This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 17, 1997
O.J. Simpson to Pay Millions
There were 1,811 murders in Los Angeles County in 1994. But for much of the past three years, just two of those killings have rivetted the attention of the American media, the public and legal experts - not to mention the families of the victims. Last week, finally, the cases of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, killed in a brutal knife attack on the night of June 12, 1994, stumbled towards some sort of conclusion. After 17 hours of deliberation, jurors in the civil proceedings against O.J. Simpson found the 49-year-old former football star liable for the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend, Goldman. The penalty: not prison time, but money, as the jury awarded $11.5 million in compensatory damages to Goldman's divorced parents, with perhaps millions more to follow in punitive damages for both victims' families. "Thank God for some justice for Ron and Nicole," said Fred Goldman, Ron's father. "This is all we ever wanted."
Brave words. The saga of O.J. Simpson has been about a lot of things - celebrity, media hype, money - but justice has often seemed an elusive commodity. By conservative estimates, the case has spawned more than 30 books, by everyone from hack writers to former Los Angeles police detectives to party girl Faye Resnick. In its criminal incarnation, the Trial of the Century proved a ratings bonanza for U.S. television networks - and even its non-televised civil counterpart stole the media spotlight last week from President Bill Clinton and his state of the union address. The criminal trial widened the country's racial divide - and the civil trial did nothing to close it. The seemingly endless legal proceedings themselves, meanwhile, which began with Simpson's arrest in June, 1994, are probably still far from over. In the end, it remains an open question whether last week's verdict resolved much at all.
The civil action, brought against Simpson by the Goldman and Brown families, was a far different trial than the one in which he was acquitted of criminal charges in October, 1995. Gone was Lance Ito, the soft-spoken judge widely criticized for allowing defence ploys and seemingly endless sidebars to bog down proceedings. In the civil case, Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki barred TV cameras from the Santa Monica courtroom, and he consistently prevented either the defence or the plaintiffs from getting off track - one of the reasons the latter trial took almost six months, whereas the criminal proceedings dragged on for more than a year.
Perhaps more important to the outcome, however, was the composition of the jury. In the criminal trial - where Simpson's "dream team" of lawyers argued that their client had been framed by racist cops - the panel was drawn from mostly black downtown Los Angeles, and nine of the jurors who eventually acquitted Simpson were African-American. The civil jury, by contrast, was drawn from predominantly white Santa Monica. Of the 12 jurors who unanimously found Simpson liable, none were black, although one was of mixed race.
The civil jury also had vastly different evidence with which to reach their verdict. And little of it worked in Simpson's favor - including his own testimony, required in a civil proceeding even though he declined to take the stand during his criminal trial. For one thing, Simpson denied ever owning a pair of size 12 Bruno Magli shoes, the type whose soles match bloody footprints found near the victims' bodies at Nicole Brown Simpson's South Bundy Drive condominium. But then the plaintiffs' legal team, led by corporate lawyer Daniel Petrocelli, produced 31 photographs of Simpson wearing exactly those shoes at a football game nine months before the murders. Perhaps even more damning from Simpson's testimony was his absolute denial that he had ever hit Nicole - even though he had pleaded no-contest years before to doing just that, receiving a suspended sentence for assault in 1989.
In mounting their defence, Simpson's lawyers, led by veteran civil litigator Robert Baker, faced an uphill battle. There was a mountain of existing DNA and blood evidence linking their client to the crimes, as well as new evidence - including results of a lie-detector test that Simpson failed miserably days after the killings, and testimony from ex-girlfriend Paula Barbieri that she broke up with him on the morning of the murders. The defence team was also handcuffed by Judge Fujisaki's disallowance of any testimony involving former police Det. Mark Fuhrman. In the criminal case, Fuhrman's anti-black views provided the backbone of the defence. Without Fuhrman, the defence claim that blood found on Simpson's vehicle and around his Rockingham estate was actually planted by L.A. police lost much of its impact.
The jury, at any rate, was clearly not convinced by Simpson's version of events. But their finding of liability in the civil case - and the $11.5 million awarded to Goldman's family - were only the first steps in the calculation of damages. At week's end, the jury re-entered deliberations to assess punitive damages, intended to punish Simpson not for the deaths of Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, but rather - through a decidedly strange legal technicality - for causing property damage against them when he committed battery.
Simpson's lawyers claimed that he is $12.6 million in the hole - and that the jury should award nothing in punitive damages. The plaintiffs, on the other hand, claimed that Simpson is worth at least $21 million - estimating that he can still earn between $2.7 million and $4 million a year from book deals, signing autographs and through the sale of trademarked paraphernalia. (Among the phrases that the plaintiffs claim Simpson has already applied to trademark: "Team O.J. justice for all.")
Even after the civil suit officially ends, the legal fallout is bound to continue. For one thing, an appeal is almost inevitable, although some legal experts doubt that a higher court would dare overturn the civil decision and risk being seen as pro-Simpson. Meanwhile, Simpson is fighting a battle in another court: the maternal grandparents of his children - 11-year-old daughter Sydney and eight-year-old son Justin - are appealing a family court decision that granted him custody last year. (The Browns' attempt to win interim custody of the children pending their appeal was thrown out of court late last month.)
Some commentators, too, have suggested that Simpson be charged with perjury - as Fuhrman was after he lied under oath about never having used racial epithets. Laurie Levenson, an associate dean of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says such a charge is unlikely. "My reaction is don't hold your breath," Levenson adds. "Obviously, the jury thought O.J. wasn't telling the truth, but the man is likely to be a pariah - and that is probably the best punishment now."
The most enduring legacy of the Simpson trials may have nothing to do with courtrooms and legalities, but rather with black and white. Outside the courthouse following the verdict, many in the largely white crowd of about 2,000 broke into a spontaneous rendition of the pop anthem We Are the Champions when the Goldman family left the building. In South Central Los Angeles, 80-year-old pensioner Lee Johnson fumed to reporters about "all of them whites" who were out to get Simpson. "He could have got a better trial in Mississippi," Johnson said. Polling among the two races last week reflected those sharply divided attitudes, and was depressingly predictable: four-fifths of whites said they believe Simpson is guilty, while less than a third of blacks did.
In truth, Simpson's saga has become a passion play about race in America - even though the star, who in his glory days rarely if ever spoke out on behalf of African-Americans, was hopelessly miscast. No matter. The play goes on.
Maclean's February 17, 1997