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REWIND 1995: Australia Sends Its Good Wishes To O.J. Simpson (Part 1)

By Peter Holmes



O.J. Simpson outside the Santa Monica Courthouse in 1997 during his civil trial. Photo: TwinsOfSedonma/Wiki Commons/Digitally altered.

Dateline: 1995.


It began with two LA murders; continued with TV choppers in the sky broadcasting live a car chase below between a white Ford Bronco and California police, and an arrest; and concluded with a criminal trial and a not guilty verdict.


In 1994-95 the arrest of Orenthal James (O.J.) Simpson, and his subsequent "trial of the century" over the gruesome, frenzied slaughter of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, was a story to which hundreds of millions of people around the world became addicted in the period June 12, 1994, the night of the killings, to October 3, 1995, when a jury acquitted Simpson of the murders.


...


According to CNN's timeline of events, based on witness testimony, at 6:30pm (Pacific Time) on June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson, her children and several others went to dinner at Mezzaluna restaurant in the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood, where the Simpsons also lived.


At 8pm Brown Simpson and her children left Mezzaluna and stopped for ice cream on the way home. At 9:15pm one of Brown Simpson's sisters called Mezzaluna to report that Nicole's mother had left her glasses at the restaurant. A staffer, Ronald Goldman, said he would return the glasses.


Sometime between 9pm and 9:30pm, Simpson and Brian "Kato" Kaelin, who was living in a guest house on Simpson's property, went to McDonald's. They returned home at 9:45pm.


A few minutes later, Ronald Goldman departed Mezzaluna to deliver the glasses in a white envelope to Brown Simpson's townhouse. At 10:15pm Brown Simpson's neighbour Pablo Fenjves was watching TV when he heard the cries and constant barking of a dog.




Ten minutes later, a limousine driven by Allan Park arrived at the Simpson compound to collect O.J. Simpson. At 10:40pm Kaelin heard three loud thumps on an outside wall. At around this time, Park buzzed Simpson's intercom, but received no response; at about 10:55pm Park called his boss and was told to wait until 11:15pm, as Simpson was often late.


A few minutes later Park noticed a Black person, six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, walking across the Simpson driveway towards the house. Kaelin, checking on the noises he had heard, noticed Park at the gate. Park, meanwhile, buzzed again. This time Simpson answered, and explained he had overslept and was just getting out of the shower.


The limousine, driven by Park and ferrying Simpson, departed for Los Angeles Airport at 11:15pm, and at 11:45pm Simpson boarded a flight to Chicago.

At 12:10 on the morning of June 13, 1994, the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were discovered outside her townhouse.


Some four hours later, detectives Mark Fuhrman and Philip Vannatter arrived at O.J. Simpson's house. Somewhere around 5:15-5:30am, the detectives noted an apparent bloodstain on Simpson's Ford Bronco.


Between 7am and 7:30am detective Vannatter declared the area a crime scene and departed to seek a search warrant for the property.


...


Beamed live into homes, bars and workplaces for months on end, it fascinated, enraged and split America.


It made celebrities out of Simpson's lawyers, friends and neighbours; police prosecutors; the judge; and the families of Brown Simpson and Goldman.


And news outlets came to understand that the appetite for Simpson stories was insatiable, and were happy to keep on stoking the fire, around the clock.

Simpson had previously experienced the sting of being a punch line (his "acting"), but the case returned him to the dartboard for another round.





Others who faced ridicule and mocking included prosecutor Marcia Clark, Judge Lance Ito (Jay Leno's Tonight Show created the Dancing Itos, a group of men in Ito costumes who danced with a woman who looked like Clark), Simpson's neighbour and stoner from central casting Kato Kaelin, and dodgy detective Mark Fuhrman.


Two people died in horrid circumstances, but the trial soon morphed into something different. It became not only about domestic violence and murder, but about race, fame, wealth, court TV and the US's obsession with celebrity. And it was a marker along a road that had led us to the never-ending 24-hour news cycle.


...


It was early 1995 and I was on a road trip across the United States.



I was travelling with three mates, all in our mid-20s: Whopper (a TV cameraman), Eddie (a radio announcer) and Mel (a radio news reporter).


We had kicked off in Los Angeles on the West Coast, from where we planned to head east to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Washington DC and, ultimately, New York on the East Coast.


Mel and I had been closely following the O.J. Simpson trial from Australia, but coverage had been reasonably light, compared to the 24-hour smorgasbord being served up to the US consumer.


In Sydney, our O.J. intel was limited to what we could access on free-to-air television and radio, and in newspapers and magazines.

The trial was being held in the Criminal Courts Building, a huge box built in the early 1970s at 210 West Temple Street, downtown Los Angeles.


We wallowed in proceedings on cable TV in our hotel on Highland Avenue in LA, stunned by the fact this "event" was taking place just kilometres down the road.


Watching the coverage, we learned that although most of the public gallery seats were set aside for a small contingent of the scores of media covering the trial, and figures relevant to the case, seven seats were withheld each day for garden variety folk who wanted to see the law in action.


The "winners" of the seven seats were drawn randomly each morning by a court official, and to be in the draw you had to be in the first 40 or 50 people to queue outside the court building.


So at about 5am on a Monday in February, 1995, Mel and I took a 10-minute cab from our hotel to the court building and joined what was, at that absurd hour, a short line.


210 West Temple Street was a circus that came to life as we waited in the queue.


The atmosphere was electric, with network and cable TV broadcast vans lining the street; reporters filing updates; wily traders doing brisk business, and further immortalising the defence (Johnnie Cochrane, Robert Shapiro, F. Lee Bailey), and Judge Lance Ito, with their Dream Team and Judge Who Believes In Justice badges; lawyers and their people making a beeline for the entrance; and hundreds upon hundreds of people just milling about staring at the weirdness unfolding before them.


About an hour before court was due to sit a security guard ushered a few dozen of us waiting in the line into the foyer of the building, via a metal detector. We had made it to the inner sanctum.

We were close, getting closer.


In the foyer an official bellowed at us that seven seats would be available to the public, and those seven names would be drawn at random.


We were each given a ticket with a number on it, and then a man began drawing numbers, bellowing each number as he went.


My heart sank as he read one number, then two, three, four, five and six.


Those with the golden tickets whooped and punched the air while the rest of us stood silently, our hope of being able to enter the court slowly giving way to despair.


The seventh number was not mine.


But it was Mel's. "Yes!" he exhorted quietly; hands trembling, he made his way to the man with the laminate passes and presented his ticket.


Mel offered to share the pass with me - he would go to the morning session, leaving me with the afternoon session.




With the morning session underway I repaired to the building's cafeteria, where members of Simpson's family sat two tables across. I considered sidling up and introducing myself as a reporter from Sydney, but had thought better of it.


At the lunchtime adjournment Mel returned from the courtroom, gave me his pass, and we were interviewed by a reporter from The New York Times, who was curious as to why two young Australian journalists would fly 14 hours and chew up their holiday time trying to get into a foreign court case.


As the luncheon adjournment drew to a close I took the lift to the ninth floor, and passed through another scanner into an open area, where lawyers, clients, court officials and members of the public milled about chatting and waiting for the green light to enter the courtroom.


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