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Saturday, May 06, 2017

Review: The Run of his Life: The People versus O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin

I remember the intense discussions surrounding the trial and the O.J. trial and the passions it engendered. We didn’t have over-the-air TV at the time (still don’t and don’t care) so we could only follow in the newspapers and on the radio.

Recently we watched the docudrama based on this book. It’s excellent and those participants who are still with us have indicated it’s quite accurate. I’ve always enjoyed Toobin’s books so I looked this one up; it’s spellbinding, providing a lot more detail and background than the TV show ever could.

To those insisting the jury should have found OJ guilty, I reply that the jury saw only a fraction of what TV viewers saw. They were sequestered for close to eight months with no access to TV or newspapers (the section on the jury revolt is entertaining) and of the original 12 seated jurors, only three remained by the end of the trial. I don’t know what would have happened had they run out of alternates and that was close to happening. The jurors were treated like prisoners for the many months of the trial, often being sent out of the court while the lawyers argued over interesting points of law, many times with attendant fireworks. They were not permitted TVs or radios, had their newspapers censored and cut up, had their room keys taken away every night, and were permitted one “conjugal” visit per week with their spouse. Conversations with other jurors were monitored to make sure they didn’t talk of the trial.

Couple all this with the long history of police abuse of blacks in Los Angeles and you have a recipe for the verdict. Toobin sets the stage with a short history of the LAPD. It was another of those unintended consequences where an attempt to do something really good backfired in the long run. In an effort to eliminate the rampant corruption that had become the LAPD, it was separated from the highly political world and redesigned to become a more meritocracy. The LAPD became an entity unto itself, completely unaccountable, very self-defensive, and unfortunately a bastion of white privilege and racism.

Toobin gives a great deal of credit for the verdict (aside from a lot of prosecutorial arrogance and incompetence) to Barry Scheck (one of the early founders of the Innocence Project) on the defense team whose meticulous study of the DNA evidence and development of the complicated almost self-contradictory theory that the LAPD was both incredibly incompetent while being sinisterly brilliant. He worked tirelessly, unlike the more famous lawyers on the team who often seemed more interested in their own careers than their client’s future. Scheck’s theory melded perfectly with Cochran’s race-oriented approach and between the two provided mountains of doubt for the jury to deliberate.*

Ultimately, the question came down to reasonable doubt. A key moment was when Furman pled the fifth when he was asked if he had manipulated the evidence. That alone would supply enough reasonable doubt, not to mention the debacle with the glove, I would have voted for acquittal, too. The trial testimony reeked of reasonable doubt in spite of overwhelming physical evidence of Simpson’s guilt.

Some very amusing phrases by Toobin: “On the night of the murders, the jury learned, Kaelin spent from 7:45 to 8:30 P.M. in O.J.’s Jacuzzi—a marination of almost superhuman duration;” and describing one of the prosecutors as “ a trial lawyer with the stage presence of a voice-mail attendant.”

*A comment on how Schenk’s actions in the Innocence Project and the Simpson trial might appear at odds: “According to Richard Lewontin, a professor of population genetics at Harvard, ‘Unlike most lawyers, Barry and Peter really know what they’re talking about when it comes to the technology. When they’ve defended clients, they’ve done brilliant work in showing the problems with the DNA labs. On the other hand, I have to say, they have no compunction about supporting the technology when it’s useful for the defense. They are defense attorneys—and they’re not always consistent, because they’re defense attorneys.’ “

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