O.J. with friends two months before the murdersIt was a balmy June evening on the East Coast, 20 years ago today to be exact. We were watching Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets at Madison Square Garden on a Los Angeles television station because we were putting our recently installed 12-foot satellite dish through its paces and had swung it into a position where we could pull in California signals.
It was about 10 p.m. and the Knicks were ahead by a basket in a lead-changing nail biter when the station suddenly cut away to a Los Angeles freeway, where a camera from a news helicopter showed a phalanx of police cruisers, their lights madly flashing, in pursuit of a white Ford Bronco.
Four days earlier, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, described in early press reports as an acquaintance of the estranged wife of legendary football star O.J. Simpson, had been found slashed to death outside her L.A. condominium.
The TV announcer breathlessly intoned that O.J. had been charged with the murders, had reneged on a promise to turn himself in to the police, and his Bronco had been spotted on a southern L.A. freeway in what would become, according to one survey, the sixth "most universally impactful" TV moment of the last 50 years -- a suspenseful but in retrospect comical low-speed chase that paled next to other impactful moments, including the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
We were transfixed as we watched the chase. Hell, all of America was transfixed as Domino's Pizza reported record home-delivery sales because the chase unfolded during dinner time on the West Coast. This epic pursuit, with O.J. best friend Al Cowlings at the wheel and the Juice himself riding in the back, reportedly with a gun in hand, ground to a halt 50 miles, two hours and hundreds of thousands of consumed pizzas later later as Simpson, clutching family photos, staggered out of the Bronco in the driveway of his Brentwood home, collapsed into the arms of police officers and was handcuffed.
Moments after the chase ended, the phone rang. It was the City Desk at the Philadelphia newspaper where I was working. I was told that I was on the O.J. case full time. Big Boss's orders. As it turned out, I would be on the case full time for the next 16 months as I covered the murder investigation, pre-trial maneuvering and then the nine-month Trial of the Century. Looking back on the whole sordid affair 20 years on, it was an unrelenting exercise in hyperbole that somehow nevertheless never became bigger than itself in laying bare our obsession with celebrity and the ugliness of our nation's racial divide, the vulnerability of single women, and the debut of an apparently foolproof new forensic technique involving DNA analysis, while revealing how little most of us knew about the criminal justice system, let alone how to game a jury into believing that O.J.'s blood-soaked gloves didn't fit him.
Yet for this career journalist and long time observer of the ebb and flow of American fads, interests and mores, the biggest story was and remains why Orenthal James Simpson became a murderer.
* * * * *In a society that judges a person by the color of their skin, O.J. had something that very few black Americans could claim: He was so accomplished and at one time was so popular that, in advertising agency parlance, he was "race neutral."
That is to say that when most people looked at him they saw not a black man who happened to have overcome a disadvantaged childhood in a broken home, but a handsome and gifted athlete who found fame and fortune by parlaying outstanding college and professional football careers into a successful big-bucks life off the field selling everything from men's footwear to rental cars, and as a broadcaster and later a not-bad Hollywood actor who married a gorgeous blonde woman, had two beautiful children with her, seemed to be in a giving marriage in a multi-racial community not unusual for Southern California but at that time alien to the rest of the country, and was endlessly kind and considerate to his friends.
Simpson’s acquittal on charges that he murdered his wife and Goldman at the conclusion of the storied 1995 criminal trial can be attributed, in large part, to black jurors who believed that he had been framed because of his skin color. (The families of Brown Simpson and Goldman eventually were awarded a $33.5 million wrongful-death civil judgment.)
Yet it appears that to most people O.J. still remains O.J. despite the bitterness and animosity that the verdict unleashed on both sides of the racial divide (although it was us white folks who were shocked, just shocked, that the divide existed, while it was an inescapable fact of life for blacks and other minorities).
Today O.J. still is not merely a black man gone bad. Never mind that his good looks have faded, his waistline has exploded, and he is a long-term guest of the Nevada state prison system because of a 2008 conviction for a botched sports memorabilia robbery at a Las Vegas casino-hotel. Which unlike the murder trial, did not become a racial flash point.
* * * * *I had a great ride off of O.J. Given free rein by the Big Boss, I wrote at least one story each weekday for 16 months, as well as a syndicated column of gossipy tidbits called "The Simpson File" that was wildly popular and published in newspapers throughout the U.S. and Canada. There was no such thing as a slow news day, and I never ran out of material.
I was one of the few reporters to plumb the racial aspects of the jury early on -- 10 women and two men, nine of whom were black, two white and one Hispanic -- and while I did not predict the acquittal, I wrote that such an outcome would not necessarily be surprising because woman jurors seemed so sympathetic to O.J. and the truth stretching but convincing arguments of his Dream Team of defense lawyers, who had basically eaten Marsha Clark and her fellow prosecutors for lunch.
I was the only reporter, to my knowledge, to explore gender views of Nicole.
In one story, I riffed off of trial testimony showing that after returning home with her two young children on the night of the murders, Nicole had put them to bed, then lit candles throughout her condo, put on soothing music and taken a long bath. And that to most men, such a scenario indicated that she was getting ready to meet a lover, in this case Goldman, while most women believed that like many a mother, she just wanted to chill out after a long and stressful day, which had included an unpleasant encounter with O.J. at an ice cream parlor. Meanwhile, Goldman just happened to show up to return a pair of reading glasses she had misplaced. Men couldn't relate to the tired mom scenario. Women could.
My one "big" scoop concerned the fact the Nicole's breasts had been surgically enhanced because O.J. liked 'em big, something I confirmed in an interview with the Main Line Philadelphia plastic surgeon who had done the deed.
* * * * *Celebrity became O.J., but he could not overcome his humanness. I claim no special insight into the demons that possessed this Hall of Famer. All I know is that despite his accomplishments and exalted status, he was just another person vulnerable to the baser temptations of life in the fast lane who succumbed to the frailties – in his case outbursts of rage, jealousy and a fondness for illegal substances -- that bedevil many of us.
Perhaps no one knows when O.J. hit bottom -- possibly not even The Juice himself. That occurred sometime in the run-up to the slayings, which probably were a result of a cocaine-fueled binge, a fit of jealousy, or most likely both. As it turned out, he had severely beaten Nicole on New Years Day 1989 in an earlier fit of rage.
In any event, it is sadly obvious that Simpson had been bottom crawling since the double murders. I will leave it to greater minds to do the moral calculus on whether his convictions for the Las Vegas crime spree some 13 years to the day of his murder trial acquittal and a jail sentence somehow makes up for him getting off in 1995.
My own view is that life -- and death -- don't work that way. Besides which O.J., even at the advanced age of 66, seems incapable of being chastened no matter how hard he once looked for "the real killers" of Nicole and Ron, and how much jail time he does.
Photo from Splash News/Cobris via Vanity Fair