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True Crime: O.J. Simpson’s America

More than twenty years have passed since O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, on the night of June 12th, 1994, in the Brentwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles. The rush of books that accompanied the trial may have abated, including accounts by Simpson himself, various lawyers, journalists and observers, but public interest in the trial has not diminished. In February this year the FX network in the US televised a ten-part dramatization, ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’, also shown on the BBC and RTÉ, which recently won nine Emmy Awards, on the back of 22 nominations – topped by wins for Outstanding Limited Series, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series.

My own interest in the series stems from teaching a course for the last fifteen years at NUI Galway on non-fiction accounts of murder in America, the greatest of which are Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979). This led me to reread the book on which the series was based, Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, published in 1996, following his coverage of the trial for The New Yorker magazine, and to reflect on some of the differences and convergences between the two versions, and the implications of the genre of true crime itself.

One of the great strengths of the series was undoubtedly the casting – the award-winning performances by Courtney B. Vance as the lead defence attorney, Johnnie Cochran, Sarah Paulson as the lead prosecutor Marcia Clark, and Sterling K. Brown as the prosecutor Christopher Darden, uncannily captured the presence and impact of key figures in the trial. David Schwimmer, nominated for his portrayal of Simpson’s great friend and supporter, Robert Kardashian, was brilliant in expressing his devotion to ‘The Juice’ and his agonised loss of faith as the evidence against him mounts. The cast managed to confront the challenge of playing figures whose appearance and mannerisms remain very familiar to us without engaging in tribute-driven impersonations or parodies.

While Toobin focused on the courtroom, the series dramatises shifts between domestic and public spaces. We have Cochran in his dressing gown rehearsing his famous closing remarks and stumbling onto the formula ‘If the glove doesn’t fit you must acquit’; the crazed loyalty of Simpson’s friend, Al Cowlings (played with immense skill by Malcolm-Jamal Warner), who drove his pal on the famous Bronco slow chase across the LA freeway system; or the studied sociability of Robert Shapiro (the original lead attorney hired by Simpson who was replaced in due course by Cochran) and his endless restaurant engagements designed to maximise the notoriety he had achieved. John Travolta’s stylised performance as Shapiro is perhaps overdrawn, but he conveys the lawyer’s elaborate courtesies and his remoteness, imparted with deft physical phrasing and choreographed gesture. (Toobin was more scathing on the whole, regularly rounding on the ‘Dream Team’ of defence lawyers, with the exception of Barry Scheck, the expert on DNA analysis, who was the only person, in his view, who really did any work.)

The real interest of the series derived from the way it ushered in a new wave of reflection on the case, on the tensions surrounding race in America that the trial exposed and exploited, and on the implications of celebrity culture that dominated the proceedings.

At one level the case constituted the ultimate celebrity show trial, a genre brought to considerable perfection in America with the trial of Michael Jackson on child-molestation charges, or, in the instance of murder, the trials of actor Robert Blake and music producer Phil Spector. The series immerses itself in this world without entirely declaring a position. One of the early episodes indulges in a proleptic scene of the Kardashian children chanting the family name in self-delight. At times, the series was closer in tone to the work of Dominick Dunne, who covered the trial for Vanity Fair and saturated his discussion with gossipy reports, delighting in his access to inner sanctums of celebrity (Dunne, 2001; 1997). Toobin, by contrast, was alert to the corrupting effects of celebrity on the participants, including Judge Lance Ito, even if his response was that of a common sense defender of judicial process and decorum rather than a sharp-edged satirist. The low-point described by Toobin came with the appearance of Larry King in the courthouse (his programme on CNN had become a de rigueur place to comment, self-promote and digest the daily events). King enjoyed a 40-minute private audience in Judge Ito’s chambers on January 14th, 1995, during a mid-morning break in the action. As Toobin describes it:

The break had been scheduled for only fifteen minutes so Ito found a fidgety group before him when he returned to the bench. Incredibly, King and his entourage [his senior executive producer and King’s daughter] followed him through the rear door into the well of the courtroom. O.J. rose in deference to the visiting celebrity and reached out to shake hands. The bailiffs, however, hustled the defendant back to his seat. Chastened, O.J. said to King, “Thanks for being so fair.” Next, King moved to Robert Shapiro, who gave him a bear hug. Then King shook hands with Lee Bailey. All this attention to the defence camp disturbed Suzanne Childs, [Los Angeles County District Attorney] Gil Garcetti’s peripatetic director of communications…Childs rushed from her seat to the defence table and steered King over to the prosecutors. “I watch you all the time!” Marcia Clark told him (Toobin, 1996, p. 231). 

What made the Simpson trial, and this series by extension, ultimately compelling was the dimension of race. Toobin’s book does a very good job of reconstructing the legacy of racism in the LA police force, the horrendous personal views and professional record of the crime-scene detective Mark Fuhrman, whom they continued to employ, the backdrop of the assault by officers on Rodney King, and Cochran’s long record of exploiting the potential of race in defending clients. As the series developed, it became clear how little the country has moved on from fundamental oppositions between white and black America, reflected in the jury and the reactions to the verdict. The dual temporalities that accompany reconstructions inevitably come into play, so we interpret these events through more recent episodes in Ferguson, Missouri, in Baltimore, and elsewhere in the country.

The dramatisation does not declare a position on Simpson’s guilt or innocence, in part to engage our sympathies evenly, but Toobin had no doubts. Early on, he remarks that ‘any reasonably attentive student of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman could see that O.J. Simpson was guilty of killing them’ (Toobin, 1996, p. 10). This position, perhaps indicative of Toobin’s background as a former prosecutor in New York, affords him a knowing perspective. It also enables him to heighten his portrait of the craven jockeying for celebrity among the defence attorneys, and the incompetence and arrogance of the prosecuting team, who rejected sound advice on jury selection and trial strategy, and then blundered from one error to another. But the fundamental point is hard to avoid, made more forcefully by Toobin than by the television series: in order to accept Simpson’s innocence one simultaneously had to believe that the Los Angeles police displayed extraordinary capacities to concoct a conspiracy and coordinate it among a prodigious number of people but that they remained at the same time astonishingly inept in crime-scene processing and transmission of evidence.[1]

Toobin’s confident grasp of the essential points of the protracted trial gives pace and impact to the narrative, although he never ascends or aspires to the greatness of Capote or Mailer. One could argue that the case deserved that degree of literary firepower given its cultural importance, but one of the striking things about the literary genre of American True Crime, in general, is how studiously authors avoid taking on cases involving race. Stories in this form typically narrate crimes by white men against white victims: race is arguably too anxious a topic to consider in selecting subject matter. In this respect, the A&E television series ‘The First 48’ offers a more representative and socially challenging portrait.

The alternative mode available to Toobin was to write the story in the style of Tom Wolfe, as a further bonfire of the vanities. He conveys this dimension of the story well, even if he lacks Wolfe’s panache, describing the trial’s often ludicrous moments, the posturing, and the tolerance by Judge Ito of courtroom antics by both sides that would have been quickly scotched by a firmer judge, less in thrall to the cameras. The remarkably entwined relationships among the cast of characters (Larry King would later date Childs; Ito’s wife, a police captain with the LAPD, became implicated in the testimony of Mark Fuhrman, etc.) suggested a novelistic fancy at work in contriving such an improbable tale of interlocking Los Angeles life. Of course in presenting his account originally for The New Yorker he wrote in a long tradition. In Cold Blood appeared in the magazine in its entirety in The New Yorker, commissioned by the legendary editor William Shawn, as did numerous pieces over the years by Calvin Trillin, assembled in book form as Killings (1984), and more recently Philip Gourevitch’s account of a reinvestigated double homicide in Manhattan, published as A Cold Case (2001). Traces of The New Yorker’s familiar editorial inflection in this context appear in the distancing effect gained by surveying the country’s customs and oddities from a position of superiority. The democratic medium of television and the format of the popular series cannot afford such a privileged perspective.

One of the key questions for any true-crime treatment of murder is how to represent violence. The non-documentary construction of the series absolves it of responsibility to address this dilemma. The avoidance of the crime scene draws our attention away from a confrontation with murder and issues of domestic violence that led up to it (Nicole Simpson was effectively executed, and her throat cut to the bone), facilitating an alternative focus on the social world of the trial and its personalities. Toobin is fairly graphic, but we can handle descriptions of violence in prose whereas eyeballing the images is much more difficult. At the same time, his description assists his editorial strategy by emphasising Simpson as a criminal and not as the victim of racism made out by his defence attorneys. This may also explain why he focuses on the emotional reaction of the Brown family. Describing the opening statement by Marcia Clark, Toobin reports on the display of crime-scene photos:

The young woman [Nicole] lay in a fetal position in a pool of blood. Clark had shown these photographs to the family members before so they wouldn’t have to see them for the first time in the courtroom. But Juditha and Lou Brown still shuddered, steeling themselves as they saw again the scene of their daughter’s death….The Browns—the parents and the three surviving sisters—heaved their shoulders as one when the photograph of Ronald Goldman came up on the screen. It was a far more gruesome image: his body wedged into the corner of the fence, his shirt pulled over his head, and his exposed torso—so muscular and young—marred by obvious knife wounds filled with congealed blood (Toobin, 1996, p. 247-8).

The writer cannot attribute the emotional reaction to himself and must find a vehicle to convey the impact through the response of the spectators touched by the crime. Perhaps the Goldmans remained impassive at the sight, necessitating the attention to the Browns’ shock.

Toobin’s certainty about Simpson’s guilt makes him immune to the considerable charisma the defendant was capable of projecting (he concentrates instead Simpson’s vanity, lack of feeling and continual commentary during the proceedings, uninterrupted by the presiding judge). This has little parallel in the series. In playing him, Cuba Gooding, Jr. cannot capture the good looks and bravura self-confidence of Simpson at trial that contributed to his exoneration. But he does convey the despondence at losing his status, his wavering over the trial strategy, and narcissistic sense of being misrepresented in his relationship with Nicole.

It is difficult to imagine another trial that could combine so much of the conflicted American attitude to celebrity and race, and the capacity of these issues to overwhelm the attempt to establish the facts of the case and the interests of justice. Meanwhile history has ironised many of these events – Kardashian died in 2003 and Cochran in 2005, while Simpson is in jail – not on a murder conviction (although he faced a heavy judgement in the civil trial), but rather after his conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping in 2008. Still, we remain transfixed by the story, what it tells us about the country and what it tells us about ourselves.


[1] For an excellent summary of the evidence and the improbability of a coordinated conspiracy, see Toobin, 1996, pp. 435-6.



Dunne, D. (2001) Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments. New York: Crown Publishers

Dunne, D. (1997) Another City, not My Own. New York: Crown Publishers.

Toobin, J. (1996) The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. New York: Random House

Published: 05 Oct 2016  Categories: English Literature, Politics, Visual and Material Culture

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Daniel Carey, is Director of the Moore Institute for the Humanities and Social Studies at NUI Galway. He is a Vice-President of the Royal Irish Academy and serves on the board of the Irish Research Council. He was chair of the Irish Humanities Alliance 2014–16.