I had a feeling of déjà vu as I stood in the courtroom. There was OJ
Simpson, standing alongside his defense attorneys, awaiting the verdict of a
jury that had deliberated through the night. Thirteen years ago, I had watched
OJ stand and await the verdict in a Los Angeles courtroom, aware that I was
witnessing a trial that would go down in legal and judicial history. Judge Lance
Itoʼs decision to allow cameras into his courtroom during the murder trial of a
famous football player, turned pitchman, turned actor was a pronouncement that
changed the face of our legal system and created an audience who couldnʼt get
enough of “courtroom drama.”

I was covering the trial for a local Las Vegas television station and it was
my first taste of the spectacle that today is described as “celebrity justice.” On
any given day of the OJ murder trial, literally hundreds of news satellite trucks,
manned by reporters from around the world, jammed the area surrounding the
courthouse. There was no shortage of stories for the group of reporters
assigned to follow the case. OJʼs defense lawyers became known as the Dream
Team, and courtroom personalities flourished under the constant media
attention. Even Judge Lance Ito became a celebrity in his own courtroom as
people debated: Who was really in charge of the proceedings? The judge? Or
the lawyers? For months, viewers were riveted by the story of an iconic athlete,
a vicious double-murder, a bizarre police chase, stories of sex, drugs, jealousy,
and violence, and a glimpse into the lifestyle of the rich and famous in LA.

One of the most dramatic courtroom moments I have seen in my career,
came at the moment in time when Orenthal James Simpson walked away from
a trial where–at least on the face of it–the evidence against him had seemed
overwhelming. For the next decade we didnʼt hear much about OJ Simpson.
The $30 million civil judgment against him didnʼt grab the public attention, his
million dollar “confessional” book, If I Did It strained the limits of good taste, and
in the court of public opinion, many believed he had literally gotten away with
murder and wanted nothing to do with him.

Flash forward thirteen years later – to the very day—as I stood in a
courtroom in Las Vegas, and watched once again as the judge polled the jury
as to the guilt or innocence of OJ Simpson. There were a few familiar faces in
the courtroom, Marcia Clark, the former DA from the Simpson murder trial–now
a special correspondent for Entertainment Tonight–and author Dominick Dunne
who had chronicled the first trial, sat in the press section. But only a few satellite
trucks were parked in the lot outside the courthouse, and there were just a
handful of reporters who were present each day.

During his murder trial, Simpson had carried himself like a celebrity. Iʼd
talked to him once or twice and he was an engaging guy. He was conscious of
his fame and used his charismatic personality to good effect in front of an oftensupportive
crowd. During this trial he seemed aloof–almost indifferent–to the
proceedings. The mood outside the courtroom was low key as well. Las Vegas
isnʼt Beverly Hills, and there was no star-struck crowd waiting to catch of
glimpse of the former football star. The whole situation seemed like some kind
of ironic anticlimax: one of the worldʼs most talented athletes, and most famous
murder defendants on trial for a stupid robbery in a little hotel in Vegas with a
bunch of aging thugs–all but one of whom immediately agreed to testify against
him. No Kato Kaelin giving fuzzy testimony about his whereabouts, no Dream
Team; no courtroom drama, no reporters asking him for statements at the end of
the day. Just the legal system at work–weighing evidence through an impartial
presentation of the known facts—as it strives to do everyday for the thousands
of citizens whose cases are brought before it.

The judge in the robbery case, Judge Jackie Glass, though at times
clearly frustrated, did not let the lawyers control the courtroom. Through her
judicial demeanor she let everyone know where she stood. She protected the
jury, even though it was a contentious trial, and in the long run, her performance
was superior to Judge Itoʼs who could not contain the personalities in his
courtroom. Where there were issues about briefs or arguments she admitted
that she wanted time to read or study them to be sure she understood
completely so she could act in a judicially responsible manner. She didnʼt play
to the cameras in the courtroom. She did not appear to be swayed by media
portrayals. She didnʼt act like a person in the presence of a celebrity.

Since the trial ended in a guilty verdict, Iʼve been thinking a lot about
what this says about our judicial system. Did OJ get away with murder—as
many believe—because he was famous and had the means, influence, and ego
to manipulate the system? Or did the legal system work just as it should have,
letting a defendant go free once in the face of evidence that was not 100%
compelling, and convicting the same man years later when the evidence of a
different crime was captured on audio and videotape and his participation
(whatever his motivation) was irrefutable?

After December 5, the day of sentencing, when OJ may end up behind
bars for the rest of his life for a crime in which no one was injured, perhaps Iʼll
be closer to knowing the answer. Five jurors who were on jury that found him
guilty said they believed he should not have been acquitted for murder 13 years
ago. OJʼs celebrity may have faded, but this recent crime shows his arrogance
is undiminished. I believe that our justice system will work as it is supposed to,
and in this case, the guilty party will not benefit from any special treatment or
perceptions and the punishment will fit the crime.

 

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