The People v. O. J. Simpson: Recalling the Trial and Johnnie Cochran

I’ve always been fascinated by space exploration and, as a boy, watched all of the Mercury, Gemini and early Apollo manned launches on television. Nowadays, I take a keen interest in the Martian exploration directed from the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But in all the imaginative literature about man’s adventures into the cosmos, I don’t think there was anyone who foresaw what actually has occurred—that we would go to the moon, and then, just stop going. It’s been more than half a century since the crew of Apollo 17 set foot on the lunar surface and there currently are no plans to return.

There something sad and sadly revelatory about the narrowing of our spirits in that, and it was hard not to feel much the same when considering this week’s first installment of “The People vs. O.J. Simpson”, the FX cable channel’s 10-part recreation of the so-called “trial of the century.” The series, based on Jeffrey Toobin’s sober and thoroughly reported book on the case, was the highest rated drama ever aired by the channel and the most watched dramatic debut anywhere on television this year.

I spent irreplaceable months of my one-and-only life covering the Simpson trial and co-wrote more than 100 pieces of legal analysis about it, most of them for the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Later, I co-authored defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran’s memoirs, “Journey to Justice.” In the course of that project, I interviewed Simpson, most of the jurors, as well as all the other members of the defense team except Bob Shapiro.

Often during that period—and many times subsequently—I was asked what I thought “the lessons of Simpson” were? I always answered that there were none, though that would not prevent people, particularly lawmakers, from drawing them. For a whole variety of reasons, there had never been anything like the way the Simpson trial grabbed and focused the collective imagination.

Some of that had to do with the novelty of essentially 24-hour television coverage of an ongoing and inherently dramatic news event. Some of it had to do with the glitzy culture of celebrity in which most of the trial participants moved. Most of it had to do with the ways in which the unique facts of the Simpson case turned the trial into a modern morality play on the subjects of race and, to a lesser extent, domestic violence.

Who could have imagined or foreseen, then, that all these years later and after eight years with the first African American president in the White House, the issues raised by the Simpson case—and, particularly, the disparate treatment of blacks by so many law enforcement agencies—still would press themselves upon us with such urgency. If anything, the election of Barack Obama has rekindled in many minds the flames of racial antagonism that seemed not long ago to have burnt themselves down into barely glowing embers.

Just as the Apollo program did not launch a broad new era of manned space exploration, so the two Obama administrations did not usher in the post-racial America so many predicted. In both cases, somehow our collective nerve failed and we backed away from the future.

During the Simpson trial, my family’s home was a few blocks from Cochran’s Wilshire Blvd. office and, from time to time, he would stop by on his way back to Los Feliz for an off-the-record chat about the trial, the legal strategies and upcoming issues.  As I walked him back to his car after one of those chats late in the trial, I asked whether he’d begun to think about final argument.

“My brother,” he replied, “Those jurors are my people. I know their hearts and they know mine and, when the time comes, that’s how I’m going to talk to them—heart to heart.” And so he did.

Cardio-gnosis, the ability to read hearts, is supposed to be one of the supreme gifts of the spirit. It’s somehow sad and sadly unexpected that so many black and white Americans continue to find each other’s hearts unintelligible.

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