by W. Joseph Campbell, author of 1995: The Year the Future Began
O.J. Simpson’s parole hearing in Nevada today may have been much-anticipated and widely watched. But it was no “flashbulb moment,” not an occasion so rare and powerful that it will be remembered for years by many thousands of people.
Indeed the hearing’s outcome — Simpson won parole — was more expected than memorable, and more subdued than dramatic.
It was only faintly reminiscent of the “flashbulb moment” on October 3, 1995, when verdicts were read at the close of Simpson’s double-murder trial in Los Angeles.
On that occasion, as I discussed in my 2015 book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, the United States stood still in a rare moment of nationwide anticipation.
Simpson that day in 1995 was acquitted of the vicious slashing deaths of his former wife, Nicole, and of her friend, Ronald Goldman, and Americans by the millions stopped what they were doing to follow the reading of the verdicts on television and radio.
Simpson’s parole hearing today was televised live and streamed online. While it allowed the country an up-close look at Simpson after his nearly nine years behind bars, it was not a moment fated to be long remembered or often recalled.
Simpson, now 70, is stooped and slow afoot. But he is still voluble and self-absorbed. He went before the parole board seeking release from a prison term for armed robbery, kidnaping, and other offenses stemming from an encounter in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2007. Simpson essentially had a small posse to retrieve memorabilia he said had been stolen from him.
For those crimes, he was sentenced to 9 to 33 years in prison. The outcome of today’s hearing means he will be released as soon as October 1.
Simpson often apologized during the hearing for participating in the Las Vegas robbery, saying he wished it had never happened.
He also he revealed flashes of ego and self-absorption that characterized his high-flying celebrity lifestyle before 1995. He told parole board members he was “a good guy” and insisted, without smirking, “I’ve basically spent a conflict-free life, you know?”
He blamed other participants for the encounter in Las Vegas having spun out of control. He was unaware, he said, that handguns had been drawn.
But he made no reference to the killings of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman; their deaths were not germane to today’s hearing.
But a question that was relevant in 1995 lingers after today’s hearing. It’s a question sure to arise again when Simpson is set free from Lovelock Correctional Center in northwest Nevada. The question is:
What accounts for the seemingly endless media and popular-culture fascination with O.J. Simpson?
Some of the Simpson-fixation can be connected to the nostalgia that embraces the 1990s these days. CNN, for example, has begun a seven-part documentary series that revisits the decade. Simpson’s trial in 1995 has to rank among the top 10 events of the decade, at least in America.
It was, after all, commonly referred to as the “Trial of the Century.” While it wasn’t as consequential as the rise of the Internet, the fall of the Soviet Union, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, or the genocide in Rwanda, it was one of the decade’s “flashbulb moments.”
Simpson-fascination also can be attributed to perverse interest in how he won acquittal in 1995 despite the considerable evidence — notably, forensic DNA evidence — that was arrayed against him.
In the face of that evidence, and of the intense pressures he faced, Simpson kept his composure during the months-long trial. He didn’t testify, as he said he would. But his lawyers found ways for Simpson to declare, in the courtroom, that he was innocent.
Polls said most Americans didn’t buy it. But interest endures as to how he beat the rap.
A broader explanation for the continuing fascination lies in Simpson’s stunning fall from grace — from rich and admired celebrity to convicted felon who has spent years of his dotage behind bars. Simpson once seemed to have it all: He was a professional football star who made it to the sport’s Hall of Fame. He was a TV sports commentator, a movie actor, a pitchman. He was well-liked, even esteemed. And all that, he lost. How could he have allowed that to happen?
And then there’s race: The verdicts in 1995 exposed fault lines in how white and black Americans regard and respond to the U.S. criminal justice system. The “flashbulb moment” at the close of the trial was marked by what I described in 1995 as “stark and contrasting reactions”: Many African Americans cheered Simpson’s acquittal while many whites were shocked and dismayed.
The disparate reactions, I noted, “prompted much anguished commentary that America’s racial divide was more profound than had been understood.”
The outcome of today’s hearing precipitated no such clash of reactions.
W. Joseph Campbell is the author of 1995: The Year the Future Began and Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism.