Defence played the race card

Legal expert Jeff Toobin thinks O.J. Simpson was a murderer and is not shy about saying so.

The Emmy-winning journalist wrote The Run Of His Life: The People V O.J. Simpson, the 1996 book that inspired the new television series American Crime Story: The People V O.J. Simpson. It was a bestseller that emphatically states the author's belief that Simpson did kill his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman, both found stabbed to death at Brown's home in Los Angeles in 1994.

Not everyone agrees, of course: The Simpson case was famously controversial due to the murkiness of the evidence, the defence team's racially charged strategy and the difference in how blacks and whites perceived the case, which ended with Simpson being acquitted.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Los Angeles, Toobin says: "I think one of the reasons the public was so fascinated by this case was that they got interested in the details of the evidence, which were argued by both sides.

"This was not an open-and-shut case - it was not a case where guilt was a foregone conclusion," says the 55-year-old senior legal analyst for CNN, who covered the Simpson trial for The New Yorker in the 1990s and was the first to report that the defence was planning to play the race card and argue that the police were biased against Simpson.

"I happen to believe Simpson was guilty, but the case had elements of mystery to it. It was also the public's first broad exposure to DNA evidence, which is, of course, a very important thing. So I don't think there was unanimity on his guilt by any means."

However, the TV adaptation of his book, which stars Cuba Gooding Jr as Simpson, will take no position on the man's innocence or guilt.

And Toobin is fine with this, noting that the bigger issue is not whether Simpson did it, but why the jury acquitted him despite the incriminating evidence.

The answer is that the trial became about how blacks are treated by the criminal justice system - something that feels just as relevant today, in the wake of the controversial police-brutality cases in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere in the United States.

The author says that "what African Americans have been saying about the police for generations has been proven" by these controversies and that revisiting the Simpson case will underscore that.

"One of the things that's so remarkable about this series is how topical it feels, because this is a case that was defended as police abuse of an African American and we are in the midst of a national conversation, post-Ferguson, about relations between African Americans and the police.

"A lot of white Americans who were baffled by how a jury could acquit on the evidence presented in the Simpson case could learn a lot about the context from today. The story feels current to me, which is pretty amazing 20 years later."

While he thinks the verdict in the 1994-1995 trial was wrong, Toobin believes that Simpson's eventual fate was a miscarriage of justice too: In 2008, the former athlete was sentenced to 33 years in prison for a robbery in Las Vegas, a charge he denied, saying he had merely been trying to retrieve items and sports memorabilia that belonged to him.

Simpson is now 68 and still behind bars. Toobin thinks he is innocent of the robbery charges, although many people believe it is only fair he was convicted here, given that he got away with murder in 1994.

But this is not how justice is supposed to work, says the author, a respected legal analyst who has commented on high-profile cases such as the Elian Gonzalez custody battle, Martha Stewart's insidertrading conviction and the current Bill Cosby rape allegations.

"The crowning absurdity of the Simpson case is that he was acquitted of the crime he's guilty of and convicted of a crime he's innocent of," he says.

"I don't spend a moment mourning the fact that Simpson is in prison, but the legal system is not supposed to work on a payback model. We're not supposed to convict people because of karma.

"I don't think it's unfortunate that Simpson's in prison, but I think he should be in prison for the right crime."

Alison de Souza

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2016, with the headline 'Defence played the race card'. Print Edition | Subscribe