O.J. Simpson stopped America in its tracks

On Oct. 3, 1995, at 1 p.m. ET, America stopped in its tracks.

From living rooms to break rooms to classrooms, people huddled around televisions and radios to find out the fate of Orenthal James Simpson, a Hall of Fame running back-turned-charismatic television personality, movie actor and double-murder defendant.

Some 95 million people had tuned in to a low-speed chase on the freeways of Los Angeles back in June of 1994, five days after the bodies of Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman were found in a grisly murder scene outside her Brentwood condo. The helicopter footage preempted broadcasts on nearly every channel, even splitting a screen with the NBA Finals.

By the time of the verdict, after a bitter, contentious, racially and emotionally charged nine-month trial that made stars, changed society, picked open scabs and divided opinions, an estimated 150 million Americans tuned in on television, perhaps the largest audience of all time and so large it was impossible to accurately calculate.

The 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson captured the attention of all of America, with more than 150 million watching the verdict. (Vince Bucci/Pool Photo via AP, File)

It included no less than President Bill Clinton, who watched with staff in the anteroom of the Oval Office and then issued a statement calling for respect for the judicial system.

Simpson was found not guilty, setting off anger and arguments by many who think he got away with murder to this very day, when 28½ years later — including a nine-year prison stint on a conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping that centered on his own memorabilia — Simpson’s family announced he had died from cancer at age 76.

It is almost impossible to fathom how big the O.J. Simpson case was, how closely followed his trial was, how powerful (in every imaginable way) his acquittal was. In a nation of now divided attention spans, it’s possible nothing could ever be as big again.

Simpson was all-encompassing. He changed media — cable news, in particular, becoming must-see nightly viewing but also driving the popularity and even credibility of tabloids such as the National Enquirer, which scored scoops throughout.

It launched careers. It introduced DNA evidence to the public, even if it wasn’t fully grasped by all. It created awareness and discussions about police and prosecutorial conduct, especially within the LAPD concerning African Americans.

There were debates about class and privilege and wealth, about two justice systems, all centered on a man who moved as smoothly through life in every setting as he once did NFL defenses.

O.J. became whatever you wanted him to be.

It launched catch phrases — “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” It made witnesses famous — Mark Fuhrman, Kato Kaelin, Henry Lee.

It turned lawyers into celebrities. Prosecutor Marcia Clark became an unlikely fashion and hair style influencer. Johnny Cochran of O.J.’s “Dream Team” became known as the best attorney in the country.

Then there was a defense lawyer named Robert Kardashian, friend of O.J.’s, whose wife, Kris, using knowledge of media, scandal and marketing, later turned her whole family into megastars with billion-dollar businesses in fashion and cosmetics, one more bizarro ripple across the pond of O.J. influence.

FILE - In this June 17, 1994, file photo, a white Ford Bronco, driven by Al Cowlings carrying O.J. Simpson, is trailed by Los Angeles police cars as it travels on a freeway in Los Angeles. Simpson, the decorated football superstar and Hollywood actor who was acquitted of charges he killed his former wife and her friend but later found liable in a separate civil trial, has died. He was 76. (AP Photo/Joseph Villarin, File)

On June 17, 1994, a white Ford Bronco driven by Al Cowlings carrying O.J. Simpson turned into a media frenzy. (AP Photo/Joseph Villarin, File)

The attention on the case was overwhelming, a daily onslaught of all things O.J. At one point during the trial, Judge Lance Ito met with CNN host Larry King, blurring the lines. Among the volumes of books and documentaries that were written and filmed were Simpson’s own tome, titled “If I Did It.”

There were times when the trial was poignant and compelling; at times it was trashy and disappointing, with too much focus on the accused and not enough on the victims, too many punch lines told, too little respect for the wickedness of the violence. It was a sideshow, America’s soap opera, a mirror held up reflecting all good and bad about this nation.

People focused on bloody gloves and barking dogs, on “Colombian necklaces” and Bruno Magli shoes, on domestic abuse and jury bias.

It was dubbed the “Trial of the Century,” and it was all of that and so much more. There’s never been anything like it since. Such a thing might not even be possible.

O.J. walked free that day, a decision that still causes a bitter divide, cheers and cries often falling along America’s racial fissure. He was later found liable for the deaths of Brown and Goldman at a civil trial, but he was able to escape paying most of the $33.5 million because his NFL pension was protected. He mostly played golf and claimed to be searching for “the real killer.”

In 2008, he was convicted in Nevada of trying to forcefully reacquire, among other items, a pair of his own pants (which were valuable on the memorabilia market, another sign of the absurdity of the case). It sent him to prison for nine years and offered a measure of punishment. It was another ring of the circus.

Upon release, he took to social media and chronicled his days around Las Vegas playing golf and fantasy football. He’d be relentlessly heckled, yet he never responded like he noticed or cared. He spent the last bit of his life battling cancer and finally entering hospice.

The story of O.J. Simpson is both simple and complicated, both overwhelming and easy. Mostly it was tragic. For Brown and Goldman and their families and friends. For O.J., too, a man of great talent and promise whose life descended into criminality and emptiness.

And for America, which fixated on him and his life and, even all these years later, still can’t turn away.

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