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O.J. Simpson Trial: Different Results in Criminal, Civil Courts

The PeoplevsO.J. SimpsonI remember being a first-year law student at the Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama and rushing home from morning class to plant myself in front of the TV to watch the O.J. Simpson trial.  My fellow law school classmates and myself had just been introduced to the legal profession in our collective first year of legal education that included a criminal law class which made our shared interest in the People v. O.J. Simpson all the more interesting.

Eventually, our individual interest and private viewing evolved into group Court TV watch parties.  All of us had our privately held beliefs in who we felt was guilty or innocent.  It was also nice hearing the “new ” (to us) classroom legal jargon being used in the drama that was being played out before us all on the TV.  Reflecting back, we knew very little about law and even less about criminal procedure and evidence.  This did not, however, stop us from providing what we thought was insightful critiques of the differing lawyer styles and soundness of the legal arguments being made.

We were even intrigued with the sidebar conferences, long evidentiary arguments and other parts of the proceedings that most found less than stimulating. So for my law school classmates and myself, this incredibly popular appeal of this tragedy was enhanced by our new found love of the law.  For those of us who were at school espousing to be future trial lawyers, this case had even more appeal since it was a wonderful contrast in trial lawyer styles.  On one side you had the methodical and conservative style of the seasoned prosecutor.  On the other side (and other end of the spectrum) was the flamboyant and artful criminal defense lawyer.  The prosecutors were adept at using traditional demonstrative aids like overhead projectors and flip charts while the defense lawyers were quite comfortable using more technically savvy methods. 

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After each witness, we all had comments about the effectiveness of the questioning, the impact of the exhibits used and whether or not the witness was good for the side who called him/her.  It was hard, at times, to not sink to a more tabloid level in critiquing the appearance and apparel of the lawyers.  Their courtroom behaviors seemed to mimic their styles nearly perfectly each day.    Marcia Clark was usually wearing demur and basic navy and white skirt and blouse.  Then, leagues apart, Johnny Cochran was pulling in clothing colors and styles that pushed the edge of acceptable fashion.

The FX television series the People v. O.J. Simpson has revived the feverish interest in this case.  This time, however, is a bit different for me.  Now, I am viewing these scenes in the context of as a long time practicing lawyer and somewhat of a seasoned and moderately successful trial lawyer.  Also very different now is the context in which I see this story.  Following recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Charleston, South Carolina, the idea that members of the police force can intentionally kill a suspect makes it easily plausible that the same officer could plant evidence.  The other interesting thing about this series is the “behind the scenes” happenings of each character.  The decision to use the glove, calling Mark Furman despite his history, the reason Chris Darden was brought in, that Marcia Clark is a chain smoker, that Johnny Cochran had been arrested for domestic violence in the past and that Robert Kardashian was a nobody whose children would become the most famous (infamous) reality TV stars in the history of this country.   

I thought that the initial scene of the series showing the Rodney King beating was quite telling.  Being a white male from the Southeast US, it never occurred to me at that time that the Rodney King incident would have any effect on the O.J. Simpson case.  Looking back, how could it not.  At the time of the verdict, I certainly was surprised but was not shocked.  I felt that the lead detective’s lying under oath about any issue was a death nail on all.  Then again, I was always looking for a way for O.J. to not be guilty since my personal predisposition is to believe that all people are good and would never cause such harm.

I remember being embarrassed when news programs would show the difference in reaction to the verdict between predominantly white crowds versus African American audiences.  Not fully appreciating the different perceptions that existed then in regards to police behavior prevented me from fully understanding the disparity in reaction to the verdict.  Today, I get it completely.  I think recent events of blatant racially motivated police brutality captured on video have gone a long way of shaking up those of us who live long lives and never appreciate the horrible treatment some of us endure daily from the police.

The prosecution made some pretty significant mistakes:  relying on Mark Furman as the most critical witness without fully vetting his past, allowing OJ to try the glove on for the first time in front of the jury, failing to appreciate the impact of the Rodney King case on the jury, and finally treating this prosecution just like all the rest in the office. 


The defense strategy was near perfect–use the tremors of racial intolerance associated with the King case and parlay it to assist in the acquittal of O.J.  Their execution was sometimes clumsy given the number and size of the egos at counsel’s table for O.J. but nearly everything they did at the trial worked and worked very well. 

The thing that was most illuminating for me following the verdict was how different the American experience is for its citizen depending upon their race.  I am glad that I was able to make this personal observation about my misconceptions.  Our country, however, has made very little progress on this issue since the white Bronco chase.  This is somewhat amazing since it requires that we as a society “table” the issue until we have to face it again.  When small cameras started to be added to phones, we then had the ability to witness what our African American brothers and sisters experience daily.  Now, we cannot deny or escape the reality of unfairness that exists. 

Interestingly, the civil case that was tried a couple years after the criminal case was over had a different verdict.  The civil jury sitting in the same Los Angeles County Courthouse found OJ Simpson liable for the wrongful death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman and awarded millions of dollars to the families of both claimants.  Some may wonder how can this be the case?  Civil lawsuits involve awards of money and do not involve depriving someone of their basic constitutional rights.  For this reason, the burden of proof in a civil case is much lower than in a criminal case.  In a civil case, the plaintiff must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence, which is just over half.  In a criminal case, however, the prosecution must prove its case beyond any reasonable doubt.  Instead of being just over half, beyond any reasonable doubt is a much higher than just over half and requires nearly 100% accurate standard.  This is why the same case can be tried in criminal courts and civil courts and there be different results. 

When I heard the series would be ending next month, it was a little disappointing as time seems to stop when the drama plays out some 20 plus years following the verdict.  Happy TV watching….