The Jury Is Still Out On Why O.J. Simpson Was Acquitted : Code Switch Twenty years after O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her male friend, reverberations from his trial and acquittal still ripple through Los Angeles.

The Jury Is Still Out On Why O.J. Simpson Was Acquitted

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The OJ Simpson saga began 20 years ago today, when the bodies of Simpson's ex-wife Nicole and her friend were found dead on the walkway at Nicole Brown Simpson's LA home. OJ Simpson, arrested and charged five days later, was the prime suspect. His trial began the following January, and it was a racially divisive, nine-month marathon that ultimately resulted in Simpson's acquittal. Immediately after, there were calls for changes in the criminal justice system. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, from our Code Switch team, looks at some of those changes.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: If you were around when the Simpson verdict was read, you probably remember the cheering and jeering that erupted.


UNIDENTIFIED JURY MEMBER: We the jury, in the above-entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of...


BATES: Majority black jury with sympathy for black defendant, right? Wrong, says Patricia Williams, a Columbia Law School professor and columnist for The Atlantic who teaches, among other things, about the intersection of race and the law.


PATRICIA WILLIAMS: Those who really didn't appreciate the degree to which the prosecution had failed in its burden of proof wanted a conviction no matter what.

BATES: Laurie Levenson teaches criminal law at Loyola Law School here in Los Angeles. Levenson says there were some changes after Simpson's acquittal.


LAURIE LEVENSON: The net result was not really changes in the law. It was a little bit of the changes in the jury selection practice, which is they did send out a wider net, tried to get more people to jury service and not let people go as easily when they said they wanted to be excused.

BATES: To emphasize how much harder it was to be excused, the city's chief of police, mayor and district attorney all have reported for jury duty. Columbia's Patricia Williams says the nine-month, televised trial morphed into a strange kind of entertainment for many viewers. Long-running shows like "Cops," Williams says, can subtly influence a jury, even before it's seated in the box.


WILLIAMS: I think that the court of public opinion has been infected by a presumption that everybody is guilty. And everybody is guilty based on appearances of guilt.

BATES: And, she says, convictions are more readily accepted when the process leading to them is clean - something that didn't happen in the Simpson case, which, jurors said, gave them cause for reasonable doubt.

WILLIAMS: In any justice system, people can be both guilty and railroaded.


ALEX JOHNSON: But you have to recall that this trial took place three years after the Rodney King trial, approximately. And so you can't look at the OJ Simpson trial in isolation.

BATES: Alex Johnson teaches law at the University of Virginia and is director of UVA's Center for the Study of Race and Law. Simpson didn't get sympathy from the black community because he was also black, Johnson says, but because he was seen to experience unfair treatment by the LAPD - something Johnson says he can identify with personally.

JOHNSON: I grew up in LA. I went to high school in LA. And I went to law school in LA. And I was stopped at least five times, when I lived in LA, for no reason other than driving while black.

BATES: Johnson says rapid demographic changes since the first Simpson trial means the titillation of the Simpson's interracial marriage would not be a factor if the case were being tried today.

JOHNSON: Given the prevalence, or the increasing prevalence, of interracial marriages, hopefully you wouldn't see the same perception that OJ Simpson was being persecuted because he was with a white woman, as opposed to someone of his own race.

BATES: Perhaps the biggest casualty from the first Simpson trial has been transparency. Presiding judge, Lance Ito, thought that by allowing cameras in his courtroom, the millions following the Simpson trial would see legal history being made. Instead, they got a legal soap opera and a lot of one-liners from late-night talk show hosts. Loyola's Laurie Levenson says jokes about the trial and its participants had serious consequences.


LEVENSON: After that, many judges said, no camera in my courtroom. And literally, they used to say, I don't want to be Ito-ed. So one of the more concrete changes, actually, after the OJ case, was a change in the rules that govern when we have cameras in the courtroom. And now it's absolutely up to the discretion of that trial judge.

BATES: And as a result, far fewer judges now opt for cameras in court. Karen Grigsby Bates. NPR News.


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