The first episode of FX’s true-crime anthology “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” aired on Tuesday, transporting viewers back to the chaotic, nail-biting trial of the mid-1990s.
The “trial of the century” seeped into the collective conscious of the nation, not just for its intriguing characters but also because it cast doubt on the integrity of law enforcement.
Perhaps surprisingly, after speaking to a member of Simpson’s defence team, I discovered there are parallels between the O.J. Simpson trial and today’s binge-watched Netflix documentary, “Making a Murderer” (MaM). Both, at times, seem tailor-made for tabloid fodder and conspiracy theories.
“There were two defendants on trial in the case: O.J. Simpson and the LA police,” Alan Dershowitz, Simpson’s former lawyer, told Business Insider.
An appellate adviser for Simpson’s defence, Dershowitz said the defence team brought testimony into the trial to prove police officers planted evidence. That struck me as surprisingly similar to MaM, a show I had just devoured, and led me to examine the similarities between the two trials further.
First, both O.J. Simpson, and the subject of “Making a Murder,” Steven Avery, are captivating individuals.
Simpson’s celebrity was undeniable at the time he was accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ron Goldman, in 1994. After an illustrious football career at USC, he was the No. 1 NFL draft pick in 1969.
He played in the league for 11 years, and, after his retirement, used his charisma to parlay his football successes into an acting career.
Steven Avery, too, was a celebrity of sorts, though lacking national recognition. In Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, Avery’s high profile made for a public enraptured in following the murder case of Teresa Halbach, a local women he was charged and convicted of killing.
Before Halbach’s death, Avery spent 18 years — from 1985 to 2003 — in prison for sexual assault only to be exonerated when DNA evidence found a match for another man.
Following his release from jail, Avery garnered the sympathy of local residents. The community was appalled that an innocent man sat behind bars for nearly two decades. Avery filed a $36 million federal lawsuit against Manitowoc County, claiming he was jailed due to police incompetence and bias. The state legislature passed the Avery Bill in 2005 to prevent future wrongful convictions.
It was those accusations of ineptitude and corruption that assisted Avery when he was charged in 2005 with Halbach’s murder. Community members openly seemed sceptical that the police had the right person in Halbach’s murder and questioned whether they framed Avery as retribution for hurting the public perception of their competence.
Rampant distrust in law enforcement accompanied the Simpson trial, as well.
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was widely perceived as rife with corruption, police brutality, and racism during the 1990s.
The LAPD had already gotten some bad press by the time Simpson was tried. Just a few years earlier, in 1991, the beating of Rodney King ignited the fury of many LA citizens.
King was a taxi driver who was beaten by four police officers following a high-speed chase. The beating was caught on camera by a local witness and sent to the media. The video footage shocked and horrified people around the world, and further inflamed racial tensions in LA.
Later, during the Simpson trial, Johnnie Cochran, Simpson’s lead attorney, called the LAPD lab a “cesspool of contamination.”
The defence argued that police had smeared some of Simpson’s blood on a sock collected at the crime scene to prove he committed the murders.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the sock was planted by Vannatter, the policeman, who dripped blood from test tubes onto the sock to create an incriminating piece of evidence,” Dershowitz, recently told Business Insider.
Dershowitz is referring to Philip Vannatter, an investigator on the 1994 LAPD team who collected evidence from Simpson’s estate. Laboratory scientists collected blood samples from Simpson to compare to evidence from the crime scene.
In a damming moment in the trial, the defence told the court that one piece of evidence — a sock that had Simpson’s blood on it — had been tampered with. The sock was tested and found to contain EDTA, a chemical used in test tubes, according to Dershowitz.
“The sock had EDTA on it, which is an anticoagulant not found in the human body but is put in test tubes to prevent the blood form coagulating, and so we caught [the police], cold,” Dershowitz explained.
The MaM defence team used a nearly identical argument about blood found in Halbach’s car that matched Avery. Raising the possibility of corruption in the Manitowoc police department, Avery’s defence argued that his blood was planted in the car.
They cited a vial of Avery’s blood that appeared to be tampered with to make their point. The vial was in a box that appeared to have been opened. There was a small needle mark in the top of the vial’s stopper, suggesting someone had removed some of his blood.
However, in a divergence from the similarities in Simpson’s case, an FBI test found there was no EDTA in the blood sample collected in the car. Avery’s defence attorneys believed the FBI’s work was hasty and unreliable, but a judge ruled the finding was admissible in court.
Here, the cases again diverge. On October 3, 1995 O.J. Simpson was acquitted of both counts of murder. On March 18, 2007, Steven Avery was found guilty of murder.
While court verdicts are the sum of a multitude of parts, both cases hinged, to some degree, on the existence of EDTA in blood samples found at crime scenes.
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