On October 3, 1995, former football star O.J. Simpson was acquitted in the murder case of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman. Now, more than 20 years after the trial, two major networks have made series focused on the infamous case.
ESPN produced an episodic documentary called O.J.: Made in America, which debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Not far behind is FX’s latest show, The People vs. O.J.: Beyond The Trial, a dramatization of the days leading up to the trial. Ryan Murphy, of American Horror Story and Glee fame, oversaw the limited series and it features an equally star-studded cast. Cuba Gooding Jr. takes the role of O.J. Simpson and John Travolta takes on the role of defense attorney, Robert Shapiro.
With all of the above, the show is bound to be interesting, but fans should look forward to a deeper lesson.
The high-profile case was one of the first to be televised, which divided the country based on Simpson’s perceived guilt or innocence. Consequently, the eight-month trial set the tone for media presence in the courtroom and defined the issue of a free trial versus a fair trial.
In 1988, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to change the policy that banned cameras in a courtroom. According to the U.S. Court’s website, Chief Justice Rehnquist appointed the Ad Hoc Committee on Cameras in the Courtroom, which essentially reviewed when, where, and how court cases could be broadcasted. The resulting policy read, “A Judge may authorize broadcasting, televising, recording, or taking photographs in the courtroom and in adjacent areas during investiture, naturalization, or other ceremonial proceedings.”
The pilot program testing out this policy was officially concluded in December of 1994, but the judicial committee strongly advised against it by March 1996.
Why the quick turn around? Two words: O.J. Simpson.
After the O.J. Simpson trial, judges didn’t want to be televised because they knew that naturally, some viewers would agree with them, while many others would become enraged. No judge wants to run the risk of looking like an idiot after delivering a verdict.
And today, the repercussions of the policy are clearer than ever. With high profile cases like that of Dylann Roof, the gunman that killed nine members of a church in South Carolina, occurring with alarming frequency, the public wants proof that justice is being carried out and the opportunity to check the facts. Often times we’re unsatisfied with the outcome of a publicly discussed case, but we aren’t aware of the intricacies of the trial.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson series and the ESPN docu-drama claim to give us more insight into what fueled the ruling. Ryan Murphy told Mashable that his team worked closely with lawyers to insure accuracy and fairness. In reviewing the case, viewers will be able to see why it was so powerful and draw parallels between how we handle such cases today and see if its truly evolved.
In a meeting for the National Association of Black Journalist on Oct 16, defense attorney Carl Douglas discussed sitting on the bench with the “Dream Team” and how he thinks the media affected the outcome. For Douglas, the cameras didn’t lie. The case was theatrical, it was high profile but what the people saw, was exactly what led the jury to the verdict.
“The media play was as pragmatic as anything going on inside the trial,” Douglas said.
Now, that’s not to say that all trials ought to be televised– even Douglas doesn’t believe that– but it’s more to suggest that curious and concerned consumers be wary. With upcoming cases like Bill Cosby or Charlie Sheen, it’s more important than ever to be mindful of the intersection between the media, public opinion and the truth.
Check out the People vs. O.J. Simpson trailer below. The series airs on Tuesday, Feb 2 on FX.