It didn’t take long for the Oscar Pistorius case to be compared to the story of another famous athlete who went on trial for allegedly murdering a loved one. Naturally, that was the news media’s cue to call up the old gang from the O.J. Simpson trial and see what they think about it.
The prosecutor in that infamous case, Marcia Clark, has already become a go-to expert for MSNBC’s coverage of the new one. Robert Shapiro, who sat across from Clark at Simpson’s defence table, has also been on the network, predicting that Pistorius will be called to testify on his own behalf. Fox News went to one of their regular talking heads for his take—former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman, who testified against O.J. back in 1995. No word from Christopher Darden or Judge Lance Ito yet, but the trial hasn’t even really started.
To be fair, Clark and Fuhrman have been semi-regular guests on the cable news talking head circuit for years. So long, in fact, that it can be easy to forget sometimes how they got their jobs in the first place. The O.J. Simpson case launched an entire cottage industry of true-life legal shows, fictional procedurals, tell-all books, and on-the-fly judicial analysis that made nearly anyone and everyone associated with the case a household name.
Clark and Fuhrman are two of the most prominent names still working today, but they were not the only ones to become stars. O.J.’s lead defence attorney Johnnie Cochran and his still legendary “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” line got their own TV show, published a couple of books, and became a regular fixture on cable news before his death in 2005. (He even inspired a fantastic Seinfeld character, who almost got his own spin-off.) His partners at the defence table, Shapiro, Barry Scheck (who created the Innocence Project), and F. Lee Bailey were already well-known defence attorneys, but the extra publicity sure didn’t hurt their practices. Even a mere witness, Kato Kaelin, remains a reality show fixture and TMZ target nearly two decades after the fact.
And it wasn’t just the people in the courtroom who became famous. The 24/7 legal analysis required to break down every nuance of the proceedings launched the television careers of several lawyers turned broadcasters, like Great Van Susteren, who still has her own show on Fox News, Roger Cossack, a legal analyst for ESPN, and CNN’s prosecutor-turned-journalist Jeffrey Toobin. The O.J. case exploded the viewership of the then-nearly unheard of CourtTV network. (Now TruTV.) You can even argue that their legal eagle TV descendants like Nancy Grace (whose first TV gig was alongside Cochran on CourtTV) and the CSI franchises owe their careers to the media landscape—and a nation’s love affair with criminal forensics—created by O.J.
Even the inescapable Kardashian family can trace its celebrity roots to Simpson. Robert, the late father of Kim, Kourtney, and Khole, was O.J.’s best friend and lawyer.
What’s rarely mentioned, however, when Clark and Fuhrman appear on TV is that these respected legal minds offering their opinions are mostly asked to do so because they botched what should have been one of the most winnable murder trials in history. The O.J. case is legendary its screw-ups like the bloody glove that was likely planted on Simpson’s property by one of Fuhrmann’s LAPD colleagues, then became the focus of the prosecution’s biggest blunder—making Simpson try on the glove in court. (It didn’t fit.) When the defence dug up Fuhrman’s prior use of racist slurs, he became the focus of the trial, and the not evidence he was helping to gather. The inexperienced prosecution team appeared overwhelmed by their new celebrity and the ever present cameras, as the dragged the trial out to an unconscionable length and failed to win over even those jury members who were convinced Simpson was the murderer.
Yet, that giant public failure hasn’t hurt the careers of those responsible. Clark and Darden have published at least a dozen books between them (mostly fictional murder mysteries) despite losing their most famous case. Their memoirs about it sold even better. Fox News asks Furhman to weigh in all sort of legal matters that don’t resemble the one he’s best known for. Yet, somehow his claim that the evidence against Pistorius is “overwhelming” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, since it was his detective work that lead to the famous summation about O.J. that “the LAPD couldn’t frame a guilty man.”
Unfortunately, the most apt comparison between The Juice and Blade Runner cases so far is that they’ve both been horribly managed by the police and prosecutors. Hilton Botha’s near-disastrous testimony, questionable detective work, and attempted murder charges from his past have already drawn comparisons between him and Fuhrman. The epically long-winded bail ruling by Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair is reminding people of Ito, who was frequently accused of enjoying the courtroom cameras a little too much. If Pistorius ends up being acquitted, the comparisons will only feel more and more right.
If Charlie Pierce is right (and he is) that “everything that’s awful about cable news has its roots in the O.J. saga,” then it’s only fitting that all the tools it created will soon be brought to bear on a case nearly 20 years later has become its mirror image. (Oh, except now we have Twitter.) Perhaps there will soon be some South African legal expert or an attractive young witness or a fame-seeking friend on your TV every night or, worse, a highway manhunt interrupting prime time.
Oddly enough, the one person you won’t be seeing is O.J. Simpson. His opinion would be quite interesting to hear, if he weren’t spending what is likely to be the rest of his life in prison for a completely different crime.
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