Soledad O’Brien on Revisiting OJ Simpson, Aileen Wuornos for ‘Mysteries & Scandals’: ‘The Stakes are High’

Soledad O’Brien
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When it comes to infamous true crime cases, OJ Simpson’s arrest and subsequent acquittal in the 1994 murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman tops the list.

The former professional athlete escaped conviction in 1996, was later sued by the victims’ families, and ended up arrested for a 2007 armed robbery and kidnapping. His alleged involvement in the first crime was the subject of quite a few TV programs in 2016 — including the Academy Award-winning documentary “OJ: Made in America” and the Emmy Award-winning scripted limited series “The People v. OJ Simpson.” Last year, he was granted parole and released after serving nine years for that armed robbery and kidnapping. Now, Oxygen Media’s new true crime docu-series “Mysteries & Scandals” debuts with a deep dive into the crime that put the notorious man behind bars.

“I spent a lot of time as a reporter covering OJ Simpson. One of my jobs was to literally sit on the steps of OJ’s mother’s house and see if I could get her to comment — for weeks at a time,” says Soledad O’Brien, host and executive producer of “Mysteries & Scandals.” “In this particular story we look at OJ and the time he spent in prison for conspiracy to commit robbery and kidnapping charges from the heist in Vegas. And the questions we wanted to answer were, ‘What happened? How did he get convicted? Was it payback? Was he arrogant?’”

In order to make a story that many might feel they already know (or at least are able to Google) worth retelling, O’Brien and her team reached out to a wide range of individuals involved in the case for new, original interviews — including with his friends who accompanied him to the Las Vegas hotel room that he ended up robbing and his victim — and also unearthed some never-before-heard audio tapes.

“Being able to get the friends and the victims of the heist, that was incredibly valuable, and those were the stories that we knew we’d need. If you’re going to tell a story about a heist, you need everybody who’s involved in the heist,” O’Brien explains. “The criteria for any really interesting and well-told crime story is there has to be something new: new material or a new angle.”

O’Brien is also very aware that retelling these stories shines a light back on both the criminals and victims. “It is why the quality of the storytelling has to be high — because the stakes are real, the stakes are high,” she says. “These are real people’s stories, and if you compel people to come forward with information that hasn’t been heard previously, as has happened historically, that would be not just interesting but also very important.”

Simpson’s story may be the first that “Mysteries & Scandals” explores, but it is just the start in larger than life personalities and cases that the show will take on. Subsequent episodes include the tragic young demise of Bobbi Kristina Brown (and parallels to her mother Whitney Houston’s own death just a few years earlier), as well as the sensationalized deaths of Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith. The show will also dive into serial killers such as Richard Ramirez and Aileen Wuornos.

“There’s not a specific formula [to the stories selected], but the big question was, ‘Was this a notorious case where we had a new point of view to bring to the case?’” O’Brien says. “They do have to be notorious and infamous in some way. I think for a show like this, you want the stories to be stories that people know but they don’t know the whole story. There are so many questions in notorious cases like this: Why do these people get accused? Why do they get ultimately caught? Often it’s those classic human frailties that surface.”

O’Brien had a background covering many of these cases in her time as a reporter on the local and national scale — but not in the case of Wuornos. That became a case she was excited to dive into because of its historical weight. Wuornos was labeled as the first female serial killer and immortalized by Charlize Theron in the 2003 fictionalized drama “Monster.”

But O’Brien wanted to dig deeper than the crimes themselves. “We wanted to to really understand the mindset of this woman: to what degree was she a perpetrator, a victim, both? And what were the circumstances that led not just to all of the things that she did but ultimately her execution? What a tragic story for the perpetrator and the victims,” she says.

While the fact that some of these cases are still “open investigations in some way” lends another layer to the storytelling, O’Brien says the common thread between all of the stories are the “human qualities that uplift and undermine people.” Some of the explorations now may provide closure, but all are designed to offer the audience a way into understanding others.

“Hubris, arrogance, a sense of being unstoppable — all of those are the things that bring people down. And you see it again and again. Was OJ’s arrogance part of what brought him down ultimately? I think there are so many questions like that in so many of these notorious cases,” O’Brien says. “Every day there are crime stories that unfold that you say, ‘How did this happen?’ At the end of the day, we’re never going to run out of compelling mysteries and scandals. We could go up to Season 99. It’s just the nature of the world.”

“Mysteries & Scandals” premieres Jan. 5 at 9pm on Oxygen.