Outstanding Account of the Media-Frenzied Trial that May Have Been More About Race Relations in the US than OJ's Guilt or Innocence
Shortly after Johnnie Cochran passed away early in 2005, Al Sharpton spoke at his memorial service and honored him saying, "In all due respect to you brother Simpson, we didn't clap when the acquittal... came for O.J., we were clapping for Johnnie." Sharpton probably best summed up what the trial of O.J. Simpson was really about: an African-American lawyer and his client beating "the system" fair and square in a trial that exposed the deep roots of racial divides that exist in the United States. This is the subject covered by Frontline in a very insightful look at one of the most publicized criminal trials in American mass media history.
With the help of the narration by Will Lyman, the omnipotent voice of Frontline, the documentary suggests that the trial became larger than simply whether or not O.J. Simpson, sports and entertainment celebrity, murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. The trial instead represented a microcosm of the divides between the African-American and White communities that are still struggling to live peacefully together within the same country. And this was an unforeseen outcome of the mass media coverage in the most-followed trial since the Lindbergh kidnapping case of a half-century earlier.
Frontline presents the larger implications of the O.J. Simpson trial and its resulting verdict from the perspective of the media coverage and its subsequent exposure of the state of race relations rather than a full chronology of the trial itself. The media frenzy that followed every move of the key players of the case blurred entertainment and news, from the news coverage done by NBC' Nightline on one end to the continuing updates done by reporters live at the courthouse. Endless pieces about the private lives of O.J. and Nicole Simpson were spread across the airwaves. Late night talk show hosts continually joked about the trial. Publications like the National Enquirer continually fed a public hungry for every nuance about the case. And as the media coverage continued, the trial took on a different character and became a referendum on race relations in the United States, particularly between Whites and African-Americans.
For decades, African-Americans have experienced gross injustice at the hands of white law enforcement, particularly in the Los Angeles area. Barring the Rodney King beating of a few years earlier, most of these injustices rarely garner media attention. But the O.J. Simpson trial, like the Rodney King case, brought forth aspects of racial intolerance that much of the media had done little to uncover. According to Frontline, the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of the prosecution's case can be summed up with one name: Mark Fuhrman.
Fuhrman had testified that he was not a racist and had not used racial epithets. However the defense team produced audio-taped evidence in which Fuhrman clearly states his contempt for African-Americans, disdain for interracial romantic relationships, and implications that he may have falsified key evidence in previous cases involving African-Americans. The prosecution's case hit a devastating obstacle from which it would never recover. Fuhrman was one of the key witnesses who found important evidence at the crime scenes, and his testimony would become far more damaging to the prosecution than the bloody gloves he produced that he hoped might "tighten up the case". Many whites, particularly the Goldman family, were outraged at the defense teams' use of the "race card" while African-Americans applauded the strategy. Ultimately, I think Frontline's point was that in this kind of a trial, the defense is at liberty to use whatever means to cast doubt on the prosecution's case which is the legitimate role of the defense. Law Professor Kimberle Crenshaw questions why it is supposedly off-limits to expose racial bias in a trial as it relates to a criminal case involving race if one of the key investigating officers is shown to have a history of racial bias. Many of her white colleagues, such as Jeffrey Toobin, disagree, and claim that playing the "race card" is out of bounds and opposes presenting such evidence at a trial.
Another major aspect of the trial was the reaction of the White-American community versus the African-American community in regards to Simpson's acquittal. Many African-Americans burst out into elation while much of the White community was stunned and disillusioned. Marc Watts gives one of the most interesting assessments concerning the verdict without disclosing his opinion about Simpson's guilt or innocence. He says that, given all the evidence, the jury rendered the correct verdict.
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