The O.J. Simpson murder trial exposed many painful truths. None hit harder than the idea that white and black people often look at the same facts and see different realities.
Today, 20 years after the case divided the nation, few opinions have changed. Despite two decades’ worth of increasing racial acceptance, the saga still reflects deep-rooted obstacles to a truly united America.
Most people still believe that the black football legend killed his white ex-wife and her friend, polls show. But for many African-Americans, his likely guilt remains overwhelmed by a potent mix: the racism of the lead detective and the history of Black mistreatment by the justice system.
For these people, Simpson’s acquittal is a powerful rebuke to what they see as America’s racial crimes. Others simply see a murderer who played the race card to get away with it. Across the board, emotions remain vivid.
“We were consumed with it,” recalls Carlos Carter, who at the time was one of the few black people working in the trust department of a Pittsburgh bank. “It represented something bigger than the case, the battle between good and evil, the battle between the White man and the Black man. It was at that level.”
It was at a different level for Shannon Spicker, a White woman working her way through college in Ohio at the time.
“Most of us didn’t understand why it was racially charged,” she says. “We didn’t understand how people could defend him … We knew he was guilty, but they defended him because he was Black. It was weird.”
On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were found knifed to death outside her Los Angeles condo. Suspicion quickly focused on Simpson, who had beaten Nicole in the past and had no alibi.
Several factors heightened and complicated the drama:
Simpson had a mixed-race marriage in a nation that had historically punished Black men who dared to explore interracial sex. He was the target of a Los Angeles Police Department that had a reputation for racism and corruption.
But Simpson also was a wealthy Hollywood actor and ad pitchman with little connection to the Black community, a man who divorced his Black wife for a young blonde and traveled in Los Angeles’ most privileged White circles. His money and fame placed him far from the poor, Black men languishing in the criminal justice system.
“O.J. was in a weird place,” says Ronnie Duncan, a Black man who was then working as a TV sportscaster. “He lived a lavish life in L.A., sunny skies, beautiful women, everyone takes you out to lunch. But one thing we recognize, you can deny it all you want, but I can be driving right now and —”
Duncan makes the sound of a police siren, then quotes a common saying among Black folk:
“You may be a million-dollar star, but when it’s finally said and done, you are still, to them, the N, the I, the G, the G, the E, and the R.”
After the infamous slow-speed Bronco chase, Simpson was charged with double murder, punishable by the death penalty. The prosecution had a pile of evidence, including something relatively new then: DNA analysis. Prosecutors said that DNA matched Simpson’s blood to samples from the murder scene. They said they found blood matching the victims’ in Simpson’s Bronco, on a glove at his property, and on a sock in his bedroom.
But the prosecution had a big problem: Lead detective Mark Fuhrman, who had produced the bloody glove from Simpson’s estate, was a White cop who used the N-word and then lied about it on the stand. (He was later convicted of perjury.)
Defense lawyers suggested Fuhrman planted the glove out of a racist desire to frame a Black man. They said that other blood evidence could have been planted, too, or at least was unreliable due to sloppy police work.
“That was huge for me,” recalls Carter. “I thought (police) compromised it so much I can’t trust the evidence. The corruption overshadowed all the other things that may have been logical to me.”
Cameron Vigil, who is White, saw it differently.
“Clearly (Fuhrman) was difficult and lying and trying to obfuscate while he was up there,” recalls Vigil, a 45-year-old strategic retail analyst from Charlotte, North Carolina. But he separated that from the evidence.
“Just because he is a not very smart, racist guy,” Vigil says, “I don’t know that means O.J.’s not guilty.”
Yet that was the verdict from the 12-person jury. Nine jurors were Black, two White, and one Hispanic.
Duncan literally jumped for joy when he heard the verdict on television.
“It wasn’t so much for O.J. I was jumping for joy. … It was the victory over the United States justice system that has always had a different treatment for me and my brother.”
“I never said O.J. wasn’t guilty,” Duncan continues. “I just said he got off. That’s what it is: O.J. got off. There’s a side of me that’s annoyed by my jubilation. But my jubilation is motivated by the ills and pains of the past. There have been too many tears.”
The cheers that echoed across Black America that day troubled Spicker.
“These two innocent people were killed, and you’re cheering because their murderer was just set free,” she said. “It was a shame. It feels racist against the white victims.”
Carter now thinks that Simpson was guilty, but he makes no apologies for his feelings at the acquittal 20 years ago.
“That pride that I felt, I don’t take it back. I don’t feel I was hoodwinked. I was just living in the moment, and it was a victory for my people,” says Carter, now 42.
“I could have cared less about O.J.,” he says, “but when I saw him, I saw myself.”