Bring on the O.J. books - the attention is justified Verdicts: Both are perfect, and the drama goes to the heart of vital American issues.


March 16, 1997|By Elsbeth L. Bothe | Elsbeth L. Bothe,special to the sun

What happened to Ron and Nicole on June 12, l994? Who lived at Bundy, who lives at Rockingham? Who owns a white Bronco? What is the N word? And who was on the Dream Team? Who wears Bruno Magli shoes? Did the glove fit?

Try as you may, you can't help but do better on that quiz than you care to admit outside of a game of Trivial Pursuit. You are OD'd on O.J., querulous about the conflicting verdicts, and happy to see the furor fading into history. You are overwhelmed by O.J. books.

You should not feel that way. The saga of Orenthal James Simpson is important to pursue, not for its soap-opera spectacle, but because it enlightens some vital issues of our times, including race relations, equal justice, the jury system, domestic violence, police brutality.

I declare the two trial verdicts are absolutely perfect. They have served the higher purpose of justifying the extraordinary attention the case has provoked, and given it a realistic chance ++ of keeping the title "Trial of the Century." Had O.J. pleaded guilty, much less been convicted, a lot of instructive and titillating writing would have gone down with him.

Not that I agree with the acquittal. Along with the jurors who found O.J. responsible in the civil trial, I am firmly convinced, based on evidence sufficient to divide up and convict a hundred murderers, that O.J. is the one who butchered his wife, Nicole, and her hapless visitor, Ronald Goldman. For starters, there is no way short of pathological paranoia to get around all of the DNA-tested blood matches pointing to O.J. as the killer. But the truth is beside the point.

The point is, after nine months of a trial in which they were enjoined from discussing any of the voluminous evidence, a predominantly African-American jury from impoverished Los Angeles deliberated less than four hours before reaching a unanimous verdict of "not guilty," while a year later a predominantly white jury from comfortable Santa Monica did not need much longer to agree, again unanimously, that O.J. should make huge reparations because he was indeed responsible for the deaths of Ron and Nicole. A public that knew far more than the jurors spontaneously mirrored the racial split.

No happening in history, including such seismic events as Watergate, the Kennedy assassinations, and the Gulf war, received more concentrated media coverage than the trial of this high-flying sports hero, whose civil rights concerns had not previously been at all conspicuous. Top journalists from leading publications spent full time reporting the case. Television provided a front seat for all to attend the entire criminal trial, including bench conferences out of the presence of the jury. Law professors, judges, experts of all stripes spent hours on the air, gravely analyzing and debating the evidence, doping out the jurors, explaining legal and scientific technicalities, making predictions as reliable as any stockbroker's.

Lockstepping with the media, the trial of the century has been the publishing bonanza of the decade. Never have there been so many books published on a single subject in so short a time, or so much paid to produce them. Now quieting in the media, which peaked on prime time as the verdict in the civil case interrupted the president's State of the Union address, new O.J. books are still coming out as best sellers.

Ego trips

At last count, there were 97 titles extant with six more on the way. The big publishing houses bet heavily on trial-generated celebrities, starting with the defendant's own best-seller. Written with Lawrence Schiller before the trial at which the author did not testify, "I Want to Tell You: My Response to Your Letters, Your Messages, Your Questions" (Little, Brown, 1995) found more than half a million wanting the answers. Schiller later wrote his own 700-page tome: "American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense" (Random House, l996), an intense, insider account divulging many answers O.J. would not have wanted to tell.

Seven of the trial lawyers (with help from ghostwriters) have put their tales between covers. Johnnie Cochran's (with Tim Rutten) is called "Journey to Justice" (Ballantine Books, 1996) while Robert Shapiro's (with Warren Larkin) is "The Search for Justice" (Warner Books, 1996). Both are on ego trips, Shapiro's dampened by his ambivalence over Cochran's winning tactic of likening O.J.'s plight to that of a Holocaust victim.

Alan Dershowitz's contribution was the appellate brief he never had to write: "Reasonable Doubts: The O.J. Simpson Case and the Criminal Justice System" (Simon & Schuster, 1996). Dream-Team member Gerald Uelman came out with "Lessons from the Trial: The People v. O.J. Simpson" (Andrews & McMeel, l996), a pious, low-key approach coming from the one who, according to Schiller, strategized the Los Angeles Police Department conspiracy defense.

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