Oscar Pistorius, the OJ Simpson of the Twitter age

It comes as a shock to realise that it is nearly 20 years ago, on 3 October 1995, that OJ Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. The trial ran for months, mesmerised millions, and was followed obsessively on television across America – and around the world. This saga, and its undertones, found a permanent home right on in America’s racial fault line. In South Africa, the Oscar Pistorius saga is starting to carve a monumental space for itself. Looking back, how similar are these two big celebrity crimes? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

It became a perfect, toxic combination of a famous former-athlete, high courtroom high jinks, police investigative chaos or worse, a timorous judge – Lance Ito – who also happened to be eager for his dose of high-profile publicity, and the inexorable appetite of the media and the television audiences for the drama of a celebrity’s fall from grace. And all of this became the vital raw material for fuelling the continuous news cycle – even before social media like Twitter and Facebook even existed. And except for the corrosive racial angle, for many observers, the OJ Simpson trial now seems to have been an amazing foretaste of what is unfolding in South Africa.

The initial facts of the story are reasonably straightforward. On 12 June 1994, Nicole Brown (then already a former football star OJ Simpson’s also former wife) and her friend Ronald Goldman were found dead outside Brown’s condominium. Simpson was quickly charged with their murders. Five days later, after Simpson failed to turn himself over to the police, he became the “star” of a bizarre, real-time, reality show featuring the police’s low-speed pursuit of a white Ford Bronco SUV throughout the Los Angeles freeway network with Simpson in it as a passenger. Live broadcasts from TV news helicopters flying over the slow pursuit even interrupted network coverage of the 1994 NBA Finals, a near-sacrosanct television event for sports fans. But this was just an appetiser for the main course yet to come. 

Watch: OJ on the Run – The Bronco Chase 

That chase, Simpson’s actual arrest, and then the lengthy subsequent trial became some of the most widely publicised events ever broadcast in American history. OJ Simpson’s all-star defence counsel team eventually included some of the most famous, flashiest, most expensive – and most effective – criminal defence lawyers around – Johnnie Cochran, Robert Kardashian, and F Lee Bailey.

On that day in October 1995 when the verdict was to come down, this writer was in his office in Washington, along with two-dozen other Foreign Service officers and support staffers. As soon as a rumour began to circulate that the verdict would be released, all work in the office ceased, and everyone sat down in front of the small office television – the set usually set to monitor breaking international news stories.

Then the jurors filed in, the verdict was handed to the judge, and as he asked for the verdict from the jury foreperson, it became very, very silent in our office. The moment the verdict – not guilty on both murder charges – was read out, half of our group let out a wild, spontaneous cheer, while the other half was shocked into a stunned, awestruck silence. And of course the cheers – and the shock – divided precisely along racial lines. There was that essential American fault line in our office. Right there in our small office gathering. And it was one repeated throughout that particular 10-storey building on each floor – and all across the country.

The trial itself had been notable for some extraordinary lawyerly courtroom dramatic antics. Most memorably, perhaps, had been Johnnie Cochran’s famous charge about the bloody glove that had presumably been worn by the murderer (to avoid leaving fingerprints and to steady the murderer’s hand as he sliced through human flesh), but that OJ Simpson theatrically could not insert his hand into, live on television and in the courtroom. As Cochran triumphantly told the jury with a call that was redolent of one of Muhammad Ali’s chants, “If it doesn’t fit you must acquit!” (Critics of this particular demonstration later charged that a leather golf glove soaked in a sticky liquid such as human blood would inevitably have become smaller, tighter and much harder to put over a human hand. And of course there was that dead-certain fact that the two gruesome murders had indeed come from horrific, massive wounds inflicted by a hunting knife.)

Watch: OJ Simpson and the glove that doesn’t fit

As lawyer and detective novel author Scott Turow (a former prosecuting attorney) had written after Simpson was found not guilty, “The prosecution of OJ Simpson was doomed from the start. Not in the sense that the state lacked proof — the case against Mr Simpson remains compelling. But the prosecution was a low-road enterprise that began with the kinds of ugly tactics that have aroused suspicions about the criminal justice system among members of racial minorities in Los Angeles and elsewhere.”

Then of course there was police investigator Mark Fuhrman’s perjury over whether he had been fatally compromised as a detective on the case by virtue of his well-demonstrated prejudice against black people. The question was advanced over whether he used the “n-word” in his everyday speech as a signifier of prejudice. He claimed to be free of such a charge, but witnesses testified to his use of the word – and there was even a tape recording of such language. That fatally undermined his credibility, pointing to suspicions that he had actually planted the evidence – the bloody glove, blood drops – in an effort to tie Simpson to the murders.

Simpson’s defence team, of course, argued Fuhrman had actually planted the glove at Simpson’s home as part of a racially motivated plot to frame Simpson for the murders. They built their case about Fuhrman’s intentions around his use of racial slurs and they used these declarations to further cross-examine Fuhrman on his alleged racial animosity.

Fuhrman’s testimony eventually resulted in his perjury conviction. In the 1985 recording, for example, Fuhrman spoke with a screenplay writer researching for a movie about female police officers. He had talked about gang members and said, “Yeah we work with niggers and gangs. You can take one of these niggers, drag ‘em into the alley and beat the shit out of them and kick them. You can see them twitch. It really relieves your tension.” He went on to say “we had them begging that they’d never be gang members again, begging us.” He said that he would tell them, “You do what you’re told, understand, nigger?” Clearly not the LAPD’S best moment in a trial’s worth of bad moments.

Fuhrman was also asked about whether he had ever falsified police records or manufactured evidence for this trial – a question to which he invoked his American constitutional Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. And that ultimately led to his conviction on charges of perjury and his forced departure from the LA Police Department. (Ironically, Fuhrman ultimately became the only person actually convicted of any criminal charges stemming from the whole case.)

Watch: Mark Fuhrman at the OJ Trial (MSNBC)

Perhaps inevitably, Fuhrman has now come down squarely on the side of the prosecuting attorney in South Africa’s current case. “The defence attorneys are doing what defence attorneys everywhere do,” Fuhrman said to Fox News. “When you look at the facts, even omitting all the forensic evidence the police have produced, it’s crystal clear. Here is what he admits: ‘I shot my girlfriend.’ And he has to admit he fought with her in the past, because the police had been there previously. That’s really all you need to know here.”

Watch: OJ Simpson verdict

Despite Simpson’s acquittal in this lurid murder case, in 1997 Simpson was still found liable for the deaths of the two people in a civil case that had been relentlessly pursued by Goldman’s family. As a result, the former sports legend was ordered to pay the Goldman family $38 million and Nicole Brown Simpson’s family $24 million.

A decade later, Simpson authored a book that was to have been titled, “If I Did It,” a hypothetical description of how he would have committed the killings of his ex-wife and Goldman – if he had done the deeds. But Simpson’s publishing deal collapsed from a public uproar and a federal bankruptcy judge awarded the putative book’s rights to the Goldman family. The family then changed the book’s name to If I Did It: The Confessions of the Killer, and released it to the eagerly waiting public.

But OJ Simpson’s sojourns through the America’s maze of courtrooms still had one more chapter to run. On 3 October 2008 he was found guilty in a trial arising out of a September 2007 incident in which he had been arrested and charged with kidnapping and armed robbery after he and five other men entered a room in Las Vegas hotel and took hundreds of memorabilia connected to Simpson’s earlier athletic career that had come into the possession of two sports collectibles dealers. On 5 December 2008, Simpson was sentenced to 33 years in prison for these acts and he is now serving his sentence at the Lovelock Correctional Center. Most recently, and most improbably, media reports say he hosted an American football Super Bowl party in his cell for other prisoners who watched the football game with him.

Of course, OJ Simpson’s life has been more than just the sum total of his numerous courtroom appearances. He was a track and field star in high school and college and then a Heisman Trophy-winning university football player. Then he became a record-setting, standout professional football player for many years with the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers. Then, building on an itch for acting he had had for many years, he appeared in various television programs and feature films, most notably, perhaps, in the Naked Gun trilogy. On film and the small screen, OJ had an easy, even relaxed manner that seemed the embodiment of California cool and made him popular, even in those relatively small roles.

And he also appeared in a memorable – and well-paying – commercial for the Hertz car rental company. In that commercial, portraying himself, “The Juice”, wearing a slick business suit and carrying a briefcase, mimicking his on-field athletic persona as he loped through an airport, avoiding obstacles and people, renting a car, and then moving on to get into the car itself. All of this was designed to demonstrate the ease and speed with which a client could get rental wheels from Hertz.

Watch: OJ Simpson’s Hertz commercial

Early in his football career, Simpson had earned the nicknames “OJ” or “The Juice” from the first two initials of his name and those initials’ association with nice healthy orange juice. OJ is, of course, the frequent shorthand for that beverage and “The Juice” bears parallel meanings for both the drink and a kind of special, even particularly masculine, near-electric energy.

But all of his post-sports success clearly hadn’t been sufficient to soothe the sorrows arising from the end of sports accolades coming his way. The roar of the crowds had faded; his marriage to Nicole Brown – a woman he had met in a restaurant as his first marriage was collapsing – fell apart; there were miscellaneous charges of public and private violence. Eventually OJ Simpson was the archetype of the one-time sports star forced to find another pathway to soak up just one more dose of applause.

But then the murder charges turned OJ Simpson into a national icon for racial division, the small and large distortions of courtroom behaviour, the distortions of the legal system that comes from the money used for a well-paid defence, and the insidious corruptions within a police department eager – even desperate – to gain a conviction.

Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius’s circumstances are certainly different from OJ’s. Pistorius and his legal team are making no claim that he did not pull the trigger. At the time of the crime in South Africa, Oscar Pistorius was only now coming into the very top of his athletic prowess and fame. He had worldwide fame, money, and a beautiful girlfriend. Still more money, more crowd noises and public worship was on its way; but like virtually any sports star, except perhaps a darts or chess player, he undoubtedly he could see the faint glimmer of the end of a career awaiting – and that must have put an edge on his feelings about the world around him.

A glimpse of the inner Blade Runner shone through in the occasional brushes with destructive, risky behaviour and that willingness to complain about how another Paralympian had run his race. There was no time to waste. And he was fearful of something – the gun culture had a hold of him too. And now it has all unravelled on him with decisive suddenness.

Many South Africans – and many more people around the world – have rallied to his defence, in deference to his astonishing sports success and in a reluctance to let go of the vision of a great athlete. But it could be much worse. Just imagine what would be happening now if Pistorius and his girlfriend had been from different races. If that were true, it is a really good bet that the already overwhelming obsession with this case would be like nothing – even in comparison to the racial dynamic that played out in Los Angeles 18 years ago. DM

Read more:

  • OJ Simpson, at the New York Times
  • Reasonable Doubt (a column by lawyer and crime story author Scott Turow) in the New York Times published just after Simpson’s acquittal
  • The Mark Fuhrman website, at ABC News
  • OJ Simpson main page at CNN
  • Oscar Pistorius trial: Is it South Africa’s version of the OJ Simpson trial? (+video), at the Christian Science Monitor
  • South Africa’s Fallen Blade Runner, at the VOA
  • South African police say investigator in Pistorius case faces attempted murder charge, at the AP
  • Murder in Pretoria? OJ detective says ‘Blade Runner’ evidence is overwhelming, at Fox News

Photo: Defendant OJ Simpson, wearing the blood stained gloves found by Los Angeles Police and entered into evidence in Simpson’s murder trial displays his hands to the jury at the request of prosecutor Christopher Darden June 15, 1995. (Reuters)


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