Thursday, April 08, 2010

American Tragedy

Like a couple of hundred million other Americans, in the mid-1990s I was riveted by the story of O.J. Simpson. This former football superstar, then movie actor and television pitchman for Hertz car rentals, was being prosecuted for murdering his former wife, Nicole, and a male, Ron Goldman, who had accompanied her on the night they were killed.

I probably don't have to go through any of the details of this case, and if you're new to it or need a refresher, you can find a good overview of it here.

The book, American Tragedy by Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth, published in 1996, is the story of the defense of O.J. Simpson, and the subsequent acquittal on the charges of murder. During the time the trial was going on we were bombarded by television and news stories discussing the trivia of the case, what witnesses said what, attorneys on Court TV blathering on for hours about evidence, testimony, blah blah blah. We were so inundated that by the time the "not guilty" verdict was read I couldn't have cared what happened to him. I just wanted it to be over.

But it's been long enough now that I can read about it. Unlike many other white people in America, I really hadn't made up my mind that Simpson was guilty of murdering his ex-wife and Ron Goldman. Nowadays I'd lean more to guilt than innocence, so one of the things I found interesting about American Tragedy is that even Simpson's staunchest supporters on the defense team had a suspicion he was guilty. But their job was to defend him and get him acquitted. The way they did it was to show that the LA Police Department had racist, rogue cops who, the defense claimed, planted evidence.

At the time the country was split into two camps: whites who were sure Simpson was guilty, and African-Americans, who, having had their own problems with the American justice system, were sure he was another black man being found guilty just because he was black. The case hung on the conduct of the police, though, and ultimately the defense was able to plant enough reasonable doubt in the (mostly black) jury that the cops, forensics lab, and prosecution witnesses were all tainted by ineptitude or corruption.

O.J. Simpson walked out of the courtroom with a "not guilty" verdict, but he wasn't found not guilty by most of the people in this country, and I doubt he had a day where he wasn't reminded of it. So his wish to not only be found not guilty but exonerated and win back his status, was only 50% realized.

A few years ago an armed Simpson and some friends broke into a hotel room in Las Vegas, and threatened some people there. Simpson said they had some of his memorabilia illegally and he wanted it back. The incident showed that Simpson, as people had said during his murder trial, was capable of violence. Simpson was sent to prison where he now sits. Read about the verdict here.

Unless Simpson were to step up and confess to murdering his wife and Ron Goldman, or someone else come forward and confess to the crimes to everyone's satisfaction, Simpson will go down in infamy as the guy who got away with murder. I'm sure 100 years from now, like the Lizzie Borden case of the 1890s, the Simpson case will still be the subject of public interest. There'll be books discussing the pros and cons of his guilt. I really believe that one of the most honest and telling books about the whole case is American Tragedy, which shows how little of American justice is actually based on a person's guilt or innocence, but on extraneous factors.

One final thing: at the time of his arrest in 1994, there was a flap over the mug shot of Simpson, shown on the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines. Time darkened the photo, which made Simpson look more sinister.

I felt the same way when I saw the back of the dust jacket of American Tragedy. I lightened it with my photo editing software, and even so it is a disturbing portrait of Simpson.


Kirk Jusko said...

There's a quote from Norman Mailer on the back cover. Schiller did research for Mailer's book about Gary Gilmore, The Executioner Song.

DEMiller said...

I never doubted for a moment that he was guilty from the moment I saw the slow chase in the white Bronco. I told my wife that day that we were going to witness just how screwed up our justice system is. I agree with the old saying, "We have the worst justice system in the world, except for all the others".