The People v. O.J. Simpson: True or False?
The infamous O.J. Simpson trial may have been all America wanted to watch on TV in 1995, but it captured the eyes of American viewers again earlier this year, from Feb. 2–April 5, when FX launched “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” The show is the first season of its new series, American Crime Story, and features stars like Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro and Cuba Gooding Jr. as The Juice himself.
It doesn’t matter that the ex-pro football player is a household name in this country, or we owe “Keeping Up with The Kardashians” and other pop culture references to his double homicide trial — just as when it was first aired, the O.J. Simpson trial has continued to captivate audiences. With 5.1 million viewers of the premier, it is the most-watched freshman show in the network’s history. It rated 2.0, the network’s best in more than 10 years, has a score of 90 on Metacritic and 97 on Rotten Tomatoes.
For those who watched the real trial in the 90s, the show is a chance to relive it through the eyes of the attorneys. For younger generations, who were too young to remember or weren’t born yet, the series is a chance to experience the trial first-hand, taking in all the twists and turns along the way.
But the twenty-year retrospective still raises some questions. Is that really how trials are handled? Do they really take that long? What is fact, and what is fiction?
Here to lend his legal expertise and answer “true or false” is “The People v. O.J. Simpson” fan and Daniel M. Rosenberg & Associate’s own Robert Perry.
Is it legal to select jury members based on demographics like race and gender?
RP: FALSE!! It is illegal in New Jersey for any potential juror to be dismissed solely due to their religious practices, race, color ancestry, national origin or sex. Our firm has closely followed this issue and has published material on new developments in the law on our website.
This prohibition has been recognized by both the United States Supreme Court and the New Jersey Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
Selecting a jury that benefits your client is never an exact science. In reality, the information the lawyers are provided on potential jurors is fairly limited. It takes years and years of experience and practice to acquire a sense of what an “ideal” juror is for your specific case. This is why experience matters when selecting an attorney.
O.J.’s attorneys seem to visit him constantly in jail. Is that something real attorneys do?
RP: True. Good attorneys do! The attorney-client relationship is critical in any criminal case.
First of all, one of the most important roles an attorney plays is that of an advisor. Our clients always make the most important decision (whether to plead guilty or go to trial). It is impossible for our client to make that decision if he or she is not informed on all the facts of the case, relevant legal principles and our assessment of their matter. This process is a collaboration between the attorney and client. It is truly a team effort that is just as important, if not more important, if the client is incarcerated.
Second, visiting a client in jail calms their nerves. When a person is charged with a crime and incarcerated prior to trial, they have gone through a nightmare. Their name and reputation have been damaged and they have been denied their freedom. This is a frightening, uncertain and frustrating experience. They need to know there is an attorney fighting for them.
Finally, I can’t do my job as a defense attorney without communicating with my client. My client usually knows information that is critical to the defense, and if I don’t work with my client I’m not doing my job. Reviewing the case with my client in jail is an important part of trial preparation.
Is it rare to use DNA evidence in court?
RP: True and false. It’s not rare anymore, but in the 1990s DNA was just starting to be used. The O.J. Simpson case certainly brought DNA evidence out of the shadows as a tool of the prosecution. Today, DNA evidence is actually quite common. As a former prosecutor, I litigated many, many cases wherein DNA was the primary evidence of a defendant’s guilt.
It is important to note that DNA evidence is highly complex, and the accuracy of a forensic scientist’s opinion depends upon a number of factors, not limited to whether law enforcement followed very specific protocol when collecting the evidence. Moreover, a common misconception is that a prosecutor can say DNA is a “match.” DNA evidence is largely a measure of statistical probabilities. Because an attorney must understand the science and math behind DNA evidence in order to meaningfully question the evidence, it is important that they have this substantial experience in this specific field.
Is evidence manipulation common, like when evidence was left in the trunk of a detective’s car overnight and a defense attorney tried on the gloves during a recess?
RP: It depends. Good question! I suppose there are two types of “evidence manipulation” — those that occur deliberately and those that occur inadvertently. Certainly there are many instances of both.
While there are obviously instances of intentional police misconduct, I personally believe that this is rare and the vast majority of law enforcement officers are professional and well intentioned. However, even if they have good intentions, it’s important officers follow appropriate policies and procedures at all times. Failure to do so can result in the contamination or elimination of evidence.
The devil is often in the details in a criminal matter, and we make sure that no stone goes unturned in reviewing all the evidence. We are moving towards an age where all officers wear body cameras, which are a terrific tool for discovering the truth.
Is it unusual for trials to take more than eight months to hear in court?
RP: True. Even the most complex of criminal cases can typically be tried in a month or two at most.
The O.J. Simpson trial was an exception — a “perfect storm,” if you will. There was a mountain of evidence and witnesses produced by the prosecution, an experienced and detail-oriented defense team and possibly the most intense media coverage of a trial in the history of our country.
While there have been some cases in New Jersey that have taken substantial time to resolve, they are certainly the exception and not the rule.
Would the O.J. Simpson case have ended differently if it was tried in New Jersey?
RP: It depends. That’s a good question, but ultimately an impossible one to answer. As I always tell my clients, whenever a case goes to trial the final decision is made by 12 people, and there is no such thing as certainty when that happens.
There were many factors that led to the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case, and I suspect a person’s opinion on the case largely depends upon their life experience. I don’t know if a New Jersey jury would have decided the case differently.
I believe that the process matters more than the outcome of any individual case. O.J. Simpson received constitutionally guaranteed due process and more than capable legal representation. Our criminal justice system ultimately leaves the issue of guilt or innocence to citizens. We all hope that they come to the correct decision.