Friday, June 11, 2004
The trial that changed our culture
By Roger Cossack
Special to Page 2
It combined race, sex, lifestyle, whodunnit, celebrities and pop culture. It made previously unknown prosecutors household names, and an aging beach boy/wannabe actor America's houseguest. Defense lawyers became celebrities, signing autographs at Rolling Stones concerts and boxing matches. The judge became a staple of New York Times crossword puzzles. After all, how many three letter words have an I, a T and an O. It was the perfect storm, and in its wake it created a new partnership between law and television.
O.J. Simpson was a nationwide celebrity, but particularly popular in Los Angeles since his Heisman Trophy days at Southern Cal. He had a Hall of Fame career with the Buffalo Bills and returned to L.A., where he was a pitchman for Hertz, made some movies, and played golf. It seemed he was everywhere. I lived in L.A. then and remember seeing him several times, always driving with the top down in the newest, flashiest convertible. If you waved to O.J., he would wave back.
I knew that convicting Simpson would be difficult, no matter what the evidence. Think of trying to convict Joe Montana in San Francisco, or Derek Jeter in New York and you get some idea of how people felt about O.J. in Los Angeles. And then there was the LAPD, a police department plagued by not unfounded accusations of racism. But the irony of that was that it turned out that O.J. had been given special treatment by the LAPD. They idolized him and he would often have them up to his lovely, hillside home for swimming parties and socializing. Nicole Simpson recognized this during one of her many calls to the LAPD for help when she said, "You know who he is, you come here often."
Although there had been other "trials of the century," none of them were televised. The Simpson trial had witnesses who looked as if they had been sent to testify by central casting. Kato Kaelin shaking his hair and pursing his lips; knowing that the murder of Nicole Simpson had given him the world as an audition stage. F. Lee Bailey asking Mark Fuhrman if he had ever used the "N" word and Fuhrman, without hesitating, lying in response.
Some things work on television and some don't. Hockey doesn't work on TV; it's too fast and too difficult to see the puck. But courtrooms are perfect for television. Each trial is a story told by each witness and it isn't over until the jury decides the outcome. We see what the jury sees and so we can be outraged when they get it wrong. We choose who are the good lawyers; who are the truthful witnesses; and ultimately the guilt of the defendant.
The trial of O.J. Simpson told us much about the differences between the races in our country. During the trial I read a great deal of the reporting in the black press. At first I thought they were reporting on a different event than I was watching; only later did I realize that I was reading a description of American justice written by people who had experienced it entirely differently than I had.
Did the Simpson trial foreshadow the reality shows of today? Maybe. But what it did create was an entirely new television personality -- the legal analyst. There was a time when my job did not exist. Simpson changed all of that by tapping into the fascination that the viewers had for the law and trials. There had always been lawyer shows on television ("Perry Mason," "Matlock") but this was different; this was real and we didn't know how it would turn out.
Today, we simply take for granted the part that law and trials play in our culture, and we know that our papers, TV and Internet will provide us with complete coverage. Prior to Simpson this part of our culture didn't exist. For better or worse, Simpson became the basis for all trials to follow and even today, 10 years later, the debate over his trial and guilt continues.
Roger Cossack is a contributing legal analyst for ESPN.