In a word association game you might not connect O.J. Simpson with the legendary group The Grateful Dead, but the group's signature lyric, "What A Long Strange Trip It's Been" seems an apt description of the fallen star's life - and that's just so far.
Fourteen million people tuned in to watch Simpson's recent Nevada parole hearing. That figure may be small potatoes compared to the 150 million who briefly put their lives on pause to watch the murder trial verdict in 1995, or the 95 million who watched the previous year's low-speed Bronco chase. But, it's a testament to the continuing hold the Simpson saga has on the nation.
As predicted, the parole board agreed to release Simpson, so he'll be walking the streets — probably in the Sunshine State — in October. It's anybody's guess whether Simpson's future will be "conflict-free," as he characterized the first seventy years of his life (not sure how to spell the sound made by a loud guffaw, so let's just go with "guffaw"). But, it's reasonable to step back and deduce some takeaways from his checkered journey so far.
1 - Simpson is a killer. This is important to focus on, not just for the obvious reason fact that it's important to know if somebody who is in the public eye is actually responsible for the deaths of two people. In addition, it's especially important because there are two Americas: the America consisting of people over 35 who lived through Simpson trial and know exactly what happened; and, millennials, who lack such personal knowledge. So just to set the record straight, O.J.'s and his victims' blood was all over the murder scene, his car, and his home; he wore size 12 Bruno Magli shoes and footprints matching that shoe style and size were at the murder scene; he had a gaping cut on his left hand and abrasions all over his body suggesting he'd been in a fight; he'd beaten his wife repeatedly, to the point where she called 911 and said she was convinced he was going to kill her; and finally, when the police called Simpson to tell him his ex-wife had been killed, Simpson (a) didn't ask how it happened (b) didn't ask if his two small kids were okay (he knew they lived with Nicole).
2-- We need to toughen up parole rules. I get that you have to incentivize the prison population to behave behind bars, with the possible reward of early release. But, to the extent every state has its own laundry list of factors, and Nevada's list does not include looking at the fact the guy was a serial wife abuser, and then a double killer, well, to quote Al Pacino's character in his film "And Justice For All," there's something really wrong here.
3-- We need to reexamine our priorities. Just because somebody is famous doesn't mean they should get a free pass, which is exactly what we provide in our society. We worship the famous. The concept of "liberty justice" isn't a myth, it's alive and well. If somebody is famous for inventing the polio vaccine, I can see giving them a little break. Maybe Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin Salk deserve a get out of jail free card. But because somebody has a nice singing voice, or makes you laugh in a sitcom, or was a really good running back, aren't reasons to treat them differently or better in the legal system. We pride ourselves on being dedicated to the idea that nobody is above the law.
So, when you see O.J. on Wilshire Boulevard or Miami Beach, I'm not saying you have to start screaming at him. But don't go for the selfie. Don't shake his hand. Don't ask for his autograph. Take a stand. Shun the guy. I realize it's not easy enforcing these moral standards. Most people probably think Michael Jackson was a child molester, but does anybody turn off "Thriller" when it comes on the radio?
4-- Don't turn off the courtroom camera just because the Simpson murder trial was a circus. We're entitled to see our justice system at work. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. People behave better when they know they're being watched.
Studies regularly show [PDF] the image of the judiciary improves when the cameras roll and people see the excellent job done by judicial officers. The possibility that witnesses will be intimidated, or jurors will cheat and watch the evening news, or lawyers will play to the cameras, doesn't justify turning off the cameras and keeping the public in the dark.
People learn from following high-profile trials. In a society where a shocking percentage of the population couldn't name the three branches of the government if their lives depended on it, and couldn't pick the Vice President out of a lineup, at least by following celebrities in trouble they know the difference between the burdens of proof in criminal versus civil trials. They understand there can be a civil trial following a not guilty verdict in a criminal trial, as in Simpson's situation. In the Cosby case, people learned about how letting multiple victims testify turns on a judge's view of whether that would prove a "pattern and practice," as opposed to it being cumulative and prejudicial. People learn about the double jeopardy rule, as in the Rodney King drama, where acquittals of police on state law brutality charges don't prevent a federal trial on civil rights violations.
Simpson may still be playing the fourth quarter of his life, but we can learn a lot from the scoreboard as it stands right now.
Royal Oakes, an acclaimed attorney and media expert was on the front lines of the O.J. Simpson trial, and among a select group of professionals brought before Judge Lance Ito to argue in support of placing cameras in the courtroom. As a result of his testimony, the trial was allowed in the open, and became the historic proceeding that continues to captivate people around the world today. He has frequently spoken on the case and its importance, as well as the legal implications the trial has left on society.
Suggested citation:Royal Oakes, O.J.: What a Long Strange Trips It's Been, Keep the Camera's Rolling, JURIST — Professional Commentary, Aug. 1, 2017, http://jurist.org/professional/2017/08/royal-oakes-oj-trip-camera.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Sean Merritt, an Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org