Twenty years have passed since the O.J. Simpson trial led to an acquittal. The sensationalism of the trial made the case one of the most watched in the 20th century. A beloved sports hero, actor, and celebrity was the “star” of the court proceedings. Everyone had an opinion as to whether O.J. was guilty or innocent.
Almost the same notoriety went to his team of attorneys, appropriately called the “Dream Team.” Together, they faced incredible evidentiary odds to secure a “not guilty” for their client. The leadership of Johnny Cochran, exquisite trial attorney, was inspiring for the criminal defense bar. Remember: everyone, no exceptions, deserves due process and an effective defense at trial.
The miniseries on FX, The People v. O.J. Simpson, makes for good television. While it does not accurately portray the case in its entirety, it does hit home what the defense wanted to accomplish. At one point in the series, Courtney B. Vance, who plays Mr. Cochran, perfectly explains the objective for trial. The defense must tell the better story. “Whoever can tell the better story will win the case.”
In real life, attorneys must do the same. The narrative and theme is important. It helps the jury weigh the evidence and come to a decision.
During the time of O.J. Simpson’s trial, Los Angeles was still trying to recover from the Rodney King riots. Only a couple of years had passed when LAPD officers had beaten a black man on video and then were subsequently cleared of wrongdoing. Racial tensions were high. The Los Angeles Police Department were still dealing with institutional racism.
Knowing this, the Dream Team concocted a winning theme. Question the validity of all evidence gathered by the LAPD, and hit home the unmistakable fact: O.J. Simpson is a Black-American who was facing accusations from predominantly white police officers, some of whom were suspected of holding racial prejudices.
It goes without saying that not all police officers who worked on the O.J. Simpson case were racists, or had prejudice in their hearts. However, one detective on the case, Mark Fuhrman, was said to have used the N-word on many occasions. There were rumors that he collected Nazi paraphernalia.
At trial, these facts were put to use. When Detective Fuhrman testified, F. Lee Bailey, one of Mr. Simpson’s defense attorneys, “impeached” him. Impeachment is a tool used by attorneys to undermine the credibility of the testimony being given. It helps the jury decide whether they should trust what the person is testifying to. There are many ways of impeaching a witness. One way is to point out the inconsistencies in the testimony.
Detective Fuhrman flat-out denied that he had ever used the N-word. Without much effort, the defense was able to provide evidence that he had indeed used the word before. This immediately caused the jury to question his reliability. Not only on the question of whether he had ever used racially-charged language, but whether he had lied about the evidence collected at the scene of the crime. The blood, the gloves, and other physical evidence used by the prosecution were undermined.
The impeachment of Detective Fuhrman fit the Dream Team’s theme. Could the LAPD be trusted, given their racial history? Would a racist cop try to frame a black celebrity? What if the prosecution’s evidence was tainted? All these questions led to reasonable doubt. And reasonable doubt is all a defense needs when a defendant goes to trial.