O.J. Simpson stood in a downtown L.A. courtroom with white latex gloves covering both hands. He pulled a leather glove onto his left hand, dramatically showing lawyers and everyone around him that it didn’t fit as he tugged on the fingers and the base. The legendary football star, on trial for two murders, then pulled the other glove onto his right hand, grimacing and gesticulating, displaying to everyone, including a national TV audience, that the key piece of evidence was too small for his hands. At one point he held up both hands in what looked like someone surrendering but in reality was a turning point in what would become one of the most dramatic and controversial murder verdicts of any trial in U.S. history.
The glove demonstration was all his super-lawyer Johnnie Cochran needed. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” he later told the jury — a sound bite that became the catchphrase for what was widely known as “The Trial of the Century.”
Racism. Domestic violence. Police misconduct. A different brand of justice for the rich. The People v. O.J. Simpson pressed every social hot button after The Juice, 46 at the time, was arrested for the June 12, 1994, murders of his 35-year-old ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her 25-year-old friend Ron Goldman. Pundits called the case a “slam dunk” for the prosecution as the forensic evidence overwhelmingly pointed to Simpson’s guilt.
The victims were brutally stabbed to death outside Nicole’s townhouse in L.A.’s posh Brentwood neighborhood. Simpson’s DNA was found at the murder scene. His blood, mixed with the victims’ blood, was discovered in his car. One bloody glove was found at the murder scene, and the other one on his property. Simpson, who flew to Chicago right after the murders, had cuts on his left hand. When cameras were allowed in the courtroom, the case quickly became a national obsession, racially dividing America on the question of Simpson’s guilt and alleged police misconduct. Simpson hired Robert Shapiro, who quickly put together what became known as the Dream Team, the best lawyers money could buy.
Cochran, who died from a brain tumor in 2005, took center stage, forcing Shapiro out of the spotlight, and quickly made the case a national referendum about race, police corruption and tainted evidence. By the time Simpson pleaded “absolutely 100 percent not guilty,” it became clear the case was no longer a guaranteed prosecution victory.
Prosecutors Marcia Clark and Chris Darden were overmatched by Simpson attorneys Cochran, Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz, DNA expert Barry Scheck, Carl Douglas, the bombastic F. Lee Bailey and others. Complicated DNA evidence implicating Simpson was dismissed by Cochran as contaminated by the LAPD. “Garbage in, garbage out,” was his simple explanation, and the jury, made up of 10 women and two men — nine of them black, two white and one Hispanic — bought it.
Simpson never took the stand in his own defense, but the jury heard him in an angry rage on 911 calls Nicole made on October 25, 1993, in which she said that police had responded to her home many times due to violent incidents with Simpson. “He’s going to beat the s–t out of me,” a panicked Nicole told a 911 dispatcher, revealing a side of Simpson at odds with his affable running-through-the-airport Hertz pitchman persona.
Simpson’s murder trial included testimony from a cast of characters who infamously became part of a bizarre pop culture pantheon: the perpetual houseguest, shaggy-haired Kato Kaelin; Simpson’s ex-friend and former LAPD officer Ron Shipp; hapless police criminologist Dennis Fung. And then there was Mark Fuhrman.
The detective who found the second bloody glove at Simpson’s home on Rockingham Avenue became the defense’s best weapon when they played tapes of him repeatedly using the N-word after he’d previously testified that he never had. “Everyone knew Mark threw around the N-word a lot,” says a law enforcement source. “When he testified that he didn’t, the prosecution was in real trouble.”
Bailey made sure of that. He guided Fuhrman into a trap on cross-examination and then snapped that trap shut on the disgraced detective. In a city distrustful of a police department caught in numerous corruption scandals and racially charged incidents, that was more than enough for the jury. In his closing statement, Cochran called Fuhrman “America’s worst nightmare.”
On October 3, 1995, after being sequestered for 266 days, hearing from 126 witnesses and poring over 857 exhibits presented by 20 attorneys, the jury delivered its verdict — as an estimated 100 million people worldwide watched on TV — after just four hours of deliberation: not guilty. Simpson gasped. White America was stunned. Cochran simply smiled.
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