O.J. Simpson Verdict Leaves Lasting Legacy

Ten years ago, the not-guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial revealed a huge racial divide on perceptions about the criminal justice system. NPR's Mandalit del Barco looks back at the milestone and examines how it's left a lasting mark.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

Ten years ago today, a jury found O.J. Simpson not guilty of murdering his ex-wife Nicole and her friend, Ronald Goldman. It was a milestone in Los Angeles, and the verdict exposed a racial divide that immediately rippled across the country. A decade later, the Simpson case still provokes arguments, and as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, Simpson himself remains at the center of the storm.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

O.J. Simpson was back in LA over the weekend signing autographs for money at a

public event that seemed to many an odd way of marking the 10th anniversary of his acquittal on murder charges. It was a horror film convention held at an abandoned movie theater at a suburban strip mall. Simpson signed footballs and photos at $95 a pop. Thirty-five-year-old Joe Wells(ph) paid $200 for a football jersey from USC, O.J.'s alma mater.

Mr. JOE WELLS: The Juice signed it, too; O.J. Simpson. He was a good football player; he's one of a kind.

DEL BARCO: Simpson told reporters not to make too much out of his visit to Los Angeles on this milestone anniversary. As O.J. made clear to a local TV reporter, signing autographs here was work.

Unidentified Woman: Are you profiting from this at all, from signing these autographs?

Mr. O.J. SIMPSON: I'm not doing it for my health.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: The low-budget convention featured displays of severed heads, toy alien replicas and comic books. Danielle Shebow(ph) was nearby selling Goth club accessories and fetishwear.

Ms. DANIELLE SHEBOW: He killed somebody, you know, I mean, to think it's bizarre. It's a horror convention. I was expecting Freddy Krueger and not O.J. Simpson.

DEL BARCO: In fact, Freddy Krueger was there, in the form of Hollywood stunt woman Leslie Hoffman, who displayed costumed photos of herself in the movie "A Nightmare on Elm Street." Hoffman says Simpson's not-guilty verdict was a turning point in her life.

Ms. LESLIE HOFFMAN (Stunt Woman): That's when I decided I was going to leave my abusive husband. I didn't want to end up like Nicole.

DEL BARCO: At the time, Simpson's acquittal stirred emotions that often split along racial lines.

Ms. LAURIE LEVENSON (Legal Expert): O.J. worked us all into a fury.

DEL BARCO: Legal expert Laurie Levenson was among the squad of media pundits and journalists who staked out `Camp O.J.' every day at Simpson's trial.

Ms. LEVENSON: Right in front of the courthouse, when I walked out after the verdict, it was startling because on one side of the street, all the blacks were lined up and they were cheering for O.J., and on the other side of the street were the whites and they were just in shock. And it really made it all about race even though there were many other aspects to that case.

DEL BARCO: Levenson says the racial divide might be worse today than 10 years ago.

Ms. LEVENSON: Back at the time of O.J., it was probably about one out of every four young black Americans was a defendant in the criminal justice system. They're saying now that the statistics now are more like one out of every three.

(Soundbite of barbershop activity)

DEL BARCO: At Tolliver's Barbershop in South Los Angeles, the heart of LA's black community, there's still plenty of buzz about O.J. Ten years later, there's debate among regulars over whether he's guilty, but here everyone agrees if O.J. did do it, prosecutors didn't prove it.

Mr. AL HUMPHRIES: We said, `Wow, at least a black guy got away sometimes,' because there's a lot of people, a lot of dead black folks, that nobody ever went to jail for.

DEL BARCO: Former sheriff's Deputy Al Humphries(ph) is joined by friends Bill Jayne(ph), Solomon Gooch and Barbara Lawrence Tolliver(ph), and they all say the community was cheering not for O.J., but for Simpson's lawyer, Johnnie Cochran.

Mr. HUMPHRIES: Look, this was a very tragic thing. Two people died, and they died very tragically, and nobody's applauding whether we think that this guy did it 'cause I wasn't there so I don't know who did it. But I do know that we have an adversary system. So this was a battle between attorneys, and our guy, our attorney won. That's what we were happy about.

DEL BARCO: It wasn't so much O.J.

Mr. HUMPHRIES: It wasn't so much O.J; O.J. means very little to me. I tell you this one way or another. Like Lawrence said, the man was not a black man; he was a black man--you know, he was a white man in blackface.

Unidentified Man #1: Had O.J. killed his first wife, who was an African-American woman, all this wouldn't have happened.

Unidentified Man #2: Never would have happened. Never would have happened.

Unidentified Man #1: Right.

Unidentified Man #2: It would have went to trial, but it would have been no...

Unidentified Man #3: The world would not have...

Unidentified Man #2: The world would not have watched. like this...

Unidentified Man #1: There wouldn't have been 150 million people watching, I can tell you that.

Unidentified Man #2: No, there wouldn't. There wouldn't have been.

DEL BARCO: A lot has changed since the trial 10 years ago. O.J.'s Brentwood mansion was bought and demolished. The restaurant where the two victims, Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, met went out of business and is now a coffee shop. And Johnnie Cochran is dead. But the divide in how different people perceive justice appears to be just as deep as ever. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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