A different kind of show trial

Tonight is the final instalment on British television of The People vs O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the FX production dramatising last century’s “trial of the century”. I actually don’t know the legal situation pertaining to a blogger opining on murder trials, but to be on the safe side, I’ll resist sharing with you my thoughts and theories. They aren’t particularly interesting, anyway. However, while I won’t offer an opinion on the verdict, I have a few other thoughts about the trial, what it suggests about the nature of American justice, and what it also reveals about the wider society.

The issues that the verdict hinged on remain highly pertinent, in a country where African Americans are still frequently being killed in highly contentious circumstances – Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown are but the most high profile examples of avoidable deaths that are inextricable from the issue of race. The OJ Simpson trial itself took place only a few years after Los Angeles was convulsed by riots following the savage beating of Rodney King by four police officers. While the direct relevance of this trial to the daily injustices black people encounter is debatable, it was inevitable that they would be invoked by Simpson’s defence team. Everything surrounding this trial seemed almost designed to charge the atmosphere as much as possible, which is partly why it remains such a landmark moment in public life.

Given the seriousness of the topic, there is a lot of guilty pleasure to be had in watching this series, and I have frequently felt very guilty. Initially there was amusement to be had in seeing the Kardashians portrayed when they were kids, which the writers milked for what it was worth. But most entertaining of all has to be OJ’s defence team, and here some of the casting was quite inspired. David Schwimmer [Robert Kardashian] and John Travolta [Robert Shapiro], in particular, elicited a smile whenever their faces appeared on screen. Courtney C. Vance’s portrayal of Johnnie Cochran is a flamboyant tour de force. You can see how, for all his bombast, he was a remarkably shrewd lawyer. He was incredibly cynical in the way he exploited the very real grievances of the black community, and conflated them with Simpson’s circumstances. Maybe it’s hard to blame Cochran. He played a blinder for his client. This series has also been educational from the point of view of appreciating how women in the public eye can be given a rough ride. Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor, was subjected to appalling treatment by the media, the defence team, by almost everybody. One is used to hearing how women are judged in ways that men never would be, but I have to admit it took this dramatisation to hit home that message.

What I remember from the trial at the time is how much of a circus it became. That is palpable throughout this series, as the violent deaths of two people regularly got lost amid the kerfuffle: The judge’s shaky control of proceedings; the meltdown experienced by numerous jurors; the bad blood between the two legal teams. The People vs O.J. Simpson walks a fine line between exploitative popcorn and viscerally live drama, but it pulls it off largely because there is justification in how the trial deviated from sober procedure and became instead an exhibition of jurisprudential performance art.

One is ultimately reminded of how the defence also had some enormous strokes of luck, between the fiasco surrounding the prosecution’s ill-advised attempt to get Simpson to wear the glove found at the murder scene, to the nakedly racist police officer who appeared to embody everything the defence hung their narrative on. And the word narrative is highly significant. Cochran made the trial less an examination of evidence and more an argument between competing narratives. He won because his narrative, one whose acceptance has tended to break down on racial lines, carried greatest power with the jury. It hardly seems the right way to decide a trial, but it perhaps illustrates what the best defence team money can buy can deliver for a client.

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