On Oct. 3, 1995, O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. But few people today still defend his innocence. Even Simpson suspended his search for the "real" killer long enough to come perilously close to admitting guilt, including in his semi-confessional book, "If I Did It."
But 13 years ago, the question of Simpson's guilt and the "meaning" of his trial were the most debated issues in America. According to Talkers magazine, the Simpson case was the most bandied topic of 1995 -- and of the entire first half of 1990s.
Experts claimed -- and polls at the time seemed to show -- that this American Dreyfus affair illuminated a permanent and unbridgeable racial divide. Just rereading the commentary from the time is exhausting. Black intellectuals insisted that racist cops or "the system" routinely railroaded black men, so why, they asked, should white America doubt that was happening to O.J.?
White liberals played along. "I think the general black attitude might be that white people place a huge emphasis on innocent or guilty because that way they can discard large social questions," Norman Mailer condescendingly explained in New York magazine. "A focus on individual innocence or guilt works to the white establishment's advantage."
Uh huh. So, in a truly color-blind society, questions of guilt or innocence would be totally absent from murder trials. Nifty.
Of course, some complaints about the criminal justice system had merit. But Simpson's defenders turned Mailer's point on its head. They didn't want to discuss guilt or innocence at all; they only wanted to discuss the establishment, to "put the system on trial." To Wilbert Tatum, editor of the black weekly Amsterdam News, Simpson "became every black male who's ever been involved in the criminal justice system."
"Now we recognize that in a fundamental sense, we really do live in different worlds," Cornel West pronounced in the New Yorker shortly after the not-guilty verdict. He added, as if to illustrate the point, "I think he's innocent, I really do."
The National Enquirer covered the trial fearlessly. You couldn't say the same thing about many other media outlets. "Fear of being called racist transcended everything in the newsroom," wrote the New Yorker's legal correspondent, Jeffrey Toobin -- only after he deemed it was safe. "Our caution and fear, however, misled. The case against Simpson was simply overwhelming. When we said otherwise, we lied to the audience that trusted us."