Thursday, November 16, 2006
If You Want Blood, You've Got It
My strongest memory is of the victory parade.
On a cool late afternoon in February of 1997, Fred Goldman and his family walked out of a courthouse which sits on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, clasped their hands together and raised them in victory. For the first time since their beloved's death three years earlier, they cried tears of triumph and vindication -- tears that were clearly visible even a hundred feet away, simply because they reflected the Southern California sunset. The crowd of thousands -- made up mostly of news crews from every conceivable point on the map -- applauded and cheered them; it was a rare surrender of all objectivity in favor of a momentary show of solidarity with these people whose suffering the reporters, photographers and producers had documented nonstop since the night of Ron Goldman's brutal murder on June 12th, 1994.
Fred Goldman and his family turned and strided with newfound confidence along the street which ran parallel to the courthouse, away from that sunset and toward a new dawn. They had done it. In spite of the miscarriage of justice of unfathomable proportions that was the criminal trial two years earlier -- the one which pitted the people of California not so much against the defendant as against his team of legal wizards, whose talent for misdirection and obfuscation was unparalleled -- they had finally won.
They had beaten O.J. Simpson.
A civil jury had unanimously ruled that Simpson was responsible for the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson -- and Goldman patriarch Fred's only son, Ron. The award: $33.5 million total.
Photographer Glen Shimada and myself were supposed to be doing something else that afternoon; we were supposed to be on a shoot in Long Beach. We were diverted oceanside by a frantic call from our assignment desk telling us that a verdict had been reached, and would be announced shortly -- and that we were to get to the courthouse as quickly as possible to meet our reporter, Harvey Levin. As the impromptu Goldman victory parade marched on, Glen and I followed closely behind the family as part of the procession. It would be fifteen minutes later that Harvey would seek us out and, in typically crazed and kinetic fashion, scream that he had secured the first interview with the Goldmans' attorney -- the man who had done the seemingly impossible -- Dan Petrocelli.
A half-hour after that harried pronouncement, Harvey was seated face-to-face with Petrocelli, asking him how he did it; how he managed to slay the giant; how he convinced one group of people to hold Simpson responsible for an act of which another group of people said he wasn't guilty. Then he asked the million dollar question, or actually, the 33.5 million dollar question: how was anyone going to force O.J. Simpson to pay the money that he now owed to the Goldman family?
And that was when the conversation went deathly silent.
I have a confession to make -- a seemingly appropriate gesture, given the nature of the subject matter.
I've always been thoroughly fascinated by the O.J. Simpson case.
Despite the legitimate claims by many that at the time it represented journalism's lowest point, I was captivated -- like so many were -- by the intricacies, timelines, characters and theories which took center stage in America's collective consciousness for months into years during the mid-90s. I was never naive enough to believe that Simpson -- as deluded, begrudging and outright hostile as he was -- would quietly and graciously accept the civil jury's judgment and hand a over small fortune to those he considered his tormentors. What I never expected however, was that he would spend the next nine years egregiously flaunting his disregard not only for the Goldman family, but for the memory of his ex-wife and the general consensus of the vast majority of the population which considers him little more than an escaped killer.
As the saying goes, "When you're walking on eggs -- don't hop." Well, O.J. Simpson has spent nearly the past decade doing more hopping than the Easter Bunny. His behavior has been occasionally strange and sickening (pretending to stab a camera with a banana), occasionally violent (threatening a man during a traffic confrontation), and more often than not, simply sociopathic (taping a pay-per-view special called "Juiced" in which he plays a practical joke on a used car dealer by attempting to sell him a white Ford Bronco).
There's obviously an argument to be made that O.J. doesn't really need to tread lightly; he got away with murder. Double jeopardy precludes the state from ever trying him on the necessary charges again. But if you knew that millions of people believed that you were guilty of a crime, and still owed a small fortune because a jury knew it to be true, wouldn't you at the very least avoid the subject in mixed company?
O.J. has not only accepted his position as America's Most Notorious, he's reveled in it and assumed intellectual property rights.
This is what, in some ways, makes the heavily-publicized and heavily-criticized new book and television special "If I Did It, Here's What Happened," nothing more than the next logical step in O.J. Simpson's quest to become the most loathed human being to not also be responsible for the deaths of six-million Jews.
If the incessant and admittedly unsettling promotion is to be believed, the television interview at least will usher in the final triumph of post-modern meta-reality -- a stroke of Victor/Victorian genius, with O.J. playing the part of a killer pretending to be an innocent man pretending to be a killer.
The commercials feature a seemingly tortured and tormented Simpson, breaking under the intense questioning of his inquisitor and publisher Judith Regan (a dual-role for which she was born). He speaks not in hypotheticals but in apparent absolutes: about the amount of blood at the scene, the feeling of nearly decapitating two people, one of whom, a woman he once loved, etc. And yet Simpson insists he's doing nothing more than assuming a fictional identity -- albeit one which bears his familiar name -- and stepping into an alternate reality; he's essentially playing a game of "what if." The show's title even hints at the schizophrenic nature of its implication; it's a grammatically-incorrect pairing of two opposing assertions.
The word "surreal" doesn't even begin to cover it all.
Although plenty of venom has been directed toward O.J. for willingly stooping to new levels of murderous whoredom, those who purport to hold themselves to a higher standard of discourse have saved much of their fury for his apparent pimp, Regan. She is after all the one holding the purse strings in this miasma -- agreeing to pay Simpson an undisclosed sum for his "hypothetical" admission of guilt (a sum which O.J. is rumored to have promised to spend immediately, rather than allow Goldman and family to get a crack at it). I surely admit to having initially decried both Regan's actions and mere existence as the reason the rest of the country despises the relatively small slice of land which I happen to call home: New York City. However, Regan's defense seems to be that after nine long years, she's succeeded where others have failed; she believes that she's trapped an unwitting and narcissistic Simpson into saying the words that America has demanded from him: "I did it." The fact that Simpson may believe that he isn't in fact issuing a true confession is relevant only in that it both makes the "gotcha" factor that much sweeter and stands as a testament to his frightening sociopathy.
The question though is obvious: what's really gained by a confession that amounts to nothing more than Simpson once again taunting an impotent legal system and a frustrated family?
Doesn't it do more harm than good?
During the period between the criminal trial verdict and the supposed vindication of the civil trial decision, Harvey Levin would storm into the KCBS newsroom in Los Angeles every other day claiming to have uncovered the "bombshell" that would prove O.J. Simpson's guilt. He did some excellent investigative reporting -- better than excellent in fact. In the end however, it accomplished nothing; Simpson was still free to come and go as he pleased.
He remains free to this day and will continue to -- free to issue confessions, real or hypothetical, that will change absolutely nothing.