The O.J. Simpson case at 20: What have we learned?
IIT Chicago-Kent NewsBrief
CHICAGO—June 2014—On June 12, 1994, Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson were murdered. Former NFL player O.J. Simpson was arrested and tried for the murders of his ex-wife and Goldman. Simpson was acquitted after a high-profile trial that lasted more than a year. Two years later, a civil court found in favor of the victims' families in a wrongful death suit brought against Simpson.
In the 20 years since the murders, what—if anything—have we learned from the O.J. Simpson case?
"Good lawyering can win cases and bad lawyering can lose cases," offers IIT Chicago-Kent Professor Douglas Godfrey.
Professor Godfrey, a former homicide prosecutor, says, "We also have learned that, unlike most defendants in criminal cases, a wealthy defendant who can expend the same resources as the state can fight a case on every front—and win."
"The O.J. cases have taught a generation of law students the importance of ‘burdens of proof,' ‘reasonable doubt' in criminal cases, and ‘preponderance of the evidence' in civil cases," said Professor Godfrey. "So, given the same set of facts, there can be different verdicts: ‘Not guilty' in the criminal case, but liable in the civil case."
Clinical Professor Richard Kling is a criminal defense attorney who teaches courses in forensic evidence.
"Everybody assumes O.J. was found not guilty in the criminal trial because of the so-called ‘race card,'" says Professor Kling. "In my opinion, the verdicts in both trials were based on the evidence presented and the credibility—or lack thereof—of the witnesses."
"In the criminal case, once the jury believed that the forensic evidence had been tampered with, jurors didn't believe anything more that the state had to say," he explains. "In the civil case, when O.J. tried to convince the jury he had not committed domestic violence against Nicole despite evidence to the contrary, the jurors were not ready to listen to anything else he had to offer."
Students in Professor Ralph Brill's "Famous Trials" course often pick People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson to profile. "The O.J. Simpson criminal trial is one of the 20th century's famous trials because of the notoriety of the accused," says Professor Brill. "It was the first major trial televised every day throughout the trial and the subject of constant ‘expert' commentary during and after each day's session."
"Unfortunately, the trial also brought into obvious disrepute the skills and tactics of the lawyers for the prosecution when matched against those of the ‘Dream Team' for the defense," adds Professor Brill.
Professor Nancy Marder, director of the Justice John Paul Stevens Jury Center and a vocal opponent of the use of cameras in the courtroom, says, "Cameras in the courtroom, whether in the trial court or the U.S. Supreme Court, have the potential to turn courtrooms into just another form of entertainment."
"The O.J. Simpson case was transformed from a murder trial into a drama about the personalities of the judge, attorneys and witnesses," explains Professor Marder. "Although the Simpson trial was an outlier, the harm that it did to public perceptions about courts and judges was enormous."
As a result of the media coverage, the O.J. Simpson case was the first time most Americans heard the surname Kardashian. The late attorney Robert Kardashian and his ex-wife, Kris, were close friends of O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson and are the parents of the four oldest siblings of reality TV's "Keeping Up With the Kardashians."
Former Illinois Appellate Court justice David A. Erickson appreciates the symmetry.
"I think the O.J. Simpson criminal trial was the first reality TV show," says Judge Erickson. "We've learned that entertainment and ratings became more important to the media than justice. It's a sad legacy."
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