It was the ultimate Hollywood tragedy. It was a televised referendum on race. It was an indictment of the Los Angeles Police Department. And, of course, it was the Trial of the Century.
Even in our scandal-addled, search-engine-optimized age, the O.J. Simpson criminal trial continues to reverberate across the cultural landscape, 15 years after a jury found the former football star not guilty of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. The impact of the nine-month trial, which remains the longest jury trial in California history, can be seen today in fields ranging from advertising to television to sports memorabilia.
In the legal world, the trial triggered an overhaul in how police departments handle DNA evidence and raised fundamental questions about the wisdom of allowing cameras in the courtroom. "People now view trials as entertainment, when they're really something much more serious," says Christopher Darden , who prosecuted the case for the L.A. District Attorney's office along with Marcia Clark. "Would I do things differently now? Yeah," concedes Darden, now a private defense attorney in Los Angeles.
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More broadly, the Simpson trial forever altered the way we consume and cover news about celebrities, launching a media revolution with its perfect combination of fame, violence, and real-life drama. Just about every person and every detail in the trial -- from the beard strokes of Judge Lance Ito, to the frosted hair of Simpson's houseguest Kato Kaelin, to Bruno Magli shoes, the footwear that was stained with the victims' blood -- became dinner-table conversation topics and fodder for late-night comedians.
The case ignited a tabloid industry that has become inescapable and influential with the explosion of the Internet. It's probably no coincidence that celebrity gossip king Harvey Levin, the founder and managing editor of TMZ.com, got his first big whiff of fame covering the trial as a TV reporter for Los Angeles' CBS affiliate.
The magnitude of the Simpson criminal trial often overshadows the fact that he was later found liable for wrongful death in a civil suit filed by the Brown and Goldman families -- or even that Simpson is currently serving a 33-year prison sentence in Nevada for his role in a 2007 robbery. The passage of time also makes it easy to forget many of the key moments in the trial -- and how thoroughly the LAPD and the prosecution, led by Clark and Darden, bungled the case.
To be sure, Clark and Darden were up against formidable foes: Simpson's wealth enabled him to hire a so-called legal "Dream Team" that included F. Lee Bailey, who defended the "Boston Strangler" and Dr. Sam Sheppard, the inspiration for "The Fugitive" TV show and film; Robert Shapiro, a smooth-talking defense attorney who represented Johnny Carson, among other celebrities; Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor; and Johnnie Cochran, the flamboyant trial specialist who was a hero within L.A.'s African-American community for his work defending victims of police brutality.
Simpson also brought in Barry Scheck (pictured below) and Peter Neufeld, the two most-knowledgeable attorneys on the planet regarding DNA evidence, which became a critical component -- and arguably the most important legal legacy -- of the trial.
There was certainly no shortage of circumstantial evidence connecting Simpson to the murders. He had a long history of abusing his ex-wife, a point the prosecution drilled home in their opening statement by playing a frantic 911 call made by Mrs. Simpson, five years before the murders, when an enraged O.J. was banging on her door.
The prosecution did not have all the forensic testing completed before the trial began, but they believed they had several incriminating pieces of evidence, including a bloody glove found at O.J.'s home that contained traces of Simpson's and the victims' DNA; a bloody sock; the famous size-12 footprint of expensive Bruno Magli shoes, a set of footwear that Simpson owned and wore on television; and finally, there was O.J.'s disappearance after he was charged with double murder, which ultimately ended with Simpson hunkering in the back of a white Ford Bronco driven by Al Cowlings, his old college friend.
Police followed the Bronco in a nationally televised "low-speed chase" on Los Angeles freeways, and Simpson finally surrendered to authorities at his home. Police found a change of clothing, a fake goatee, a passport, a loaded gun and about $8,000 cash in the Bronco.
Many legal analysts and even Simpson's old friends, such as TV broadcaster Al Michaels, believed the physical evidence and O.J.'s attempt to flee were overwhelming indications that Simpson committed the murders. But prosecutors ultimately encountered two major problems: 1) the testimony of LAPD officer Mark Fuhrman, who lied about his racist attitudes and was later compared to Adolph Hitler by Cochran; and 2) the sloppy handling of the evidence.
Fuhrman, the LAPD detective who found the glove and testified to identifying blood marks in Simpson's driveway, was cross-examined by Bailey, who asked him in various ways whether Fuhrman had held racist beliefs or used derogatory terms for African-Americans. He repeatedly denied it -- and then was discredited when Simpson's defense team played a 1986 tape of Furhman repeating the "N" word over and over in a conversation with a screenwriter.
The evidence problems were even more problematic. In 1994, DNA testing was still relatively new, and in exhaustive cross-examination of LAPD forensic scientists, Scheck and Neufeld highlighted glaring mistakes made by the LAPD in their collection and testing of some of the prosecution's most important evidence.
Among other errors, LAPD investigators took wet blood samples from the murder scene and put them into plastic baggies which sat in a hot truck for hours, raising the potential for contamination. Scheck also honed in on the work of one DNA analyst who did not change gloves while handling a tube of Simpson's blood and evidence from the murder scene. "They were using 19th century techniques for a 21st century case," says Scheck, who in 1992 co-founded The Innocence Project, a legal center that utilizes DNA evidence to help exonerate wrongly-convicted prisoners. "We didn't attack the reliability of DNA testing -- we shined the light on how the same bad practices were being followed all over."
Looking back now, Scheck says the Simpson criminal trial was a "mixed bag" for him. On the one hand, his success in the trial -- Darden says Scheck was "the single most responsible person for O.J.'s acquittal" -- gave him a wider platform for The Innocence Project and for reforming outdated police practices. At the same time, says Scheck, "obviously there's a stigma attached with the O.J. case because most people think he killed those victims."
Some would say there's more than a stigma. Within the Los Angeles legal community, lawyers often chat about "The O.J. Curse" in casual discussions about the legacy of the trial. What they're talking about is the cloud of death and controversy that has hovered over O.J.'s legal team since the "not guilty" verdict was handed down 15 years ago.
Robert Kardashian, Simpson's friend from USC and one of his original defense lawyers, died of esophageal cancer in 2003, while Cochran died from complications of a brain tumor in 2005. Bailey was disbarred from Florida in 2001, and Shapiro's son Brent died of a drug overdose in 2005. (Shapiro told FanHouse by e-mail that he does not comment on the Simpson case.)
"It's very tragic," says Darden. "So far it's only happened to them and not to us -- perhaps there's a message in that."