The white Ford Bronco. The black glove. The football hero at the center of America’s biggest murder scandal. From the moment news broke that O.J. Simpson was a person of interest in his estranged wife Nicole Brown’s murder, it felt like the whole nation was captivated. The subsequent criminal investigation and trial was one of the most talked about events of the 1990s. Last year’s FX anthology series, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, focused its first season on this very event. It became one of the most buzzed-about new series of 2016 — and with stellar reviews for its 10-episode run, it helped provoke renewed interest in and debate about the case. Now, with the recently announced news that O.J. Simpson has been granted parole after serving nine years in prison for a kidnapping and armed robbery incident in 2007, the notorious ex-football player is in the focus of attention once again.
But there is one aspect of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial — which lasted from November 1994 to October 1995 — that we often don’t talk about. That’s its impact on the way we interact with media, celebrity, and current events. In fact, O.J.’s time in not only criminal proceedings, but the court of public opinion, had a significant impact on pop culture. Here are a few ways that his trial captivated us and shaped our perceptions of celebrity, criminal justice, and pop culture today.
It became a cultural watershed moment
On June 13, 1994, Nicole Simpson Brown and her partner, Ronald Goldman, were stabbed to death outside her Brentwood, California condo. Four days later, Los Angeles police asked her estranged husband, football star O.J. Simpson, to turn himself in. What happened next became a defining “where were you when” moment in American popular culture. Simpson gave what appeared to be a suicide note to his friend Robert Kardashian, got in the backseat of his friend’s White Ford Bronco, allegedly put a gun to his head, and began to evade police.
By that evening, news stations around the country were broadcasting aerial footage of the SUV moving almost languidly down Interstate 405 with a police caravan close behind. And millions sat, stunned, and watched it unfold.
There are few moments that a society can collectively look back on and say “I remember when that happened. This is what I was doing.” The moon landing. John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The September 11 terrorist attacks. Like these events, that day and the events that unfolded afterwards serve, in some way, as a cornerstone. When something similar happens, like the Boston Marathon bombers’ escape, we see parallels to that day. When another athlete or celebrity commits a crime, we compare it to this case. In short, Simpson’s attempted escape from police was so shocking that the police chase will be forever ingrained in our public consciousness.
It changed how we think about celebrities
It’s not that O.J. Simpson was the first celebrity ever accused of any serious wrongdoing. But for a generation of sports fans who grew up idolizing the former star running back, it was genuinely devastating to witness his downfall. In the press and in living rooms around the country, people had to take a harder look at the man they once defined as a hero.
Regardless of the verdict in Simpson’s murder trial, the public perception of the man changed. And some could argue that our faith in the power of celebrity changed as well. It’s not that we stopped paying attention to the lives of famous actors, musicians, and athletes. It’s just that we’re no longer surprised when someone in the spotlight is accused of wrongdoing. Where O.J.’s criminal charges sparked shock, there seems to be a been-there-done-that attitude when similar news breaks today.
There could be many reasons why — overexposure to celebrity culture has a habit of breeding weariness. But when it comes to how we view fame and celebrity today, it’s safe to assume that there was some long-lasting impact to us realizing that the seemingly superhuman Simpson was merely mortal — and potentially a murderer.
It made criminal cases a spectator sport
Interest in O.J. Simpson’s criminal charges didn’t stop when he surrendered to police. Throughout his murder trial, millions of Americans tuned in to watch. When his trial began in 1994, cameras had only recently been allowed into courtrooms. The fact that we were allowed a front row seat to the murder trial made it a cultural event — in many ways, the first of its kind.
Anyone who followed Simpson’s murder trial formed an opinion; on the evidence, on his guilt, on the parade of sometimes eccentric witnesses and personalities from both the defense and the prosecution. Many experts have weighed in as to how our collective attention impacted the trial. But with hindsight, we can at least be sure that the media frenzy surrounding O.J. Simpson’s trial not only made everyday citizens feel like they were actively participating; it helped ignite a national obsession with true crime and courtroom drama that is still alive and well today.
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