This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 9, 1995
Simpson Case Closing Arguments
After a nine-month run, the show of shows was finally coming to a close. For its penultimate act last week, at a theatre also known as the Los Angeles County Courthouse, a star-studded audience showed up to witness history: baseball great Steve Garvey and wife Candace, actor Richard Dreyfuss, former Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner and wife Kris. Broadway director Gerald Gutierrez, who watched the show on television, boldly declared: "I thought the costuming was brilliant." The trial of Orenthal James Simpson, charged with murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, has inspired a host of fashion statements, rumors, trash tabloid exposés and bad jokes - an unparalleled pop-culture phenomenon that at times seemed to obscure the tragedy of the case. But as the prosecution and the defence launched their closing arguments last week, nobody was joking any more.
In four days of gripping oratory, four lawyers - Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden for the prosecution, Johnnie Cochran Jr. and Barry Scheck for the defence - presented the jury with deeply conflicting, but equally harrowing, stories. One was of a jealous ex-husband wreaking revenge in a bloody spasm of violence; the other was a tale of police incompetence and corruption, fuelled by racism comparable to that found in Nazi Germany. By the time the jury of nine blacks, one Hispanic and two whites retired to begin deliberations, the case had become a cauldron for black-white conflict in America. Public opinion on Simpson's guilt or innocence remained sharply divided along racial lines: an ABC TV poll last week suggested that 77 per cent of whites believe Simpson is guilty - and that 72 per cent of blacks believe he is innocent. And in a racially troubled city of 3.5 million people, police were placed on tactical alert - ready to invoke a host of possible crowd-control measures once a verdict was announced.
The focus on race in the trial's closing week was something Clark and Darden would rather have avoided. At the beginning of the prosecution team's day-and-a-half-long address to the jury, Clark confronted head-on the most damaging figure to the prosecution: former LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman. As the policeman who found the infamous bloody glove at Simpson's Rockingham estate, Fuhrman had been the prosecution's key witness. But then in August, audiotape evidence and defence witnesses showed that the now-retired officer lied on the stand about his racial biases and about his use of the racial epithet "nigger." In her closing statement, Clark attempted to distance the prosecution's case from Fuhrman's racism. "Is he a racist?" she asked the jury. "Yes. Do we wish that the LAPD had never hired him? Yes. Do we wish that people like this were never on this planet? Yes." But Clark went on to say that Fuhrman's racism was merely a "distraction," used by the defence to divert the jury's attention from the mountain of evidence against Simpson.
Then, in clear, measured tones, she began sifting through that evidence, so familiar now to O.J. watchers around the world: Simpson's history of spousal abuse, his lack of an alibi and the trail of blood and hair fibres linking the former football star to the murders. In the photos of Nicole Brown Simpson's and Ron Goldman's mangled bodies, she told the jury: "You see rage. You see fury. You see overkill. These are murders that are really slaughters, that are personal, and in that respect they reveal a great deal about who did them."
Clark left much of the rhetoric to Darden, who concluded the prosecution's closing arguments. Concentrating on Simpson's alleged motivation, Darden depicted the accused as a man insanely jealous of his ex-wife who finally decided to let his anger loose. "With each thrust of that knife into [Nicole Brown Simpson's] body and into Ron's body," Darden said, "there is a release, you know, a small release."
Whatever fireworks the prosecution mustered, however, were nothing compared with the bravura performance Cochran had prepared. Like preacher-politician Jesse Jackson at his best, the 57-year-old lawyer - a tiny cross pinned to the left lapel of his grey suit - invited the predominantly black jury to follow him on "a journey towards justice." Cochran quoted from the Bible, from Cicero, from Shakespeare and from Abraham Lincoln, and he used the catchphrase "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" - a reference to the courtroom demonstration of Simpson struggling to put on the Rockingham glove - like a mantra as he mocked the prosecution version of events. At one point, he donned a knit toque much like the one that the prosecution alleges Simpson used to disguise himself on the night of the murders. "Who am I? I'm still Johnnie Cochran with a knit cap," he said. "O. J. Simpson in a knit cap from two blocks away is still O. J. Simpson."
Scheck, the pugnacious New York Cardozo Law School professor, continued the assault on the prosecution case by focusing on technical details. Bringing out an array of charts and graphs, Scheck questioned the DNA identification of blood found at the crime scene and attempted to expose police handling of evidence as an exercise in incompetence. "Something is terribly wrong with the evidence in this case," he said. "You cannot trust it; it lacks integrity."
But the defence saved its most scathing attacks for Fuhrman. And in doing so, Cochran played the so-called race card to the hilt. Cochran, who in the wake of death threats has used bodyguards from the controversial black nationalist group the Nation of Islam, called Fuhrman "a lying, genocidal racist." Nearly every significant piece of evidence - the glove, the crime scene, Simpson's white Bronco where bloodstains were found - was tainted by Fuhrman's lies, Cochran said. He also accused Det. Philip Vannatter of complicity in a police coverup of evidence tampering, and called the detectives "twin devils of deception."
Cochran suggested that an acquittal for Simpson would be not only a vote for his innocence, but also a step towards equal rights for blacks. "You are the consciences of this community," he told the jury. "Your verdict goes far beyond the doors of this courtroom." At one point, Cochran likened Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler - a comparison that outraged Ron Goldman's father, Fred. "This man is a whore walking around among us," said an enraged and clearly pain-racked Goldman. "He suggests that because of racism we should put aside all other thought, all other reason, and set his murdering client free."
Simpson, at least, seems confident of acquittal. Just five weeks after the murder of his ex-wife, he applied to the federal Patent and Trademark Office to have his name, along with "O.J." and "The Juice," registered as trademarks. The application lists over 100 consumer items that, potentially, would carry Simpson's name, including wind-up toys, computer game cartridges, jigsaw puzzles, dolls and latex squeeze toys. And Simpson's agents are reportedly seeking a deal to have him tell his side of the story - which he declined to do in front of the jury - on a pay-per-view television broadcast.
In Los Angeles - where a predominantly white jury acquitted four police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King in 1992, setting off a week of rioting and bloodshed - distrust of the police runs deep among the city's nonwhite poor. "There is concern about the LAPD's ability to treat anyone in their service area equitably," says Bill Martinez, executive director of Community Youth Gang Services, one of the oldest social worker organizations in the city. Adds Father Greg Boyle, director of Jobs for the Future and Homeboy Industries, organizations that help gang members get off the streets: "Rodney King was not an aberration - this community knows that Mark Fuhrman was not an aberration."
Even before the prosecution ended its rebuttal last Friday, there were signs of brewing conflict. About 100 Simpson supporters crammed the sidewalk outside the courthouse, chanting "Free O.J." and "Go, Johnny, go," and cheering loudly at the sight of Cochran's five Nation of Islam bodyguards. Opposing them were several protesters from the Jewish Defence League - outraged by Cochran's comparison of Fuhrman to Hitler. "Guilty, guilty, DNA, DNA," chanted JDL supporters, while another carried a banner reading: "Cochran, Nation of Islam, Fuhrman - racists come in all colors." The trial of O. J. Simpson was nearing its end. But in a city with a painful history of racial division, the wounds it has opened were just beginning to bleed.
Maclean's October 9, 1995