LOS ANGELES (AP) — EDITOR’S NOTE: If there was ever a murder case perfectly suited for media and public consumption it was the O.J. Simpson murder trial. It had it all: A former football star charged with killing his ex-wife and her friend. A slow-speed police chase seen by millions on TV that involved the defendant and a white Ford Bronco. And a defense attorney (Johnnie Cochran, Jr.) who famously said about a leather glove, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” And so Simpson was let go. No wonder the Los Angeles court spectacle was dubbed “Trial of the Century.”
The trial lasted almost a year and was covered in its entirety by AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch. She had reported many sensational trials — Charles Manson, Robert F. Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan, Patty Hearst and the officers charged in the Rodney King beating — and so it wasn’t a surprise that a judge made her the pool reporter. She appeared on television every day to summarize what had transpired. (After the trial ended, Simpson tracked down Deutsch while she was vacationing and called to give his side of the story. It was the first of several exclusive interviews over the ensuing years.)
Twenty years later after the trial ended in acquittal, the AP is making a version of the story available along with photos.
O.J. Simpson went home a free man Tuesday, spared by an unpredictable jury to pick up a life of privilege instead of a life in prison. Acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her friend, he pledged to track down the real killers who are “out there somewhere.”
In a courtroom on the verge of exploding with emotion, a hush fell as Judge Lance Ito’s clerk, Dierdre Robertson, read the two words: “Not guilty.”
Simpson smiled, mouthed the words, “Thank you,” at the jury, then clasped his hands together. Lead attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr., standing behind Simpson, slapped him on the back and laid his forehead on his shoulder. Attorney Shawn Chapman cried and clutched jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius’ hand.
Tears of anguish and shouts of joy burst from the three families whose lives were torn apart by the bloody June 12, 1994, slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
“Oh my God!” exclaimed Simpson’s grown daughter, Arnelle, embracing her brother Jason.
“We did it!” a family member exulted to lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr.
Eerily, the Simpson saga ended much as it had begun, with the fallen football superstar being transported in a white van to his estate while news helicopters tracked him overhead. Tuesday’s televised verdicts were the most-watched event since June 17, 1994, when Simpson, in a white Bronco with his friend Al “A.C.” Cowlings driving, led police on a surreal slow-speed chase viewed by millions.
Cowlings was at the door to embrace Simpson when he arrived home an hour after the verdicts were read. Later, family members gathered for a champagne party on the lawn of Simpson’s lush estate.
Florists, caterers and musicians pulled up to the house and told reporters they were there for a celebration.
The gaiety stood in marked contrast to the solemn mood in the district attorney’s offices.
“Last June 13, ’94 (the day he learned of his son’s death), was the worst nightmare of my life. This is the second,” Goldman’s father, Fred, said at a prosecution news conference. “This prosecution team didn’t lose today. I deeply believe this country lost today. Justice was not served.”
At a defense team news conference, Cochran insisted the issue of race, which he played heavily in the trial, did not overcome the facts.
“This verdict speaks justice,” Cochran said. “This was a case based upon the evidence.”
He denied playing “the race card,” saying instead that credibility had won out.
“Race plays a part in everything in America,” he said. “But this stuff about playing a race card is preposterous.”
But fellow defense attorney Robert Shapiro disagreed, saying he was “deeply offended” that Cochran had compared the police detective who found the bloody glove to Adolf Hitler. He said would never work with Cochran again and would never talk to attorney F. Lee Bailey.
“To me the Holocaust stands alone as the most horrible human event in modern civilization,” Shapiro said. “And with the Holocaust came Adolf Hitler, and to compare this in any way to a rogue cop, in my opinion, was wrong.”
He said of Cochran: “He believes that everything in America is related to race. I do not.”
Although it was his decision to bring Bailey into the case, Shapiro said he was angry when the legendary attorney took a courtroom role and cross-examined witnesses.
“I will never talk to F. Lee Bailey again,” he said.
Cochran said he hoped the Los Angeles Police Department would alter shoddy investigative practices exposed in the trial.
As the words setting Simpson free were spoken in court, his elderly mother, Eunice, seated in a wheelchair, wiped her eyes, held up her hands prayerfully and murmured words of thanks.
“I was always in prayer. I knew my son was innocent,” she said at the defense meeting with reporters.
Across the room, Goldman mouthed the word “murderer” as the verdict was announced. Kim Goldman, who spent most of a year in court honoring her dead brother’s memory, doubled over and sobbed along with a younger brother and sister.
At the courthouse, Simpson’s older son, Jason, read a statement from his father:
“My first obligation is to my young children, who will be raised the way that Nicole and I had always planned. … But when things have settled a bit, I will pursue as my primary goal in life the killer or killers who slaughtered Nicole and Mr. Goldman. They are out there somewhere. Whatever it takes to identify them and bring them in, I will provide somehow.”
Police Chief Willie Williams, however, said he had no plans to reopen the investigation.
“It doesn’t mean there’s another murderer,” Williams said of the acquittals.
In his statement, Simpson also noted that many will surmise he is guilty, acquittal or no acquittal.
“I can only hope that someday, despite every prejudicial thing that has been said about me publicly, both in and out of the courtroom, people will come to understand and believe that I would not, could not and did not kill anyone,” his statement said.
The jurors who acquitted Simpson in less than four hours of deliberations refused to speak with attorneys or explain their verdicts to reporters. The usually dapper jury came to court in uncharacteristically casual clothes. One black man smiled at the defense team as he entered the courtroom.
“We won,” whispered defense attorney Carl Douglas, almost in amazement.
The verdicts, returned Monday but held overnight by Judge Lance Ito to give lawyers and families time to assemble, caught everyone by surprise. There was immediate speculation that Simpson had been convicted because jurors had asked the court to read them a segment of testimony considered favorable to the prosecution.
Simpson’s sister, Carmelita Durio, said the family spent the night on “an emotional roller coaster,” praying together and steeling themselves for what lay ahead.
Her sister, Shirley Baker, who joined Durio in the courtroom almost every day at the trial, said she was elated.
“I just feel like standing on top of this table and doing a jig,” Baker told reporters.
The verdict reverberated from Los Angeles to the White House, where President Clinton watched the verdicts on TV, then wrote a statement.
“The jury heard the evidence and rendered its verdict,” Clinton said. “Our system of justice requires respect for their verdict. At this moment our thoughts and prayers should be with the families of the victims of this terrible crime.”
Earlier, Clinton was briefed on federal government plans to assist California authorities if the Simpson verdict triggered civil unrest. But the streets remained calm.
Outside the courthouse, most of the crowd of more than 1,000 people pressing police barricades cheered wildly as the innocent verdicts were transmitted on portable radios.
Some chanted, “Justice means acquittal, acquittal means justice” followed by shouts of “Free O.J.!”
Across town in Brentwood, where Ms. Simpson and Goldman were slain, the mood was less jubilant.
“You make a lot of money and I guess you can commit murder,” said Elizabeth Condelli, who said she knew Ms. Simpson through their children’s school.
The verdict was reported in blazing headlines worldwide. Within hours, local newspapers had issued “Extra” editions featuring Simpson’s smiling face and the words, “Not Guilty.”