How the O.J. Simpson Case Gave Rise to the ‘Bizarre’ World of Celebrity Justice

Loyola Law professor Laurie Levenson, lawyer Howard Weitzman, UCLA Law professor Kimberle W. Crenshaw, television/radio personality Larry King, and Variety's Chief Television Critic Brian Lowry at the Paley Center panel discussing the O.J. Simpson case
Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

A generation ago, superlatives were assigned to the media saturation of the O.J. Simpson saga, with the live, seemingly around-the-clock coverage of the investigation, Bronco chase, the arrest, trial and acquittal.

So how would it all be different today, with Twitter, Instagram, 24-hour news channels and TMZ?

“As bizarre as that was? Tenfold,” said Larry King, whose CNN talk show was a destination in the days before Fox News and MSNBC.

King was among the panelists at a Paley Center for Media event on Thursday tied to the 20th anniversary of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, with the event moderated by Variety‘s Brian Lowry. The audience was reminded by Henry Schleiff, group president of Investigation Discovery, that the event was taking place almost 20 years to the exact moment that Simpson and Goldman were slain outside her Brentwood condo, unleashing a media frenzy that lasted more than a year, a “trial of the century” that culminated in the unexpected “not guilty” verdicts on Oct. 3, 1995.

Through the years there has been plenty of effort to assign meaning to the public fascination. As Loyola Law professor Laurie Levenson noted, more people watched Simpson’s preliminary hearing than watched the CNN coverage of the Gulf War. At the time and for years afterward, there has been endless commentary about what the trial said about concerns about race, or domestic violence, or criminal jurisprudence, or the influence of cameras in the courtroom.

The simplest explanation may the public’s insatiable appetite for sensationalism. Perhaps it helped foreshadow the explosion of reality television to come.

“We can’t get enough of it,” said Howard Weitzman, the star defense attorney who is now representing Justin Bieber in his legal troubles.

Weitzman represented Simpson the first few days after the murders, only to withdraw from the case. He won’t say exactly why, but told the Paley Center crowd, “My view of the evidence is it was pretty overwhelming, but obviously I have some stories I can’t tell.”

Investigation Discovery screened its new documentary, “O.J.: Trial of the Century,” a non-narrated flashback to the time where the words, sounds and images speak for themselves. What you come away with is how the trial itself made so many careers — Johnnie L. Cochran, Simpson’s charismatic defense lawyer, for one — and how it all became a big business. The documentary claims it generated $1 billion in media and merchandising. Attorneys won book contracts, pundits gained new careers and a juror did a Playboy centerfold.

The protracted trial itself unfolded like narrative drama, where viewers became too invested to turn away. As Weitzman pointed out, the evidence at Simpson’s first court appearance seemed so overwhelmingly against him, yet by the time the trial was over the defense team had managed to change the dynamics of the entire case, making it about the LAPD’s investigation and the truthfulness of one of its lead detectives, Mark Fuhrman. The biggest error may have been the prosecution’s allowing Simpson to try on the gloves that “didn’t fit,” in the words of Cochran, right in front of the jury. Kimberle Crenshaw, UCLA Law professor, said there was perhaps “overconfidence on the part of the prosecution,” given the mistakes that were made.

And King was right — it was bizarre, from the Los Angeles residents cheering on the Bronco in the freeway chase to the way a trial over grisly murders morphed into a pop culture moment. Remember Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” Dancing Itos? King himself said that they often had discussions at CNN about whether their coverage was having an impact on the events themselves. He recalled that during the proceedings, as he was hosting his show from Los Angeles night after night, he dated both Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, jury consultant for the defense, and “the chief assistant to Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti,” the chief prosecutor.

“Both really pretty girls,” King said, adding that it helped give him insight into both sides of the case.

Simpson faced a civil case brought by Goldman’s family and, in that trial, the results were much different. He lost the case and was hit with a $33.5 million judgment. But the case was not televised.

There’s no doubt that the case left vivid, strange memories, but by the late 1990s, there seemed to be a desire on the part of the public to forget. A high-caliber CBS miniseries, “American Tragedy,” directed by Lawrence Schiller and written by Norman Mailer, bombed out in the ratings when it aired in 2000.

“We have a very short memory,” Levenson said. “We just rush on to the next celebrity case.”

(Pictured: Loyola Law professor Laurie Levenson, lawyer Howard Weitzman, UCLA Law professor Kimberle W. Crenshaw, television/radio personality Larry King and Variety‘s chief television critic Brian Lowry at the Paley Center panel)