Alva James-Johnson: O.J. Simpson case captivated, divided the nation

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comJune 11, 2014 

Alva James-Johnson

Twenty years ago today, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were found brutally murdered outside her Los Angeles condo.

As gruesome as the scene was, the killing might have been just a routine story about crime in a big city. But Nicole, it so happened, had once been married to O.J. Simpson, the legendary NFL football star who had perfected running and leaping on the Hertz commercials. Even non-sports fanatics like me knew who he was.

I first learned of the murders when I woke up June 13, 1994. The plot thickened four days later when O.J., who was considered a suspect, failed to turn himself in as promised. He fled on the Los Angeles freeway in a white Ford Bronco. It seemed almost like a funeral procession as police slowly and methodically pursued the SUV. During the chase, his attorney read what appeared to be a suicide note. I sat glued to the TV for hours addicted to the news coverage.

I had no idea then that the case would become known as the "Trial of the Century," which we would still be talking about 20 years later. It seemed almost comical, at times, as we learned twists and turns in the story over the coming months.

We became familiar with Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles officer who loved to spew the N-word; "Kato," the annoying houseguest who was intoxicated by the limelight; the flamboyant defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr., who coined the term: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit"; and Judge Ito, who seemed clueless at times.

It was like watching a soap opera, once my favorite pastime. But who needed fiction, when at the time, there was so much drama in real life?

It was like reality TV before the concept existed.

O.J., as we all know, was eventually acquitted. The verdict polarized the nation along racial lines.

I was among those who agreed with the verdict. We live in a country where a man is innocent until proven guilty, and the prosecution just didn't prove its case.

I don't believe in just letting suspected killers walk free, but it's hardly unheard of.

Take George Zimmerman, for example. We have a flawed judicial system that's not always fair or rational, and we've accepted it as just a part of life.

But I realize there are many people who hold another perspective.

At the time of the verdict, a CNN/Time poll found 62 percent of white Americans thought O.J. was guilty, and 68 percent of blacks considered him innocent.

We just saw the case through different lenses, probably based on our experiences in a racially polarized society.

Twenty years later, views in Columbus are still very mixed. Some consider the O.J. trial a significant moment in American history, and others just wish it would go away.

O.J., meanwhile, is serving time nine to 33 years in a Nevada prison for kidnapping, armed robbery and other crimes after he tried to seize numerous pieces of his sports memorabilia that two men were trying to sell.

I guess prison was just his destiny.

Fred Gordon, the new chairman of Columbus State University's Political Science Department, is currently in Los Angeles and is very familiar with the area where the case transpired. He compared it to the Scopes Trial of the late 1920s, which divided the country over the question of whether evolution should be taught in schools.

"From my perspective, it was a legal issue, but obviously attracted a lot of social commentary," Gordon said. "And I think it created a dialogue that allowed us to look at the situation from many angles.

"People wanted to evaluate the effectiveness of the police, the quality of the evidence, a lot of other factors. They wanted to make sure if there was a case, it was airtight. And I think that was one of the challenges."

Alfonza Whitaker, an attorney at Whitaker & Whitaker in Columbus, said he was living in Omaha, Neb., when news broke about the double murder. He said the case attracted national attention because it raised questions about race and class.

"I think it was very significant in that it caused people to have a little more dialogue not only about interracial relationships and marriage, but also the judicial system and those who have money vs. who don't have money and how justice is dispensed," he said. "People talked about a lot of pertinent issues that sometimes we try to ignore and hope will go away."

Ron King, executive director of the Pastoral Institute, said he sees the O.J. case as more of an unfortunate incident that happened to one family, rather than a racial issue.

"The issue to me is that one of God's children died and that breaks God's heart," he said. "I grew up with the black-white perspective and I'm working hard to try to see people as people. I don't think God sees us as black or white, or Baptists or Episcopalians, Jews or Muslims, or whatever. He sees us all as his children."

King is right. God is no respecter of persons, and I believe he is the righteous judge that we'll all have to face one day. O.J will be no exception.

Alva James-Johnson, reporter, ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.com.

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