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A different time, place and verdict

The Nation

October 05, 2008|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

The verdict in the most recent O.J. Simpson trial came and went in the dark of night in a Las Vegas courtroom. The proceedings may not have been breathlessly awaited, but the outcome still provoked strong emotions through Los Angeles, a city indelibly marked by the first Simpson trial 13 years ago.

This latest verdict was seen by many as a sad epilogue: either Simpson is getting what he deserves or he can't figure out how to stay out of trouble. Or both.

"It's just catching up with him," said Vartan Tashjian, an Eagle Rock set dresser who watched Simpson's murder trial but did not pay much attention to the latest one.

The issues, this time, were armed robbery and kidnapping, not murder and race. The verdicts were read without fanfare. It was not a day the Earth stood still, as it did 13 years ago for the reading of the verdict.

"I woke up this morning to all these voice mails on my phone asking me to comment on the verdict, and I wondered, what verdict?" said Shawn Chapman Holley, a lawyer who was part of the team that defended Simpson on those infamous murder charges.

But as news of the verdict spread, observers weighed in. "I just couldn't believe they actually got him on this, as opposed to a double murder," said Andy Brown, a travel industry manager who lives in Brentwood, just five minutes from the condo once owned by Nicole Brown Simpson.

Outside her home on the night of June 12, 1994, Simpson's former wife and a friend, Ron Goldman, a waiter and sometime model, were stabbed to death. The crime scene made Brentwood a landmark for gawkers for months.

The trial mesmerized the country, spinning out a daily soap opera -- literally, given that it was televised. Every detail was gobbled up and people around the world passionately discussed them: a blood-stained glove, a Bruno Magli shoe print, a howling dog wandering from the murder scene.

It was Los Angeles pre-9/11, pre-mortgage debacle, still nursing painful memories of the 1992 riots that racked the city in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. Race and justice were obsessions, and Simpson, the handsome, affable black football star and actor accused of killing his blond ex-wife, seemed the perfect avatar of those issues.

The courtroom was packed daily, and outside the courthouse, a carnival sprang up of media, gadflies and vendors peddling souvenirs. On verdict day, from the hallway outside the courtroom filled with reporters -- including a pregnant Katie Couric -- to airplanes in flight and ships at sea, the world waited to hear how the soap opera would end.

But the Las Vegas trial was no soap opera, and race relations have changed. A black man is running for president. "A lot has happened since the 'trial of the century,' " said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. "The case polarized America along racial lines." But with the passing of time, he said, that divide is "not as deep and not as passionate."

Yet there are people who saw either race or hatred for Simpson at play in the verdict this time.

"It was payback," said Jay Brooks, 32, a computer analyst who is black. He said he believes Simpson was innocent then and now.

The message was even more pointed than that, Chapman Holley said Saturday at the Jazz at Drew music festival in Watts, which attracted an overwhelmingly black audience.

"Everyone here is talking about how it's not a coincidence that the verdict comes 13 years to the day" after the verdict in the murder trial. "These jurors wanted payback, and they were going to have the payback to the day. That seems to be the prevailing view out in Watts."

Chapman Holley said she is still asked about the first trial. "Back then, O.J. enjoyed something that everyone should -- the presumption of innocence. . . . I don't know if anyone could presume O.J. innocent of anything at this point."

Daniel Petrocelli, the lawyer who won Goldman's family the multimillion-dollar civil judgment against Simpson, said he and the Goldmans were not surprised he was convicted. Fred Goldman lives in Arizona, Petrocelli said; he declined to share other details.

"I know there's been a lot of talk that he was convicted yesterday of what [he] did in Los Angeles on June 12, 1994," Petrocelli said. "I don't have any doubt that jurors convicted him because he was guilty, but the fact that most people in this country believe he got away with murder I'm sure played a role."

Petrocelli said the family believes it got some measure of justice with the civil judgment, even though Simpson had remained free. "But in the fact that he is no longer and may never be, there is some sense of final justice."

For some involved in his first trial, Simpson's resurfacing was an unwanted intrusion in their lives.

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