They walked by us to the courtroom, parking lot or cafe and in their wake whispers rippled: "That's the mother of. . . . " Or, "Isn't she the sister of. . . . "
Cameras focused on their faces, documenting their gasps during witnesses' grim revelations, lawyers' hyperbole and, finally, the startling verdicts. They were not stars, but they were famous. At times, camera crews camped outside their homes. Overnight, the Goldmans and the Browns lost a son, a daughter and their privacy.
We felt we knew them. We felt we understood their pain.
The day after the verdicts, on Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish holidays, Patti Goldman walked into her synagogue in Westlake Village and the back row filled with hushed talk.
"That's Ron's stepmother."
Because we felt we knew them, we felt comfortable judging them. When we saw a Vogue magazine photo of a gleeful Denise Brown, in a skimpy dress and wearing Nicole's crucifix, we wondered, is that appropriate for a grieving sister?
We wrestled with how to regard the Simpson family. Were they, as they insisted, in-laws as wounded by the tragedy as the Goldmans and Browns? Or did their support of O.J. Simpson consign them to another, more complex level of victimhood? Jason and Arnelle Simpson, the two oldest children, had grown up with the recognition that comes as people suddenly realized they stood near the son or daughter of a football legend. But even they had no preparation as a small trickle of recognition turned into an avalanche of curiosity in the 16 months that followed their father's arrest.
We forced all three families to deal with their sorrow under the unblinking, probing eyes of the nation.
"We were such private people and all of a sudden, we are out there in this limelight," said Nicole Brown Simpson's mother, Juditha Brown.
Forced into that spotlight, the Brown and Goldman families struggled to find a sense of purpose.
Denise Brown became her family's spokeswoman, vowing to keep the nation attuned to issues of spousal abuse.
Fred Goldman stepped forward to remind us that his murdered son could not be devalued as a footnote in a glitzy drama. It was a hallmark of the Simpson trial's ever-multiplying distractions that Fred Goldman felt compelled so often to hammer home the most obvious fact: This was a murder case. He vowed to fight for victims' rights, to better the legal system.
When we see Fred Goldman in tears, we know we would feel the same. His grief is a symbol of every parent's nightmare: Raising a child to the cusp of adulthood, only to have him cut down, to never know what he would become.
The nightmare was so powerful because it tugged at the fear within us that what happened to Ron, an unwitting participant in a tragedy that killed him, could happen to you or me. Suppose Ron had stopped off for a drink before he returned the forgotten glasses to his friend, Nicole? Suppose the car he had borrowed had gotten a flat tire?
It was a simple twist of fate. A random misstep that you or I might make tomorrow. Or later today.