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Apr. 12, 2024

Lawyers reflect on the way OJ Simpson’s criminal trial changed the way they work

The murder trial of O.J. Simpson, who died on Wednesday at 76, was pumped into the consciousness of millions of people, changing the way they interacted with criminal proceedings and, for some, their perception of the justice system.

O.J. Simpson reacts after learning he was granted parole during a hearing at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Lovelock, NV, July 2017. (New York Times News Service)

Before O.J. Simpson went on trial for murder in 1994, technicians removed a window from the 9th floor of the Los Angeles courtroom to accommodate a thicket of TV wires from satellite trucks that would broadcast every minute of the nearly year-long proceeding.

But that wasn't enough to feed the insatiable appetite for anything related to the case. A special device was connected to the courtroom stenographer's machine so that every word of the trial would be transmitted to newsrooms the minute they were typed.

Those two anecdotes illustrate how the criminal trial of Simpson, who died on Wednesday at 76 in Las Vegas, was pumped into the consciousness of millions of people, changing the way they interacted with criminal proceedings and, for some, their perception of the justice system.

Trial attorneys say that decades after its conclusion, the case continues to influence legal proceedings and policies, including how to handle the press, the nuances of jury selection and how law enforcement agencies respond to allegations of domestic violence.

Manny Medrano, a partner at Rimon PC who covered the case extensively as a TV analyst, said that televising the trial had the byproduct of launching two industries: reality television and legal analysts.

"I think we really saw the genesis and the origin of reality TV with the O.J. Simpson criminal case. Just think back about it: the Bronco chase, celebrity witnesses like Kato Kaelin, among other people, celebrity defense lawyers and the dream team including Johnnie Cochran and F. Lee Bailey. The media coverage was just extraordinary and unprecedented," Medrano said.

He added: "Boy, did this launch a cottage industry of legal analysts across the United States, including Jeffrey Toobin and many other lawyers who are still serving as legal analysts."

While judges had initially reacted negatively to the televising of proceedings - largely due to the perception that now-retired Judge Lance Ito "was not controlling the courtroom" - they have since come around to the concept, Medrano said.

Medrano said the trial - particularly evidence presented that Simpson physically abused Nicole Brown Simpson during their relationship - resulted in positive changes to domestic violence policies.

"I think people were appalled about that, especially LA County," he said. "One thing that I have seen now, nationally, but especially here in my backyard in Southern California, is more than ever, state prosecutors aggressively go after domestic violence offenders."

"We can thank the O.J. Simpson case for that," he said.

Asked if he had thoughts on how the O.J. Simpson trial impacted the way attorneys work, Tom Mesereau of Mesereau Law Group PC said: "I have a lot of thoughts. Got a week?"

"I was standing outside the Criminal Courts Building when the verdict was announced. I will never forget that experience. There was an air of tension in the air. When the acquittal came down a lot of that tension just seemed to evaporate."

Mesereau recalled that a Black man standing nearby turned to him and said, "He did it. He's guilty, but a black man got justice." Mesereau also recalled talking to a white lawyer a few days later who was enraged by the verdict and said that "it had set back race relations in this country."

Mesereau said he told him that he disagreed. "It just exposed what everyone already knew but didn't want to talk about."

Throughout the trial, Mesereau said he watched the proceedings in every free moment. The defense lawyers, especially Johnnie Cochran Jr. and DNA expert Barry Scheck put on a masterclass of how to deal with thorny or cutting-edge issues like race, how to humanize a client and how to handle scientific testimony.

"I was mesmerized," he said. "And I knew lawyers all over the country who were studying the case. I think a lot of lawyers across the country hadn't seen a performance quite like this."

He said legal terms like "side bar" and "objection" entered the national lexicon because of the trial. He said the public also gained a lot of knowledge about issues like reasonable doubt and about how police and prosecutors do their work.

"And of course the issue of race permeated the case from start to finish," he said.

When Mesereau successfully defended Michael Jackson against sex abuse charges a few years later, the Simpson trial influenced the decisions he made, especially his decision to oppose cameras in the courtroom. He said he knew that upcoming witnesses would watch people testifying and that that could influence their testimony. He said he also saw how the media would take provocative snippets often out of context and air them repeatedly.

"I didn't want any of that in our case," he said.

But he said the Simpson trial didn't sour him completely on televised proceedings. He defended actor Robert Blake in a preliminary hearing on murder charges and supported cameras.

"I felt that it could impact public perceptions of Blake. And it did. Going into the hearing, a poll found 80% thought he was guilty. After the hearing that had flipped; 80% thought he was innocent."

Beyond ushering in the era of televised proceedings, not all attorneys were convinced that the case had a lingering effect. Wylie Aitken, founding partner of Aitken Aitken Cohn, argued that the case simply shone a light on the work already being done in courts.

"It probably had no real impact other than it publicized and gave great exposure to the processing of a criminal trial, the role of credibility, the significance of venues in the process and highlighting the differences in burden of proof between criminal and civil cases and the incompetency of the district attorney and charm and brilliance of Johnnie Cochran, a good friend," Aitken said.

Other attorneys said that the ripple effects of the trial went to the core of American society. The question, "Where were you when the the O.J. verdict was handed down?" was a shared cultural tie to American history, up there with the moon landing and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, said Michael G. Freedman, principal of The Freedman Firm.

For a '90s kid growing up in LA, the case was particularly gripping, said Freedman. For him and his peers, the O.J. saga - from arrest to verdict - was a formative part of their childhood.

"I was trying to get to my friend's house on the last day of sixth grade, and I was stuck in a traffic jam over the 405 while he was on the chase," Freedman said, adding that it was "almost like the Kennedy moment" of his generation.

For Freedman, the excitement associated with the blockbuster trial was an inspiration.

"I spent the whole summer ... watching the trial and TV," Freedman said. "There's plenty of things to do when you are 11 years old, and you're on summer break, but to watch a trial that was packaged in an exciting way, you can't help but be excited. Certainly, that's part of my practice today, you know, big cases in LA. The O.J. case really highlighted the excitement of that kind of practice."

If it didn't introduce it, the O.J. case certainly cemented the concept of the celebrity lawyer, Freedman said.

"In my office, I have it decorated with old black and white photos of criminal courts in LA throughout the years. I've got one of Robert Kardashian and one of Johnnie Cochran. It was just a seminal, big trial," he said.

Freedman said that the collision between two incongruous industries - the rise of law as entertainment - has been shaping trial strategies and pop culture ever since.

The case was also seminal in its reliance on DNA evidence and its examination of themes like police fallibility. The focus on "cops with problematic records," particularly in the context of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, was a key strategy of the defense team.

"I think it was definitely part of the '90s era where people were starting to take note of race and bias and policing issues [following] that tough on crime era that we were coming out of," he said.

"Mark Fuhrman [then a Los Angeles Police Department detective] was a big part of the O.J. case," Freedman said.

"Without even remembering the specifics, you just remember they were attacking the officers' credibility as a big part" of the case strategy, he said.

Mark J. Geragos, managing partner of Geragos & Geragos, agreed with Medrano that the trial played an important role in changing how law enforcement agencies handled domestic violence.

"It fundamentally changed the reaction to domestic violence calls to basically a zero-tolerance policy by most law enforcement agencies," Geragos said.

The focus on evidence during the trial had led to changes from the Legislature too, Geragos said.

"All of a sudden, there was legislation that started and continues to this day which allowed in various exceptions to the evidence guard for things that you couldn't cross examine on that would have been inadmissible prior to O.J.," he said.

When issued, the verdict presented "an existential threat to the L.A. DA's office," Geragos said. The divided reaction, "driven by demographics," went on to shape other high-profile trials during the 1990s. People outside of Los Angeles viewed the case differently than natives of the city, "who understand the case in the timeline of what was happening in the post-Rodney King era," he said.

"In a lot of ways, I think that the O.J. verdict is what ended up getting the Menendez brothers convicted. Jury selection in the second Menendez trial began eight days after the verdict of O.J.," Geragos said.

"Whatever number of years later, people were still talking about it when I was trying Scott Peterson. It's wild ramifications that that verdict had, especially in white America," he added.

Adante Pointer, partner at Pointer & Buelna LLP, wrote that the case brought previously obscure legal practices into the mainstream.

"Of course, one of the most famous concepts and themes Johnnie Cochran gave us was, "if it doesn't fit, then you must acquit!" That tag line lives on to this day in the lore of criminal defense!" Pointer wrote.

He added that "the O.J. case familiarized the world with many legal concepts that until then were not generally known. For example, the idea that police may rush to judgment, the idea that police officers have agendas and then bend investigations to support those same agendas in an effort to railroad folks into jail/prison based upon tainted evidence."

The case continues to serve as a blueprint that "many attorneys wound up modeling their own criminal defense and/or examination strategies after," Pointer wrote.

"The O.J. Simpson trial was dubbed the trial of the century, for good reason. For someone who at that time was aspiring to be an attorney, it gave a glimpse into high-visibility, high-stakes litigation, where legal analysis and opinion were freely given about every aspect of the trial from what people were wearing, to how witnesses performed on the witness stand, as well as the legendary cross and direct examinations of some of the most well-known and respected attorneys to ever grace a courtroom," he wrote.

The fixation on the trial attorneys' every move was a less welcome development of the case, Matthew S. McNicholas, partner at McNicholas & McNicholas, said. He pointed to the public reaction to prosecutor Marcia Clark's change of hairstyle during the trial as a key example.

"I can't imagine if my opposing counsel was female, and she left the courtroom on a Friday with curly hair and came back with straight hair, and that people would gasp in the courtroom and the judge would say something," he said.

"I can't imagine even to this day, the pressure cooker that that case was for both sides, the prosecution and the defense. Every word they said, every shirt and tie they wore, every gesture was scrutinized," he added.

Mickel M. Arias, managing partner at Arias Sanguinetti, said that if nothing else, the Simpson case had guaranteed that if there was a trial of significance, the public would know about it.

"Since then, so many more trials are televised," Arias said, pointing to the recent defamation trial involving actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, as well as the murder trial of South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh.

"While people debate and discuss the result, I think what it's done is it's put civil and criminal justice trials more in the public light. You see it now -- anytime there's a trial, if anybody has significance, there's a camera there."


Jack Needham

Staff Writer/General Interest

Skyler Romero

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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