OJ Simpson Was My Vietnam

Posted on October 30, 2011

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Our parents had Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.  They had Watergate and Deepthroat.  They had Dallas, and Memphis, and the Ambassador Hotel.  They had empirical confirmation of the adolescent’s intuitive understanding that the world is not fair, and screwed up, and corrupt.  I envied them that at the time.

JFK, RFK, King, Nixon resigns

We had happy go lucky Jean Chretien, and Slick Willy Clinton, before the blue dress and everything.  We had the just Gulf War that no one objected to, the grainy video game consisting solely of bloodless victory after bloodless victory.  Free trade!  The end of the Evil Empire!  G n’ F’n R!  Everywhere you turned for irrefutable confirmation that things were royally Not Right, you were rebuffed.  Smiles all around.  Things were getting better, marching toward some foggy but reachable future state that would be decidedly better than today.  This was not what a black-hearted teenage boy was looking to see, from the couch in the basement of the suburban family home in Kingston Ontario.  No way.

Kuwaiti oil fields, Clinton and Arsenio, Axl and company, Chretien takes control

We had grunge, sure.  It made us sad and riled us up.  We had Kurt Cobain found dead one day in April 1994, and the macabre address by Courtney Love to the assembled black and plaid clad mourners.  She’s reading his suicide note through sobs, and calling him an asshole, and at one point plaintively asking: then why didn’t you just stay?  Like a wounded animal.  It was horrible, but it didn’t really mean anything, except that this music thing we were into wasn’t going to be some new youth movement or spark some kind of revolution.  Sew up the holes in your jeans.  Half the kids in your class are listening to Ace of Base or Snoop anyways.  Cobain’s death didn’t tell us anything about the world at large.

Grunge is dead. Long live Messrs Kroeger and Rossdale.

I played a lot of Mario Kart down there in the basement, the original one on the Super Nintendo.  Playing as Toad (good acceleration, nice handling, low top speed) I practiced Ghost Valley and Rainbow Road incessantly, and slowly shaved my best times down.  Maybe I should have been up to more trouble at fourteen or fifteen years old, but it was a good time.  One night, just as I’d settled in for some karting, there it was on CNN.  The white Bronco.  It took a while to even know what the hell was going on, as the newspeople breathlessly reported on the current direction and speed and such.  Who’s in there?  OJ Simpson?  You mean that guy in all of the dingo boot ads from the old comic books I read?  That guy in the Naked Gun movies?  Did he play football?  Yeah, that guy.  And so it started.

The infamous Bronco chase

Here’s what we now know:  Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found brutally murdered at midnight, June 13, 1994.  Stabbed to death.  She so violently that she was nearly decapitated.  Through evidence found at the scene and subsequent investigation, LAPD detectives had fairly good reason to suspect Nicole’s ex-husband, OJ.  Four days later, the LAPD let it be known to OJ that they intended to arrest him for the murders.  Bizarrely enough, they agreed to allow him to turn himself in that afternoon.  Just how bizarre is it that the police would let a suspected murderer come into custody on his own sweet time?  And yet they did.

As we all know, he didn’t show up at the appointed time.  In fact, he couldn’t be found anywhere.  His lawyer Robert Kardashian (yes, he who is responsible for unleashing that plague on us known as The Kardashians) holds a hasty press conference wherein he reads a note from Simpson on the steps of the courthouse.  This note (full text here) is very clearly a suicide note.  It’s strange that when you read accounts of the case this note is often referred to in passing, or it’s referenced as a letter that could be construed as a suicide note, maybe.  Read it.  There is no other explanation for this thing except that he intended it to be his last words.  The fact that he didn’t ultimately go through with it doesn’t change what this letter is.  It contains the following statements:

I have nothing to do with Nicole’s murder.  I loved her.  I always have and I always will.  If we had a problem, it’s because I loved her so much.”  Here is the truest statement ever uttered by the man!  If we had a problem…  The conditional here is well justified, as I’m sure that OJ still isn’t entirely sure if they did have a problem.  …It’s because I loved her so much.  True!  Sure, this is some twisted take on the notion of love, but this explains the case completely.  He “loved” her, in his own insane way, so much that he couldn’t stand not having her.  And so…

The letter then goes on to say goodbye to his various friends and golfing buddies, and his girlfriend Paula (luckiest woman alive).  Very interestingly he names and bids adieu to 25 specific people, but not his own children.  He says:

I now see as I leave you’ll be in my thoughts” to Paula.

I can’t go on.  No matter what the outcome people will look and point.  I can’t take that.”  This is kind of hilarious, given that he went on to live as the most shameless at large murderer of all time.

And he includes this most astounding thought:  “At times I have felt like a battered husband or boyfriend, but I loved her”.

I’m dwelling on this because it, coupled with the events of the subsequent few hours, is such a critical piece of evidence, and one which was essentially ignored during the trial, bogged down with DNA and the race card as it was.  The man himself is confessing in public, and planning to kill himself to escape the situation.  This is categorically not the behaviour of a grieving person, and there is no way any right thinking person could read this note – forget everything else – and not know that he did it.  He did it.  He told us he did it.

The sickening part: the prosecution didn’t bother to bring any of this up at the trial.  The note, the disguise, the money, the phone calls, his statement to police.  None of it!

Enter the Bronco.  These were supposed to be the last hours of OJ Simpson, but it didn’t happen that way.  In fact, they were the first hours of the OJ Simpson Industry.  News helicopters picked up a white Ford Bronco on an LA freeway heading for some unknown destination.  Inside were A.C. Cowlings (behind the wheel) and the man himself, in the backseat.  Everyone who happened to tune in – myself included – couldn’t possibly turn away from the spectacle, even though we had no real idea what was going on, or why this was even supposed to be significant.  Recall that at this time the murders were news, but they weren’t the story of the century, and suddenly this white truck is on every single news channel.  Watching it you didn’t even know what was at stake but you couldn’t help but watch, rapt, wondering how it would end.  Was there some way that he might escape?  I seriously wondered if it would be possible for him to get to Mexico somehow and elude justice.  That can’t actually happen can it?  Would the cops try and force him off the road?  Why were they going so slow?  What hold did OJ have over the LAPD?

Only after the fact did we find out what was going on inside the Bronco.  OJ had in his possession:  a passport, eight thousand dollars, a disguise, and a .357 magnum.  He was on the phone intermittently with an LAPD detective named Tom Lange, who tried desperately to get him to throw the gun out the window, to no avail.  Lange saw the chase on TV like everyone else and dialed OJ’s number, and improbably enough he picked up.  He didn’t want to hurt the police, or anyone else, he said.  He wanted to do “it” at home.  So they let him go home.  All the while a strange phenomenon occurred, whereby thousands people from all over L.A. streamed to freeway overpasses to observe the spectacle and cheer on The Juice.  Some of them even strung up hastily prepared banners, urging on their hero.  People were cheering for a murderer to get away with it; I couldn’t understand the least bit of it.

Ultimately he didn’t commit suicide, as we all know.  He made it to his home, went inside and spoke with his mother briefly.  Then he drank a glass of orange juice, for real, and gave himself into custody.  From there, the trial…

*   *   *

It was dubbed “The Trial Of The Century” and maybe it was.  It was our trial of the century, sure, but let’s not forget some other good ones:

Sacco & Vanzetti – immigrant anarchists looking to undermine society

Leopold & Loeb – is there anything more perfectly 20th Century than this case?

Fatty Arbuckle – a good man utterly ruined by a terrible confluence of events beyond his control

The Scopes Monkey Trial – a watershed moment that still, somehow, polarizes

The Scottsboro Boys – a ridiculous miscarriage of justice, thanks to racism

Nuremberg – and we’re still trying to figure out exactly what to do with people like these lot

Adolf Eichmann – Hannah Arendt’s reporting undid the notion that these were just one-in-a-million psychopathic monsters

The Manson Family – a violent, insane stake directly to the heart of the peace and love generation

It’s hard to pick a favourite of all of these, isn’t it?  As the years have gone by, with the ascendence of TMZ, Gawker, celebrity sex tapes, and the like, there has emerged a belief that the OJ trial was primarily created by the media, and therefore doesn’t really belong in these hallowed, shameful halls.  This is not the case.  The media, in spite of its herculean efforts, has been unable to engineer any remotely similar case in the intervening years.  We’ve seen Jacko, Casey Anthony, Phil Spector, the Collarbomb Case, and numerous others come and go, without a tenth of the sensation that was the OJ case.  Why?  Because the OJ trial really and truly had it all.  Celebrity.  Violent abuse.  Drugs.  A far-reaching conspiracy.  A racist cop.  The (supposedly) all-star defense team.  The wacky houseguest.  The glove.  Grieving, enraged families.  The race card.  DNA.  Everything.  People didn’t tune in because the media force fed the trial down the TV-watching public’s throat.  They tuned in because it was endlessly damned fascinating.

I got hooked.  Of course I did.  The first prosecution witness – a 911 operator who took a 1989 call related to violence at the Simpson home – took the stand on January 31, 1995, and the circus settled into town for an extended stay.  I would catch up on the day’s events every day after school, glued to CNN, digesting every little bit of information and analysis from new pals Roger and Greta.  I watched the live feed regularly, though 99% of it was hopelessly boring.  I couldn’t turn away.

Slowly but surely the case changed, and grew.  It wasn’t about OJ anymore.  It was about right and wrong, damnit.  I read a lot of Batman comics and crime stories in my youth, and the core appeal of these tales for me was that the guilty were punished.  This is a different idea than snowy pure “justice” – whatever that is – it’s justice seasoned with revenge.  The criminal is both apprehended and made to pay for his misdeeds.  This idea held some powerful sway over me, and still does.  The thought that one could get away with it, get away with anything, very much disturbed me as an adolescent, as it did many adolescents.  It’s a time in our lives where the black and white fairy tales and moral lessons of childhood run up against the reality of how things really are.  Everyone is equal, and life is fair, but look around your highschool class and it’s pretty obvious that everyone isn’t exactly as equal as you thought.  It is rightfully disturbing to witness the moral order of one’s universe unwind on a daily basis.  Some kids didn’t notice or mind (they’re probably happy and healthy today).  Some kids were relieved (they’re probably really happy and profoundly unhealthy today).  Some kids were outraged (their fates are much more varied, oscillating between extreme highs and lows).  Those kids started reading philosophy, or Marxist nonsense, or anything that might put up nice safe black and white walls again.  I later figured out that I’d have to just accept things as they messily are, but I never liked it.

The OJ case seemed, to me, to be on a righteous path.  There was no way he was going to get away with it.  I was convinced.  I talked OJ with everybody (everybody talked OJ with everybody – senior citizens have never been so a part of the zeitgeist, and so connected to their grandchildren as they were in 1995), partially because it was interesting, partially because it couldn’t be avoided, and partially because I wanted confirmation that the rest of the world was as right-headed and just as I was.  He’s guilty, right?  What do you think, life sentence or death penalty?  Right?

The trial plodded along, with something interesting, unpredictable, or bizarre occurring with clockwork regularity.  And all the while a stream of damning, inescapable evidence.  Sure the defense nipped at the hems of the prosecution’s case but it wasn’t anything serious.  I became ever more convinced, and actually excited about the verdict.  I looked forward to the day that the smug defense team would hear that single word and bow their heads, or try to offer the Juice some empty words of comfort.  I wondered what his face would look like when the jig was finally up.

Then there was the glove.  In possibly the most ill-advised, downright stupid decision in legal history, the prosecution, yes the prosecution, had the defendant try on the gloves worn by the murderer on the night of the killing.  This is a legal strategy as imagined by eight year olds who haven’t watched enough Law & Order.  To the utter shock of absolutely no one the glove didn’t fit.  You have to imagine that Christopher Darden and Marcia Clark came into the courtroom that day thinking “ha! we’ve finally got the bastard.  He won’t be able to wiggle out of this”.  They must have strolled in radiating confidence, thinking as they surely did, that this would be the nail in OJ’s coffin.  They’d saved it for the end.  A showstopper that would be deemed a stroke of brilliance when the jury members told 60 minutes “the glove is what really eliminated any doubt for us”.  How must they have felt when they went home that night?  Instead of the heart stopping, for-the-ages moment of incrimination, there’s OJ busily fumbling with the gloves.  Unassisted.  Oh he’s tugging, and pulling, and doing his very best, but aw shucks they just won’t fit.  There’s a particularly pathetic moment where Darden leans over and examines whether OJ’s hand is in the glove or not.  You can almost make out the cartoon thought bubble above his head, with the words “oh no…” dancing through the courtroom.  He quickly retreats.  OJ presents his semi-gloved hands to the jury and shrugs earnestly.  Johnnie Cochran starts composing two line poems.

The gloves didn't fit

The prosecution rested in July, a few days after the glove debacle.

The talking heads kicked the case around endlessly, weighing each new development.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but of course they had a serious interest in leaving the outcome in great doubt.  I recall watching angrily, wondering why no one was saying the obvious: “he did it!  Of course they’re going to find him guilty!”.  Instead we gauged Kato’s credibility and wondered just when the dog started barking.

The defense had its turn, and then came the trial’s biggest bombshell.  Fuhrman.  The tapes.  The N-word.

A recap:  Mark Fuhrman was one of the LAPD detectives on the case.  Most significantly it was he who found the second bloody glove, which matched one left at the crime scene, at OJ’s house.  This evidence clearly tied the defendant to the crime, so it was this piece of evidence that the defense most had to refute.  Tellingly, the defense opted to attack the bloody glove through the most complicated means possible (because there existed no simple, believable, rational explanation), and went on to sketch out the faintest lines of a vast criminal conspiracy on the part of the LAPD to frame OJ for the murders.  Nevermind that this would necessitate at least half a dozen people to have agreed upon this strategy within hours of the crime having occurred.  Nevermind that doing so would put the conspirators at risk of being executed if their plot were discovered.  Nevermind that no credible motive could be advanced to explain such a plot.  The defense needed to hit a home run, so they swung for the fences, and Fuhrman was just the patsy they needed.

The defense asked Fuhrman about his use of racial slurs.  Particularly the word “nigger”.  He admitted to having said it, but not in the last ten years.  In some twist of bizarre logic which I will never understand, this was sufficient to demonstrate his non-racist bona fides.  America is a country which wants to forgive.  Later on, though, the defense managed to convince the lovable Judge Ito to allow them to introduce evidence that suggested that Fuhrman was perhaps not so reformed as he presented himself.  They had a tape, which featured the detective, when talking about his previous policing exploits, saying:

“Yeah we work with niggers and gangs. You can take one of these niggers, drag ‘em into the alley and beat the shit out of them and kick them. You can see them twitch. It really relieves your tension.”

And then, just in case he had any credibility left, or any chance of arguing that he’d been taken out of context, Fuhrman was asked on the stand if he had ever falsified police reports, or planted evidence over the course of the case.  And?  The son of a bitch took the Fifth.  He later pleaded no contest to a felony perjury charge.  And after that he wrote a book about the Kennedy Assassination and got his own radio show in Spokane.  Apparently disgracing yourself through viciously racist utterances and blowing a murder investigation are not career limiting acts.  Quite the contrary.  This makes you a viable public figure whose opinions are sought on various matters.  Take note.

Mark Fuhrman

Growing up in suburban Kingston, and being fascinated by the US Civil Rights era (which I thought had won a complete and utter victory), I genuinely thought that this sort of nakedly, virulently racist junk just didn’t exist anymore.  I couldn’t believe it.  How could anyone say that sort of thing?  Much less actually think like that?  Chuck D had a point, didn’t he?  Fuhrman was just as unrepentant as OJ.  So I said some stuff, big deal, this is how the Real World works.  The idea started dawning on me that (no Cochran and co. were not correct about the conspiracy but) you couldn’t trust the people you thought you could.  A police detective.  A homicide detective.  This guy was supposed to be above reproach.  This guy was living my dream: as close to being Batman as any normal person could get, and getting paid for it.  And he was such a profound failure and disappointment.

With this turn, the defense team had its smoking gun.  See?  The LAPD is racist, we weren’t just making this stuff up.  They didn’t have to actually prove the existence of the far reaching frame OJ plot, they just needed to sew some doubt into the prosecution’s quilt, and Fuhrman handed them the thread on a silver platter.  Now the outcome of the case was genuinely in doubt, if the defense had done enough to undermine the prosecution’s case, and the talking heads weighed the possibilities anew.  I hadn’t lost faith, exactly.  I knew that reason would prevail, and that OJ couldn’t possibly get off, even if the trial had devolved into an utter mess.  But I was anxious.

It was September and the prosecution and defense teams delivered their closing arguments.  Clark & Darden vs. Cochran & Scheck.  If the glove doesn’t fit…

Darden and Clark

Scheck and Cochran

October 2, 1995.  The jury deliberates for four hours and announces that it has reached a verdict, to be delivered the next day.

Four hours!  It was clear then that “guilty” was the only possible outcome.  There was simply no way that twelve people could agree to let a murderer go free without at least arguing over it for a long while, right?  Obviously.

The next day I brought my walkman to school with me.  I was in grade eleven at Rideau Highschool in Ottawa.  I couldn’t concentrate at all, marking time, waiting for the announcement.  I was sitting alone in the school cafeteria with my headphones on, tuning in a radio station.  I realized then that I had been wrong:  no one was even half as interested in the case as I was.  Sure they were interested, but I was sweating.  I was anxious.  I needed this.

1:07 PM Eastern Time.  We the jury find the defendant Orenthal James Simpson…

Not guilty.

And everything fell apart.  They read an announcement over the school PA system.  I have no memory of how everyone else reacted.

The verdict is captured on video:  Cochran is elated, thrilled with the victory, then quickly remembers his place and hugs OJ sympathetically.  OJ stands there and in a second he is happy, relieved, and then… vacant.  I never noticed it back then, but watching the verdict 16 years later it looks like he’s almost pretending to be happy, like his suicide was delayed for over a year and then snatched from him by twelve well meaning fools.  Now he has to go back to his life, and the children whose mother he killed.  It looks like he is genuinely surprised that he got away with it.

Then perhaps the worst part, the part I could never come to terms with.  The networks cut away to scenes of black people assembled in various places with radios and TVs waiting anxiously.  Not guilty.  They explode with joy, pumping their fists, and shouting “YES!”.  I guess it was payback for Rodney King and Memphis and Jim Crow and Medgar Evers and Little Rock and Dred Scott and Fred Hampton, and millions of crimes and indignities, but it wasn’t much payback.  Commensurate with all of that the OJ victory wasn’t any kind of equalization (as if that would even be possible).  It was sad.  A community of people chose this guy as their standard bearer?  No they didn’t, really.  He just appeared.  He just showed up, and because he was poured into this vacuum (think L.A. post-riots) he wound up being important when he really wasn’t.  I remember trying to imagine cheering for some white guy getting away with murder, and I couldn’t do it.  I wanted Fuhrman to be punished too.  Yes post-modernists, I didn’t and couldn’t understand.  Sure I didn’t.  I understood things just fine: it was wrong.

In a nutshell...

So that was that.  He was a free man.  He left the courthouse (surveilled by news helicopters, of course) and went about his life, or whatever was left of it.  But surely to god someone could do something, right?  Right?  Wrong.  It was over, and the good guys lost.  Yes there was the civil suit which found him responsible, but no one seemed to care, least of all him.  He was ordered to pay the victims’ families millions in damages; he hid his assets and stiffed them.

But his freedom wasn’t enough.  He so wanted to believe his own Big Lie that he insisted to the public that he would be out looking for the real killers, arming hack comedians with a readymade punchline for years.  The notion was, of course, utterly ridiculous.  He told his murdered ex-wife’s sister on live television that she was the only person who’d benefited from the murders, as she was no longer on welfare.  The following exchange actually happened:

Denise Brown:  “We didn’t get along because you couldn’t control me.”

OJ:  “We didn’t get along because Nicole was afraid you were going to have sex with me.”

He had numerous petty brushes with the law and played a lot of golf.  He wrote a book called If I Did It, which was a description of precisely how he did in fact commit the murders, and in so doing became the perfect portrait of unrepentant, shrugging and smiling evil.  At least to me.  A world with this man roaming around free was a world that fundamentally did not conform to my expectations.  A world with a free and easy OJ Simpson was a world which was hopelessly corrupt.  He was Vietnam.  He was napalm and burnt little kids running for their lives.  He was the final helicopter pulling away from the Embassy in Saigon while desperate people watched their last chance disappear into the sky.  I wasn’t a kid anymore.

So long

*   *   *

Years later OJ Simpson was convicted of criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, assault, robbery, and using a deadly weapon, resulting from a bizarre robbery (he assembled a crew of evident idiots to steal back some sports memorabilia from a greasy dealer, on the advice of an auction house owner who essentially entrapped him by setting up and taping the whole thing, then selling it to the press).  As I write this he is languishing in jail, but it doesn’t make any difference.  There’s no pound of flesh to be had.

Posted in: Essay