Millions stop, look and listen As moment nears, people gather around radios, television sets

The O. J. Simpson Verdict

October 04, 1995|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF Contributing to this article were staff writers Ann LoLordo, Lyle Denniston, Sheridan Lyons, Jackie Powder, Suzanne Loudermilk, Carl Cannon, Kate Shatzkin, Glenn Small, Lisa Respers, Marcia Myers, Jim Haner, Shanon D. Murray, Edward Lee, Melody Simmons, Joe Mathews, Joan Jacobson, Michael Dresser, Sandy Banisky and Rob Hiaasen.

As V-hour approached, an odd silence fell across the country. No matter how far away you were -- in a hospital waiting room in Baltimore, on a train speeding to New York, at a bait shop in the Outer Banks -- you could hear the papery rustle of an envelope being opened in a courtroom in Los Angeles.

"How hard can opening an envelope be?" someone messaged on America Online as the rustling seemed to go on for hours. "Let me do it!"

Plugged in to Judge Lance A. Ito's courtroom via television, radio and computer, a transfixed nation held its collective breath. And then exhaled in a rush of pent-up emotions.

Some wept. Some cheered. Some fell into stunned speechlessness.

President Clinton was moved to hand-write a statement.

Many were drawn to public places, positioning themselves near a news outlet shortly before the scheduled 1 p.m. EST announcement, for an event that seemed far too intense to experience alone.

The stomach-clenching wait, the still new surprise of the so-quick verdict after a so-long trial.

About 300 people crammed inside the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. merchandise store in downtown Baltimore's Charles Center; some 250 students and faculty gathered to watch in an Anne Arundel Community College auditorium; nearly 200 packed the bar in the lobby of Stouffer Harborplace Hotel; scores more flocked to restaurants, barber shops, student unions and hospital waiting rooms.

Even if you hadn't planned your day around the announcement, you were inevitably drawn in: Heads popped out of office windows to pass the news down to the street: "Not Guilty."

"Not guilty," strangers said to strangers who looked like they might not have heard.

It was both solemn and circus-like, a shared experience unlike any other in memory. For one thing, there was the prior warning, unlike the Challenger explosion or the JFK assassination, for example. And yet, for all the anticipation of the verdict, it still shocked.

Joy at the jail

At the Baltimore Detention Center, visiting hours had just ended and family, friends and lovers of the incarcerated men ran to their cars parked under the trees along East Eager Street, threw open the doors and switched on their radios.

The verdict came booming from 17 sets of car speakers: "Not guilty."

And the jail erupted.

"OJ! OJ! OJ!"

At Towson State University, dozens of students inhaled pizza and french fries in the campus Rathskeller.

At the University of Maryland Law School, a professor gave in -- "I'm bowing to reality" -- and delayed his 1 p.m. class, knowing his students would be more interested in the news than his wisdom.

The scene at Venable, Baetjer and Howard was perhaps typical of offices in downtowns all across America -- nearly 35 attorneys and others gathered in front of a TV set in a conference room in the law firm's offices at the Mercantile Bank & Trust Building.

Silence of the lawyers

The verdict accomplished what Judge Ito often failed to do during the most intense moments of the case: silence the lawyers. The conference room fell completely still.

The nearest television set beckoned. Goitom Gebre-Ab was running an errand in Northwest Baltimore, realized he wouldn't make it back to his Erdman Avenue home in time, so he stopped in at Sinai Hospital's emergency room.

About a dozen other spectators were already gathered around the two TVs in the ER waiting room, and they fell silent. A loud cheer went up as the first not-guilty verdict was read. Another cheer greeted the second verdict.

"This reminds me of the day of the Oklahoma bombing," said BGE customer representative Dora Bielut, as people huddled around the 65 televisions, ranging from nine-inch portables to monster-sized 52-inch projection models, at the Charles Center store.

Curiously, another 50 onlookers watched from outside the building, peering at the screens through the window. "We can't hear the sound, but we'll be able to see OJ's face. That'll tell the whole story," said insurance salesman Dan Glenn.

Even Washington slowed its endless churning to watch: At the White House, the phones in the upper and the lower press offices were uncharacteristically silent and the cafeteria was swamped at 12:45 p.m., as aides rushed to get their lunches before scurrying back to their TVs.

In press secretary Mike McCurry's office, officials Rahm Emanuel and Evelyn Lieberman joined several secretaries and young female aides to watch the announcement.

There was stunned silence until Mr. Emanuel finally stated the obvious: "That really surprises me." The women were more bitter. "I guess this means you can get away with anything if you have enough money," said one.

President Clinton took a break from his work in the Oval Office, which has no television, adjourning at 12:58 p.m. to watch the TV in his secretary's anteroom.

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