This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 5, 1996
He declined to testify in his own defence, and for months he dodged the media, first committing to - and then sidestepping - scheduled interviews like a running back avoiding tackles. Last week, O. J. Simpson finally sat down for a live TV interview. But during his hour-long appearance on America's Black Entertainment Television cable network, he offered few answers to the questions that still linger about the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. When asked about his actions on the evening of June 12, 1994 - the night Brown and Goldman were stabbed to death at her Los Angeles condominium - Simpson ducked again, and took the opportunity to plug his tell-all video, due for release in the first week of February. "You can find out," he told interviewer Ed Gordon, "for $29.95."
With legal fees from his nine-month trial topping $8 million, Simpson can ill afford to give anything away for free. But money is only one of the former football star and movie actor's problems, as a crime saga that began a year and a half ago enters its second stage - O.J.: The Sequel. Four months after a predominantly black jury in Los Angeles found him not guilty of murder, polls still show that most Americans - especially whites - believe he is a murderer. And more immediately, another legal battle has begun - one in which Simpson cannot avoid answering his accusers.
Last week, Simpson began giving his deposition in the wrongful-death suit launched by the Brown and Goldman families. Because it is a civil action, and because he does not face further criminal proceedings, Simpson could not invoke his constitutional right against self-incrimination. As Ron Goldman's father, Fred, looked on and a video camera recorded the sessions, Simpson answered questions about the June 17, 1994, chase in which he fled from police in his white Ford Bronco, about his whereabouts on the evening of the murders and about his relationship with Nicole.
Presiding Judge Alan Haber had instructed lawyers in the case not to discuss the depositions in detail, and it is unclear whether he will publish them before the beginning of the trial, set for April 2. Not surprisingly, however, counsel for the plaintiffs said that Simpson's deposition would help their lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages. "We have heard answers that have not been consistent with things that have been put out in the past," said John Kelly, representing the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson. Fred Goldman - the unofficial spokesman for the victims' families during the criminal trial - was more enthusiastic. "All of our expectations and hopes are being met," he said.
Simpson's lawyers - F. Lee Bailey and Robert Blaiser, who worked on his criminal defence, and civil litigator Robert C. Baker - had tried, and failed, to have the depositions permanently sealed. That manoeuvre may have been intended to protect their client's reputation - or to protect his pecuniary interests in the sale of his upcoming video. Titled O. J. Simpson, The Interview, the video - available by calling a 1-800 number - features an interview conducted by freelance TV journalist Ross Becker, a tour of the Rockingham estate and a half-hour monologue in which Simpson pleads his case. For his participation, Simpson reportedly garnered more than $4 million, and he could earn millions more through his share of the sales.
Granted, Simpson is not alone in trying to profit from the most-watched criminal trial in history: prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden both have books in the works, as do defence lawyers Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro and Alan Dershowitz. But Simpson's venture has certainly received the most criticism. Few media outlets have run ads for the video. And on L.A. radio station KFI, hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou counsel listeners to tie up the 800 number - just to hinder sales of the video. "We're telling people, 'Don't buy the tape,' " says Kobylt. "But if you have any interest, you might want to ask the operator some questions, and it might cost O.J. a little money."
As an exercise in public relations, Simpson's TV interview probably did not change many minds. Watched by three million Americans - hardly blockbuster ratings for Black Entertainment Television, which reaches 44 million households - Simpson admitted that he had abused Nicole, but called allegations that he stalked and intimidated her "totally b.s." He became agitated when talking about the victims' families: "I have a side of me that's very angry at Fred Goldman and the Browns." And his voice choked with emotion as he asked viewers to let him live in peace. "If you don't like me," he implored, "leave me alone."
That, of course, is unlikely to happen. And despite his acquittal on criminal charges, a civil jury could find him responsible for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Lawyers for the victims' families will only have to prove his responsibility by a preponderance of evidence, not beyond a reasonable doubt. And the verdict need not be unanimous - only nine of 12 jurors must agree. Another factor that may work against Simpson: the trial will take place in upscale seaside Santa Monica, not Los Angeles, and the jury will probably be mostly white.
In all, those factors could result in a verdict more in tune with the opinion of most Americans. But they will have to be patient, since the lawsuit is likely to take three years or more. As the saga of a fallen hero drags on, that may not serve truth or justice, but it is certainly the American way.
Maclean's February 5, 1996