If the O.J. Simpson murder trial was, as some have argued, the world’s first modern-day reality TV show, then October 3, 1995 marks the date of the highest-rated series finale of all time. Twenty-five years ago, an estimated 140 million people watched or listened in as a Los Angeles jury announced whether the former football star was guilty or innocent of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. Following 252 days of testimony, it took only four hours for the 12 jurors to issue their verdict: not guilty on both counts. In courtroom footage from the day, Simpson exhales with visible relief as the verdict is read, and mouths repeated “thank you’s” in the direction of the jury. But others in the room, including the victims’ families, look on with shock and disbelief.
In another 13 years, of course, the roles would be reversed. On October 3, 2008, Simpson was found guilty on 12 counts in a high-profile robbery case, and received a 33-year prison sentence. (He was released on parole after serving nine years.) As one of his lawyers, Gabriel L. Grasso, suggests in a new episode of Judgement With Ashleigh Banfield that airs this Sunday on CourtTV, the synchronicity between dates was no accident. “I think [the jury] reached their verdict before then, but they wanted it to be then, because that was the anniversary of the L.A. verdict,” he remarks. “I thought in my head, ‘This jury had it out for him.’” (Watch an exclusive clip from the episode above.)
In terms of media and public fascination, though, the October 3, 2008 verdict was a distant second to what happened on October 3, 1995. The Washington Post reported at the time that even the Supreme Court justices wanted to hear the L.A. jury’s decision, quietly passing a note between themselves in the middle of hearing oral arguments on a different case. Public opinion was impassioned and sharply split, with one side cheering Simpson’s acquittal and the other viewing it as a miscarriage of justice.
Watching the verdict being read in Los Angeles, prosecutor-turned-legal analyst, Roger Cossack, remembers crowding around the television with the rest of his colleagues. “I was surprised that the verdict came back so quickly, but I wasn’t shocked that it was a ‘Not guilty,’ verdict,” the host of CourtTV’s OJ25 series tells Yahoo Entertainment now. “My job was to watch the entire trial five days a week, and seeing how the evidence was presented, I understood there was some problems with the prosecution's case.”
Chief among the problems that Cossack points to was the testimony provided by former LAPD detective, Mark Furhman, who perjured himself on the stand over a question of whether he had previously used racial epithets, including the “n” word, during his career. He later pleaded no contest to the charge, and retired from the police force. “He happened to be the only guy convicted of anything in that trial,” Cossack says. “He’s the guy that finds one of the most important pieces of evidence in the entire trial — the bloody glove — and he turns out to be a liar.”
For Cossack, Furhman also holds the key to a racial element that was strongly felt during the trial and in the aftermath of the verdict. The jury itself consisted of nine Black jurors, and Simpson’s legal team, headed up by Johnnie Cochran, depicted him as being targeted by a prejudiced justice system. According to a CNN poll taken on October 6, 1995, 88% of Black respondents said that jury delivered the right verdict, as opposed to only 49% of white respondents. “I grew up in L.A., and I know there was a great deal of suspicion by the African American community [of the police], particularly during that time and rightfully so,” he says. “Rodney King had happened not too many years before. If I was an African American and heard [Furhman] say the “n” word and lie about it, I wouldn’t believe a word he said.”
Celebrity was another much-discussed factor throughout the proceedings, and certainly the spectacle of a former star athlete — who was also a frequent presence in films and commercials — was something that attracted the attention of the television cameras. “O.J. was unique in that sense,” Cossack notes. “People knew who he was, especially in Southern California. He was a local hero, and appeared to be a very personable guy. That captured an audience, and the ability to have it on TV around the world was unique.” At the time and in the years since, some — including the prosecutors of the case — have argued that presiding Judge Lance Ito was caught up in the media spotlight, and lost control of the courtroom during the lengthy trial. (Ito retired from the bench in 2015.)
In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, Simpson sought to return to his previous life, but quickly discovered his world had radically changed. Writing in Vanity Fair, Dominick Dunne described how the elite (and largely white) Brentwood community that once embraced him now kept him at arm’s length. In 1997, Simpson returned to court for a civil trial — which wasn’t shown on TV — brought by Goldman’s parents, and was found personally liable for the deaths of Goldman and Brown and was ordered to pay $33.5 million in punitive damages. Prior to his conviction and prison sentence for the robbery case a decade later, Simpson collaborated on the controversial book If I Did It, which offered a hypothetical version of how the murder happened that some have taken as his confession.
“The legacy of that trial is that you have two innocent, lovely people who were murdered and those families have never been given closure,” Cossack says a quarter-century after he watched the verdict being read. “The justice system is not perfect. At that time, in that city, it reflected that a great deal of racism was involved in that trial. And from an American cultural standpoint. I don't think it's ever going to be forgotten — it changed television. But I look back at it, and I can’t get my find off the victims and their families.”
Judgement With Ashleigh Banfield airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on CourtTV.
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