It's hard to pinpoint the exact craziest moment of the O.J. Simpson saga.
Was it when Simpson led police on a freeway chase in his white Bronco one summer night in 1994, threatening suicide while an estimated 95 million people around the country watched live on network television? Was it the half-witted face he made when trying on the bloody glove, more fitting of his role in the slapstick comedy “The Naked Gun” than a murder trial? Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran's famous line—"If it does not fit, you must acquit”—that followed that face? Or was it the "not-guilty" verdict itself, and sharp racial divisions that it drew across the country?
Two decades later, the case is back on the national radar thanks to “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story,” an FX drama premiering Feb. 2, and ESPN’s five-part documentary series, "O.J.: Made in America," which premiered at Sundance and is expected to air widely on TV this summer.
The "trial of the century," as it was dubbed, was from the beginning almost a parody of itself—a fitting description to the single television event that helped spark the 24-hour news cycle. For those who were watching Power Rangers instead of Court TV in 1994, here are the essentials:
And in 1994 it was major news that a celebrity with his level of popularity and fame was accused in a double murder. From the time he entered the NFL as a running back in 1969, Simpson was a darling of American pop culture. Renowned for his sense of humor and charisma, Simpson often appeared on television shows like “Saturday Night Live,” films like the “Naked Gun” comedy franchise, even dramas like the “Roots” miniseries and “The Klansmen.”
Over his ten year NFL career with the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers, he was a six time Pro Bowl invitee and an NFL MVP award winner.
In 1985 he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. During his last year in college, he was awarded the Heisman Trophy.
Just prior to being accused of murder, Simpson had finished shooting the pilot for an NBC action series named "Frogmen." Executives held it, saying it would only be released if he was acquitted of the crime, but it never saw the light of day.
It all started one day in June of 1994, when Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were found brutally stabbed outside her Los Angeles condo. Hours later, Simpson set off on the infamous white Bronco chase across the city.
Just before the chase, Robert Kardashian, a close friend and attorney of Simpson's, read a note he left to him on national television. Many took it as a suicide note.
"Don't feel sorry for me," read the note. "I've had a great life, great friends. Please think of the real O.J. and not this lost person. Thanks for making my life special. I hope I helped yours. Peace and love. O.J."
During the chase, Simpson brandished a gun while he was on the phone with Los Angeles detective Tom Lange. The recorded phone calls, in which he appears to be contemplating suicide, were released to the media shortly after the chase ended.
"I already said goodbye to my kids," he said in the phone call.
Judge Lance Ito, in his decision to allow cameras into the courtroom for trial, told reporters that he hoped it might serve as a civics lesson to the American public. What was supposed to be a two-week trial ended up breaking the record set by the Charles Manson trial as the longest trial by jury in California history. Cable news networks played to the drama around the clock, capitalizing on something network television, with regular daily programming and fixed news slots, couldn't do. The American public was hungry for the unrelenting coverage, leading to a sharp dip in network TV ratings, while CNN and newly founded Court TV viewership soared.
"The case says a lot about where we were headed in the 1990s, and where we are now, in terms of the 'entertaining' of the most important institutions that we have, which are the court system and the political system, and how these important institutions have been turned into entertainment," Paul Thaler, professor of communications at Adelphi University and author of The Spectacle: Media and the Making of the OJ Simpson, told me. "And it's hard not to watch.”
The Simpson trial brought play-by-play, "I know I shouldn't watch it but I can't help it" news coverage of the criminal justice system into the centerfold of pop culture. It launched lucrative careers for a handful of its major players. And it sparked a boom in hybrid true crime entertainment and reality television that continues today in the form of hits from “Making a Murderer” to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”
"There was something very surreal about the case," said Thayer.
"You would have participants in the trial itself, and they would go on CNN to comment on the case in the afternoon, and later that night, they would be on some kind of talk show, talking about their participation in that trial," he said. "As a commercial venture, and from a pop culture perspective, it made careers."
The journalist Geraldo Rivera became a household name over the course of the trial, thanks to his widely viewed commentaries. Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor, got a major book deal after the trial, and now she is a novelist. Some even draw a direct line between the trial and "Keeping Up With The Kardashians."
From the beginning, the trial invited racial divisions, partly stemming from the acquittal of the four police officers who were accused of beating Los Angeles motorist Rodney King, only two years earlier. The Simpson case, which also took place in the L.A.-area, saw black supporters lining up and supporting O.J. as early as the Bronco chase.
The interracial marriage of Simpson and his slain ex-wife also figured into the equation, in a time where such marriages were still taboo. In a questionnaire given to prospective jurors at the time, they were asked point blank: "How do you feel about interracial marriage?"
Later reports that lead detective Mark Fuhrman had previously called people "nigger" only led to further divisions. While he denied using the word on national television, Fuhrman was later found guilty of perjury after video emerged of him saying it.
The prosecution admitted defeat in that sense. The defense had proven the main detective in the case was a racist. Overnight, the case divided the country, sharply along racial lines.
Simpson's black defense attorney Johnnie Cochran pressed the issue as a way to throw the officer's police work into question. Had detective Fuhrman framed Simpson in a racist desire to see him behind bars? On the prosecution's side, Christopher Darden, also a black attorney, rallied against Cochran's tactics, famously claiming that he was pulling "the race card."
"If you allow Mr. Cochran to use this word and play the race card," Darden said of allowing the N-word to be used in court, "the direction and focus of the case changes: it is a race case now."
"There's a mountain of evidence pointing to this man's guilt, but when you mention that word to this jury, or any African-American, it blinds people. It'll blind the jury. It'll blind the truth," he said.
How the use of the word during trial might have affected the jury, which consisted of nine blacks, one Latino, and two whites, was a matter of national speculation.
FX’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” promises to accurately depict both the trial and the racial divisions it exposed, while aiming it directly at a modern audience that is still wrestling with some of the same demons.
In a recent interview, Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays Simpson in the series, explained how he felt 20 years ago when the verdict came down. "I didn't care if he did it or not. I was just—'they didn't get another black man,'" he said.
Courtney B. Vance, who portrays Simpson’s defense attorney Cochran, explained in an interview with the New York Times that when Simpson was acquitted, he was shooting a movie with fellow actor Tony Goldwyn, who is white.
“I was in Tony’s trailer when the verdict came down, and I said ‘Yes!’ and he said ‘Noooo!’ ” Vance told the Times. “We looked at each other and realized that’s where we are. And 20 years later we are in exactly the same place.”
Simpson was acquitted at the murder trial but unanimously lost the civil suit for the wrongful death and battery of his ex-wife and Goldman. In 2006, Simpson wrote the book “If I Did It, Here's How It Happened”—widely interpreted as an implicit confession to the killings.
In 2007, Simpson was charged with numerous felonies, including armed robbery and kidnapping, and is currently serving a 33 year prison sentence in Nevada. He is up for a parole hearing in 2017.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.