Would the O.J. Simpson Trial Be Different Today?

At the time, feminists were horrified that a woman who was stalked, beaten and raped—and who asked for help many times—was brutally murdered. Would things be different if the crime happened today?

O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson at the premiere of Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, in which O.J. starred, on March 16, 1994, in Los Angeles. (Vinnie Zuffante / Getty Images)

This story originally appeared on Jill.substack.com, a newsletter from journalist, lawyer and author Jill Filipovic.

Much has already been written about the death of O.J. Simpson, the football star who was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. It is very clear that Simpson did indeed murder Brown and Goldman, and he was later found liable for the killings in a civil suit brought by their families.

Unlike in the 1990s, when the O.J. Simpson murder trial roiled the country and divided the public, today there seems to be a fairly broad consensus that the “trial of the century” was the start of a wholly intellectually- and morally-bankrupting industry of reality TV, and an ugly racial inflection point that laid bare the deep bigotries in the American criminal justice system and left unpunished the brutal murder of a badly-abused woman and her innocent friend.

Would things be any different if the crime happened today?

O.J. Simpson was a complicated cultural character, if not a particularly complex actual man. He was a celebrated athlete, someone many white Americans embraced and championed. When Brown and Goldman were murdered and O.J. was the obvious culprit, he still found himself robustly defended by many famous friends; with the public increasingly aware of the blatant racism of the LAPD, many Black Americans and leaders also embraced O.J.—not just defending his right to fair treatment from authorities and a fair trial, but either proclaiming his innocence or justifying his actions and acquittal (O.J. being let off was a “revenge verdict,” as one former journalist put it), and sometimes smearing his murdered ex wife in the process.

Many feminists were horrified that a woman who was stalked, beaten and raped by one man, and who asked for help many times, was then brutally murdered—and that in the trial, she should have gotten her justice, but it was instead turned into a carnival in which she and Goldman were mere sideshows.

Today, public opinion has changed, and most people, Black and white alike, agree that O.J. was guilty. But many of the dynamics at play in the Simpson trial have not changed nearly as much as one would hope—including deep racism in policing and criminal justice, a resulting deep skepticism that the system is fair, and a related impulse to filter facts and information through the lens of identity first and reality second.

Take, for example, the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial, in which Depp superfans who saw themselves in the actor were quick to declare their man wholly good and innocent, while smearing Heard as a crazy ex-girlfriend. She, and many who simply posted on social media in support of her, were swarmed, attacked, harassed and threatened. The fact that she drank and that some people say she acted occasionally erratically became incontrovertible evidence that she was an unhinged liar; that he has been well-known to have drug and alcohol abuse problems, and has behaved in objectively unhinged and scary ways while on the record with journalists, was cast as part of his charm and authenticity.

Yes, many feminists stood up for Heard, like many (although far from all) stood up for Nicole Brown Simpson. But Heard has hardly found herself vindicated, in civil court or in the court of public opinion.

The Depp-Heard case didn’t have the same racial dynamics as the O.J. trial. But the gender dynamics and the identity dynamics—many of Depp’s fans were obsessed with his Pirates of the Caribbean character, and seemed to define themselves in part by their fandom—aren’t so terribly different.

That system had proved so skewed and so unworthy of confidence that a large-enough chunk of the public grew reflexively distrustful and dismissive of it—and it was O.J., a serially violent man of immense financial means and cultural clout, who ultimately benefitted.

We see O.J.-style racial dynamics at play in less high-profile cases, too, especially when it comes to police shootings of Black men (and sometimes, but less often, of Black women). The script is familiar: Before all of the information is even at hand, law enforcement officers tend to circle the wagons; those of us who have seen this play before also tend to assume wrongdoing; much of the time, officers are let off the hook, even when the evidence against them is overwhelming.

Skepticism of the official version of events is, of course, warranted in situations when there is an identifiable pattern of lying, dissemination, and cover-ups. Assuming you know what happened based on the barest fact pattern, though, is not.

This is true of so many things, from #MeToo allegations of sexual harassment, to criminal accusations, to which government or organizational claims you believe and which ones you assume are lies: How often something tends to be true should shape how much credibility you give any particular claim, and how the identities of the people involved shape their behavior and their access to justice and recourse should add necessary layers to your understanding of any given circumstance, but neither observation—a tendency for something to be true, or the identity of those involved—should not be the sole determiner of your ultimate conclusion.

I’m not sure we’re even close to that very basic understanding.

I’ve gotten this wrong too, just for the record—I’ve given too much weight to a claim based on the identity of the person making it, or bypassed evidence that countered a strongly held view because it was inconvenient. I’m human, and probably so are you, and filtering the world through our own experiences and biases and in-groups is part of how our species has survived. But this natural impulse also a recipe for profound injustice if we don’t try to constantly keep it in check.

O.J. Simpson, a Black man who almost surely murdered two white people in acts of stunning violence, got off in part—perhaps ironically—because of a racist criminal justice system. That system had proved so skewed and so unworthy of confidence that a large-enough chunk of the public grew reflexively distrustful and dismissive of it, and it was O.J., a serially violent man of immense financial means and cultural clout, who ultimately benefitted.

The price of the public’s distrust, of course, was paid less by “the system” that had wronged so many and instead by the families and loved ones of innocent murder victims—and by abused women the nation over, who saw in excruciating daily detail just how little their lives were valued. The only person who won was the person who least deserved it.

Some of the lessons here are obvious: Biased and unjust systems always result in very bad outcomes, sometimes in wild and unexpected ways that don’t actually benefit the group those unjust systems traditionally serve.

But some lessons, I think, we haven’t totally grappled with: that while we can and should seek to understand why whole segments of society get things terribly wrong or take on bad ideas or excuse atrocious acts, we should move forward by treating adults like adults with the agency and ability to see the facts in front of them, and emphasize the necessity of reason over suspicion or sectarianism. (Today, in a media environment where people can and do overwhelmingly seek out that which confirms their preexisting views and affirms their sense of rightness and righteousness, this is perhaps harder than ever.)

O.J. Simpson is dead, years after the deaths—likely at his hand—of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. I am glad the names of those two innocent people are coming up so much now, that their lives have not been subsumed to their likely killer’s, and that the broader public now understands them as the real victims, even as their names are forever tied to someone else’s horrific acts and the media storm that followed.

But the O.J. Simpson trial was always about so much more than O.J. I’m just not sure that, even 30 years later, we actually understand it.

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Jill Filipovic is a New York-based writer, lawyer and author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind and The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. A weekly columnist for CNN and a 2019 New America Future of War fellow, she is also a former contributing opinion writer to The New York Times and a former columnist for The Guardian. She writes at jill.substack.com and holds writing workshops and retreats around the world.