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O.J. Verdict: Where Were You?

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Hard to believe, but it’s been ten years this week since the verdict came down in the O.J. Simpson double-murder case here in Los Angeles. As far as newsmagazine coverage of this case is concerned, it began with controversy, prompting the only pulled-back cover in Time‘s history, probably created more cover-stories than any other single news story short of 9/11 related coverage.


O.J. Simpson Verdict: Special Report
Time – October 16, 1995

Time led it’s "Special Report" with an extended essay from Roger Rosenblatt that was titled, perhaps way too optimistically, "A Nation of Pained Hearts: Americans, black and white, may be able to use the O.J. verdict as a chance to embark on a pilgrimage toward and candor and charity."

"At least there was one moment of visible black-and-white unity last week. It occurred on Tuesday, shortly after 10 a.m. Pacific time, when crowds of citizens, gathered together in the streets like extras in a War of the Worlds movie of the 1950s, stood staring up at outdoor television screens, waiting for the word. They were united, briefly, in an anxious silence of the heart. As soon as the verdict was read, however, they split apart; they could watch themselves do it on the split screens. On one side jubilation, on the other dismay. Afterward it was said that America should have seen it coming, that the division of the races cut so deep, it ought to have been obvious that two nations had always been hiding in one."

Like JFK’s death, the moon landing and 9/11, many of us have a memory of how we heard the news and what it meant. I was in pre-production on the pilot for what would become an NBC TV series, Dark Skies, and we had offices at the Lantana offices in Santa Monica. When the word went out that they were about to read the verdict, people pored out of their offices into the building lobby where there was a big-screen television. I’m talking something like fifty people, probably a dozen of them African-American. When the words "not guilty" were read, I think everybody in the room was shocked and surprised. Without exception every white person recoiled and, simultaneously, every single African-American began to applaud and cheer. Keep in mind that we were all co-workers and that everybody was well-educated and employed. The difference between everybody in the room was race and nothing else.

The actual coverage began after the essay, and showed us that famous photo of O.J. with the very strange smile on his face being hugged by Johnnie Cochran as Kardashian and Bailey, his other white attorneys, continued to listen to the verdict.

"A mug shot, two gravestones, a smile. The trial can be reduced to these emblems. Or to entries in a specialized gazetteer: Rockingham, Bundy, Brentwood. A bestiary: barking dog, white Bronco, blond Kato. Names on a list: Marcia and Johnnie, Darden and Shapiro, Fung, Lee, Scheck, Ito, Fuhrman. A weird alphabet: DNA, O.J., A.C., LAPD, the N word. All were signposts to a greater geography, one uneasily contained on the premises of the California Superior Court. Television viewers saw the proceedings and were captured by the legal dramatics; and yet there were always hints of unseen details and untold tales."

One of the things I found most interesting in this coverage is how the defense felt about Judge Lance Ito. Apparently, they disliked him about as much as the prosecution did.

"Says defense attorney Peter Neufeld: ‘I was very disappointed with Judge Ito, the fact that he was so concerned with his status as a celebrity, his willingness to entertain personalities in chambers, to show the lawyers little videotapes of skits on television.’ One day, says Neufeld, Ito brought all the lawyers into chambers to show them a clip of the ‘Dancing Itos’ from Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. ‘You may find that amusing on a personal level, but I can assure that on a professional level it is so unacceptable, for a judge who is presiding over a murder where two people lost their lives in the most gruesome and horrible fashion, and where a third person has his life on the line, to bring the lawyers into chambers to show them comic revues.’ Ito even told the lawyers Simpson jokes he had heard. Says Neufeld: ‘As someone who has tried cases for twenty years, I found it deplorable and I was shocked.’"

O.J., by the way, is supposed to be out in Los Angeles any day now signing autographs for money. Are the buyers looking to own a souvenir from a sports hero or the murderer who got away? Maybe that depends on race, too. It’s sad if it does because no race should have to bear the burden of defending a murderer. But that’s America these days.

O.J., of course, has had ten years to continue searching for "the real killer" as he so famously promised and, so far, has not turned anyone up. Maybe his break with reality has been so complete that he doesn’t realize he’s looking right at him every day he shaves.


Instant_history_oj1 Instant History is all about the "first draft" of history.  For over seven decades, both Time and Newsweek have provided a weekly snapshot of our lives — sometimes profoundly insightful and other times woefully inadequate but, in all cases, before conventional wisdom has time to set in.  Like today’s blogs…

Bryce Zabel is a working screenwriter/producer whose current credits include The Poseidon Adventure and Blackbeard.   He was chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences from 2001-2003.  He maintains two other blogs:  his flagship News! — Views! — & Schmooze! and Movies-Squared.

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  • Nigel Prance

    I was watching the trial with my students in a university writing class. The decision was handed down and many people rejoiced. One student said “I wonder if they will ever find out who did it.” She was a sweet girl, but not very bright.

  • JR

    Don’t remember where I was, how I heard, or feeling any reaction whatsoever. By that time, the justice system had long since failed to hold any more surprises for me.

    Yeah, I’m old.

  • I was in high school napping on the back couch of my favorite teacher’s room either ditching or during a free period listening to it on the tiny radio we normally used in that room for cranking out some punk rock on cheap cassette tapes. I listened to the verdict on the radio with this girl who had a crush on me and I taped over one of the bad punk tapes for some reason (the girl hated punk so she said I should because it would be “historic”). When the verdict was announced, the bell had just rung announcing I’d be late to my next class and I didn’t really know how I felt about it, so I just shouted really loud (not words, just shouting) and people laughed in the hallway because they were hadn’t yet whispered the verdict around and had no idea why I was doing it other than to be funny or piss off the teachers to be cool. I just felt like I should holler, but I didn’t know whose side I was on. And the girl with the crush on me said she could hear my yell all the way across the hall.

    What was more important to me that day was that I forgot where I put my shoes during my nap (it turns out they were under the ratty sofa), so I walked around barefoot that day and teachers bitched at me about it while a bunch of other copy-cats started doing it too. By the end of the day, there were like 20 kids with dirty black feet who were stepping on thumbtacks and getting athlete’s foot in gym locker rooms indirectly because of me, but I somehow avoided detention. I was the Peter Pan of burnout idiots everywhere and I got to skip gym because the teacher had been my baseball coach previously and was cool with me not playing floor hockey (yes, floor hockey with a plastic puck) that day on a dirty floor. He said I could go to study hall or something, but I just went to that sofa and took a nap.

    He owed me one after I wore nice dress shoes earlier that semester one day playing basketball because of this speech contest I had to attend afterschool. I told him I wanted to take the day off and he told me I had to play in my nice shoes, so my buddies gave me crap about that. I still schooled them all on the court despite slipping and sliding all over the place, however.

    So yeah, it was a dumb story.

    That is all.

  • I was 7 years old and in the process of being stopped at the front door holding my dad’s 12-Gauge Shotgun by my mom.

  • I don’t remember where I was, but I remember how I felt. Totally, utterly confused. I counted myself among the enlighted liberals, and yet I couldn’t understand the verdict or the reaction to it.

  • Oh, wow. I didn’t really think of this as one of those “Where were you when…” questions but it’s actually a good one.
    I might have to steal this question for my blog.
    Long story short for me, I was writing for a newspaper in Hemet, Calif.
    It was a region with many communities that were both requring everyone to be over 55 years in age and predominantly white.
    So this 25 year old white liberal did not fit in but kept his mouth shut.

    My assigment that day was to watch at a senior citizen center to gauge and describe the reactions.
    They were, in a word, unhappy. But they didn’t riot so much as ask for me to change the channel.

  • Webbie

    I am a Brit who is now living in America. 10 years ago this week I was manageing a city center hotel back in Britain and I can never forget when the verdict was returned.

    All the television’s in the hotel lobby and bar were switched to the news. The whole place was silent. The only voice that could be heard was the juror 3000 miles away.
    After it was announced there was a few seconds of silence still, whilst everyone digested what they heard, then they went back to what they were doing.
    There were a high number of American guests who I remember walking around with their heads down, deep in thought.

    Still to this day I still don’t know what to make of it all.

  • Dew

    I was in the 11th grade. We were walking back from lunch, hurrying to catch the decision on tv. We they read not guilty we could hear the entire school erupt.

  • -E

    Heh. I was in middle school art class. We were listening to it on the radio. Everyone help their breath and then let it out in a huge collective sigh, it was over.

    I remember where I was during the car chase too. I was in a hotel in LA trying to watch the Rocket’s game but they had it in a small corner so they could show the car chase instead.

  • I don’t think I am the only white American who believed that OJ could have been framed. But I did then and maybe I was wrong. I don’t know. And it wasn’t because I was a football fan (besides, I love the Jets anyway).

    The main reason was the case was so boggled by the prosecution. Really mishandled. So, if I had been on that jury, I would have voted “not guilty” because if there is even a shadow of doubt, you cannot vote the other way!

  • I was a newspaper intern at the Napa Valley Register, which at the time was an early afternoon paper. The decision came down about 10 a.m.-something as I recall and there was a MAD scramble to put something together. BIG photos.

    Being an afternoon paper – rare back then too – the Register was one of the first to get the verdict in print (before widespresad mass Internet use). Maybe the first as we published like 90 minutes later.

    Thanks for the reminder Zabel.

  • Sister Ray

    I was a newspaper reporter in a small Indiana town. I watched it with courthouse workers in the county probation office. We all were surprised and didn’t know what to say. I remember hearing the court reporter fumbling with “Orenthal” as she read the verdict, and Ron Goldman’s sister crying hopelessly. It seemed to be the only sound in the courtroom