‘O.J.: Made in America’ Makes the Case for O.J.

03 Aug

Whether or not the O.J. Simpson murder trial actually was the trial of the century remains subjective.  However, what is clear is that the social and legal impact it had at the time and the associated discussions it continues to evoke twenty-five years later make it one of the most seminal legal cases ever to be tried. The trial was about much more than one man killing his wife and her acquaintance in a jealous rage, but rather, the case was an intersection of all the things America represents; celebrity, sports, racial inequality, entitlement, adultery, loyalty, moral ambiguity, divorce, friendship, revenge, and of course, rich man’s justice. Of all the works that have sought to explore the Simpson case and all of its associated dimensions, perhaps no other piece does a more masterful job than Ezra Edelman’s 2016 documentary ‘O.J.: Made in America.’

If you have not seen Edelman’s work you are strongly encouraged to do so because not only does it examine the trial itself in meticulous detail, but it provides the requisite context to understand why race became such an integral factor in the case and why reaction to the verdict was so polarized along black and white lines. However, one thing that is especially interesting is that according to several outlets, including ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight,  in the years since the verdict the majority of black people now believe that O.J. Simpson is guilty of the double murder he was accused of in the mid-90s (with the number of whites increasing in their perception of Mr. Simpson’s guilty).

 As such, does it mean that the mostly black jury got it wrong and allowed the social unrest of the time- the murder of Latasha Harlins, the Rodney King beating, the L.A. riots etc.- to cloud their judgement and lead them to the wrong decision? Perhaps not.

While both the majority of whites and blacks today are in agreement surrounding O.J. Simpson’s guilt, that does not mean that most people are right to assume that O.J. Simpson should have been found guilty, especially when one considers what was presented to the jury in the mid-90s. This might come across as confusing or inconsistent, but there is a great difference between believing someone is guilty of a crime and successfully proving a person is guilty of a crime in legal terms. Or as Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris will tell you, “its not what you know, its what you can prove.”

After recently re-watching Edelman’s documentary it became clear to me that even though I too believe Mr. Simpson is guilty of committing the crimes which he stood accused of, that my obligations under the law would have forced me to also render a not guilty vote if I were on that same jury.

One of the first things you are taught in law school, and first year criminal law specifically, is the difference between the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard for criminal cases and the ‘on a balance of probabilities’ standard in civil cases. Although I am now quite a few years removed from first year law school, my understanding is that if one were to attempt to quantify the criminal standard it would mean that one had to be over 99% sure based on the evidence that the defendant was guilty of the criminal acts for which they stood accused. This is in stark contrast to the civil standard which quantitatively transfers to only greater than 50%. As such, this criminal standard makes it impossible to render a vote of guilty in the Simpson case if one were to objectively consider the evidence and for (at least) three very good reasons any one of which would be enough to subvert the reasonable doubt standard in criminal law.

The first reason, which was astutely depicted in Edelman’s documentary, relates to blood evidence and the way that evidence was found, collected, and presented to the jury. On the surface the blood evidence and the blood trail which went from Nicole Brown Simpson’s residence to O.J.’s Rockingham home (and inside the home) would seem more than enough to convict Simpson especially since the samples collected only contained the blood of O.J. Simpson, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman. Unfortunately law enforcement and the medical examiners involved made several poor decisions that compromised the integrity of the blood samples that could have (and should have) rendered them inadmissible. These decisions include (but are not limited to) covering the deceased with blankets from inside Nicole Brown Simpson’s residence which obviously could have contained the DNA from several different people including O.J. Simpson, the collection of DNA samples with bare hands, the bringing back of O.J. Simpson’s collected blood back to the crime scene, and the failure to find blood in certain places at the time of collection (the infamous back gate incident) only to find it there days later. However, as poorly as the police and medical examiners collected and handled the blood evidence, the prosecution and its witnesses possibly did an even poorer job professionally of conveying the blood evidence to the jury and explaining why lapses in protocol occurred. As such, if I was a juror listening to Barry Scheck cross-examine LAPD criminalist Dennis Fung and bore witness to Fung giving inconsistent statements related to how he collected the blood evidence and how he conceded that collection protocol was not followed, there is simply no way to accept the blood evidence and as such, would constitute reasonable doubt of Simpson’s guilt.

Second, and perhaps most infamous of the trial, relates to Christopher Darden’s request from the defendant to try on the (once bloodied) recovered gloves that were alleged to have been worn by O.J. during the murders. Although ‘Made in America’ does an excellent job of demonstrating why Darden made the request against the wishes of prosecution co-counsel,  how the demonstration even if necessary could have been handled differently (in chambers with only the judge, lawyers and court stenographer present), and how O.J. could have cheated the demonstration (i.e. the discontinuance of his arthritis medicine), unfortunately those elements were not witnessed by the jury. The only thing the jury saw was an overly confident prosecutor attempt to directly implicate the defendant only to bumble the demonstration by failing to ensure that the gloves would actually fit (and would fit over another set of laytex gloves). Moreover, when the gloves did not fit Darden further failed in his endeavor in that he provided no clear and acceptable statement to account for the failed display. As such, if I were a juror this glove debacle should have been enough to exonerate Simpson on the spot.

However, even if the blood evidence and the failed glove demonstration somehow still did not generate the requisite reasonable doubt needed to absolve a guilty vote, there was still Mark Fuhrman and his testimony (or lack thereof). Despite his checkered past, according to prosecutor Marcia Clarke, Fuhrman had performed very well for the State during the course of the pre-trial hearing. However, the reason Fuhrman was able to perform so well was because his credibility was not impugned and prosecutors were able to utilize his testimony to substantiate their case against Simpson. In the trial however, Fuhrman was ensnared in a defense credibility trap wherein Fuhrman was proven to be racist liar in court and once that was established, he refused to testify taking the fifth amendment during the subsequent cross examination. As such, it did not matter that fifteen other police officers observed the glove at the crime scene before Fuhrman arrived as L.A. detective Tom Lange has asserted, what would stand out to any semi-cognizant juror is the fact that Fuhrman lied under oath, was a racist who used the n-word and hence, both his testimony and the assertion that the glove was discovered without malice were impossible to believe. Fortunately for the prosecution the jury was not present when Fuhrman took the fifth when responding to the question on whether he planted evidence in the Simpson case, but his absence from further cross-examination and Judge Ito’s instruction that his unavailability to answer further questions on cross-examination was a factor jurors could take into consideration in evaluating Fuhrman’s credibility as a witness , almost certainly helped to undermine the prosecution’s case and once again build reasonable doubt in the minds of the Simpson jurors.

After a closer look at the blood evidence, the glove demonstration, and detective Fuhrman’s testimony (or again, lack thereof), it would appear that reasonable doubt was well established in Simpson’s case as any three of those factors would have been enough to satisfy the reasonable doubt threshold let alone all three factors together. Whether or not O.J. Simpson actually killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman is a question that surely will continued to be debated for some time, however the number people who actually believe in Simpson’s innocence does appear to be shrinking. Simpson’s statements and actions both during and after the trial (many of which the jury in his murder case were not privy too), along with those made recently by many of his former friends, only serve to reinforce the belief held by Simpson’s growing number of detractors. However, after reviewing three seminal elements from the murder trial, from a legal perspective that means nothing. As the Simpson case clearly demonstrates, in a criminal case all that matters is what the jury believes, and perhaps more importantly, what they bear witness too.

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