I recall with great clarity the day that O.J. Simpson was acquitted in his murder trial. I was a first year law student at Washington University in St. Louis. The student lounge area was full beyond its capacity. It was standing room only as it seemed like the entire school was crowded into that one area, surrounding the one television positioned against the south wall. This was long before the days when it became the norm for every public gathering place to have wide-screen televisions covering every inch of wall space like a sports bar. There was just one TV and every soul in the room was transfixed on it. News media was spread throughout the room, reporters, cameras, mics et al. And right in the middle of the circus was me and the few friends that I had made since arriving on campus just a few weeks before. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch captured us in the photo that was on the front page the next morning. There we were: four black guys in a sea of white folks with the entire nation holding its breath awaiting the verdict in one of the most racially polarizing public events in American history. What few of us fully grasped back then but we all know painfully well now is that verdict and judgment are two very different things- a reality that echoes through our public debates to this very day.
I was the youngest of the crew and clearly the most prone to emotional outburst. So when the jury forewoman read the verdict I yelped my approval and thrust my fists into the air- the lone celebratory expression in a room of a few hundred people. My friends just stood there in virtual silence- with pensive, non-committal expressions on their faces and heads shaking ever so slightly. If they were embarrassed by my demonstration, they did not say it aloud. Their reaction was muted- nothing like my joy, and certainly nothing like the boisterous outrage that our classmates and even some professors were expressing.
It was an electrifying environment- a large collection of people in one space committed to the study and practice of the law at a time when the entire world was focused on it like a laser. It may not have been a good time for the country but it was a great time to be a law student at an elite institution.
The thing about law students is that they tend to be younger people with some level of accomplishment to stand on but with precious little life experience to keep them properly grounded. And while they generally know more about the law than most people, they usually don’t know nearly as much as they think they know. The consequence of all this is that they tend to be highly (and annoyingly) opinionated. So imagine the debates that I had with my colleagues- both black and white- about this case. There was a lot of faulty analysis and misunderstandings flying around because emotions were so high. Not much of the discussion was that useful but the passage of time should help us in 2017.
Since the world took a trip down O.J.’s memory lane this past fall with specials on ESPN, HBO, and FX, the water is finally right for some corrective assessment of what happened and what it really means. O.J.’s civil trial is often overlooked and underplayed but it really helps round out the narrative because without that verdict, our search for meaning would leave us picking through the wreckage of the criminal case which can be so convoluted that even trained professionals eventually fall into a daze. Here is the upshot: O.J. got off in his criminal trial because he had to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. O.J. was found liable in his civil trial because the jury had to decide if it was more likely than not that he was responsible for the crimes that took the lives of the victims. Both results were legally correct. The system worked the way it was supposed to work.
Of course all the parties were the same in both trials and obviously the facts did not change. But the burden of proof applied in the cases was outcome determinative. There is no question about it and no credible legal scholar can differ with that basic point. And while O.J. was forced to testify in the civil trial, there is every indication that he would have been found liable even if he didn’t offer up his train-wreck testimony. And even though the prosecution took a beating in the court of public opinion after the fact, everyone can acknowledge that it is a lot easier to prove anything to a 51% certainty than it is to prove it to a 99% certainty. That is simple arithmetic boys and girls.
So in all the sound and fury, here is what America missed: The O.J. trials actually proved that America has less institutional racism than many of us would assume considering the racial stratification the verdict amplified. The reason is simple: O.J. Simpson was a man of great wealth and influence. Men of great wealth and influence get away with murder in this country- literally and figuratively. Had O.J. been convicted of a double murder at a trial where the prosecution’s star witness had to plead the 5th in order to avoid perjuring himself THAT would have been damning evidence of irredeemable racism in our criminal justice system.
I am not suggesting that America’s criminal justice system is not poisoned with institutional racism- nothing of the sort. I am pointing out that in America, money trumps race every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Although every attempt has been made to psychoanalyze O.J. Simpson as some kind of a delusional Uncle Tom, he was actually onto something when he complained to his dear friend Bobby Kardashian about his treatment in the media “Man, I’m not BLACK! I’m O.J.!” Damned right. Because if he were Leroy Green from Englewood who played his last down of football in the tenth grade, and the police even suspected that he MIGHT have killed Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, he never would have seen the shining smile of the great Johnnie Cochran or even the rays of the sun ever again. Leroy would have been UNDER Folsom prison.
O.J.’s acquittal was about money and the race factor took a back seat in a manner we had never witnessed before. So, yes, a black man can appear to be as guilty as hell of knifing to death his white ex-wife and her white boyfriend and walk away free if he has enough money. And while that reality may make your stomach turn and your skin crawl, we at least have the comfort of knowing that our system is consistent in its values- race be damned. Frankly, that is a good thing because it proves that racism has limitations that make it powerless when confronted with economics. That is a valuable and encouraging for those who believe that the impact of racism is bigger than it really is. It exists, but we need to keep it in context- and the OJ murder trial proved that in graphic terms and in living color. The media is a separate matter. If you want to find something to be mad about, just consider all of the worthless, throw-away news personalities and talking heads that owe their entire careers and fortunes to O.J. Simpson because they were on TV for hours and hours on end talking about him.
These buzzards and vultures fed off the flesh of the dead with their phony outrage and righteous indignation and were proven time and again to have no more inside understanding than a well exposed 8th grader. Where the hell was Geraldo anyway before the OJ trial? Hadn’t America flushed him and his melodramatics years before?
So for most of the last two decades we had it all wrong about the O.J. saga. Our reactions were out of whack and our conclusions were off-base. We got caught up in who O.J. was screwing, what color she was, what his politics were and why. The truth is none of that meant a damned thing. What mattered was that two people met a brutal and grisly end and no one has been brought to justice for that killing. What also mattered was that we learned beyond any doubt that in the American criminal justice system, the most important color by far is green. You can be black, white, or candy-striped, but if you have enough green you will get every benefit of the doubt imaginable- and even some that go beyond your wildest imagination. For my part I regret my reaction in that moment when the verdict came down. It is one of the very few truly embarrassing moments of my life. But I don’t owe anybody an apology. I know that I did not mean any offense to the families of the victims but it is hard to admit that I even lost sight of the victims for a second being caught up in the moment. It was a big moment but that is no excuse. To be sure, the people overreacting on the other side were equally out of line and they were even worse because they were wrong on the basic facts that we can now see so clearly in hindsight: The O.J. verdict was right- both times- and we are actually better than we thought we were.