detective for help in getting a search warrant on a property owned by O.J., she asked the police officer, “Who is O.J. Simpson? Phil, I’m sorry, I don’t know him.” Yet all three major television networks plus CNN covered the story of his trial in massive detail. A murder trial involving victims known only to their family and friends and a defendant called Simpson, who was less known and recognizable than Bart Simpson, became a media hype-fest that would have made P.T. Barnum shake his head in disbelief.
The story of O.J. Simpson and the so-called “Trial of the Century” turned into an epic of exploitation and media overkill that grew over the months into some huge cancerous communication tumor, feeding not only on itself, but also the ravenous appetite of its audience, who was desperate for more and more titillating details
If all of this was not enough, the brutal murder of two innocent victims spawned a legal mud fight that questioned the competence of just about everyone involved and created a schism between the black and white population that a CNN poll estimated may have set back race relations in the United States by thirty years.
To many, particularly in minority communities, the trial of Orenthal James Simpson became not so much a determination of his guilt or innocence of murder in the first degree, beyond a reasonable doubt, but whether or not a black man could find justice in a legal system designed by and largely administered by whites. To others, many of whom were white, the key question was whether a mostly minority jury would convict a black celebrity regardless of the weight of evidence against him.
To others, the tragic deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman always seemed stage left, as the man on trial for their murders commanded center stage in his fight to prove bigotry and racism were the real issues on trial, using a pack of slick lawyers willing to circumnavigate the parameters of legal etiquette and acceptable courtroom manners to achieve their objectives, transforming their client, an accused double murderer, into some kind of political prisoner.