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How O.J. Simpson's Bronco chase and trial set the stage for reality TV

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June 17th, 1994.

 

I just completed my sophomore year of high school earlier that morning. I remember my mom picking me up from school and taking me to lunch at the local mall. We stopped through some of the department stores afterwards and happened to walk by a video and television appliance store (keep in mind this was before Best Buy), when a local news affiliate interrupted the afternoon programming with breaking news.

 

The Los Angeles Police Department had just issued an arrest warrant for O.J. Simpson, whose ex-wife Nicole and her acquaintance Ronald Goldman had been found brutally slashed to death a little less than a week beforehand. Simpson was handcuffed and questioned by police the day after the murders took place, but was then released. After attending Nicole’s funeral that following Thursday, Simpson was then charged with two counts of murder and was scheduled to surrender at 11 a.m. Friday morning, shortly after a deal was struck by his lawyers and police.

 

However, Simpson never turned himself in, and what took place over the next eight hours was not only one of the most captivating incidents ever seen on live television, but perhaps the main precursor of our modern celebrity obsessed, reality television-watching, TMZ culture. Later that night, I walked out of a movie theaters after seeing Beverly Hills Cop 3 with some friends of mine (Cut me some slack. I was just 16 and didn’t know any better.) when my dad picked me up and told me to get in the car because O.J. Simpson was on the run from the police, and they were chasing him down an Orange County freeway in a scene taken right out of a Grand Theft Auto video game. Oh yeah, all of this was being broadcast live on national television.

 

Needless to say, I was blown away. First off, the fact that O.J. Simpson was even considered a suspect in a murder case was something our country had a hard time wrapping its collective head around. After all, O.J. Simpson was a hero. The former Heisman Trophy winner out of USC and NFL Hall of Fame running back for the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers, whose squeaky clean image made him a worldwide public figure, was wholeheartedly embraced by most. Simpson successfully transitioned into a post-NFL career as a television sports commentator and popular pitchman. He was Nordberg, that funny, bumbling guy from The Naked Gun movies who was always on the other end of some joke that had the audiences in stitches, and his character literally in stitches.

  

Well, it turns out in retrospect that O.J. Simpson was a better actor than anybody could have given him credit for. In a pre-internet age, it was a pretty well-hidden fact that Simpson’s history with his second wife Nicole was anything but harmonious. Simpson had previously beaten Nicole numerous times (there are photos that support one of the incidents) and there are documented audio recordings of Nicole’s 911 calls in October, 1993, after Simpson broke into her condo in a fit of rage. After divorcing in 1992, the Simpsons apparently had tried to reconcile, but Nicole’s fears that her ex would once again act violently towards her promptly ended any hopes of a reunion. This apparently drove Simpson crazy to the point where he would stalk his ex-wife as she moved on and dated other men. 

 

When Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman’s bodies were found outside her condo, the police immediately sought out Simpson as a suspect the following day. Four days later, Simpson and his childhood friend and college football-NFL teammate Al “AC” Cowlings went driving in a white 1993 Ford Bronco, with Cowlings behind the wheel trying to talk Simpson out of killing himself when police cars approached the Bronco. It was revealed that Simpson had written a suicide note, and he can be heard in audio clips talking with police how was "just gonna go with Nicole." Local California residents watched along the freeway as television helicopter cameras followed Simpson and Cowlings during the 60-mile chase. An estimated 95 million viewers tuned in to watch this surreal turn of events transpiring right before their very eyes. Moreover, the telecast of Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets was reduced to a small blip on the side of the television screen, as Tom Brokaw presided over the on-air commentary on NBC.

 

We'll never know for sure whether the entire act was staged on behalf of Simpson and/or Cowlings, but when all was said and done, the police talked Simpson out of taking his own life and he surrendered at his Brentwood estate. It turns out “The Chase” was just a precursor for the “Trial of the Century,” which began on January 24th, 1995. Throughout the next nine months, the trial of O.J. Simpson captivated the nation, and literally made overnight celebrities out of basically everyone (and every network) remotely associated with it. Presiding Judge Lance Ito was parodied on Jay Leno (remember the Dancing Itos?) and Court TV (now TruTV) was launched into the stratosphere as a result of their live coverage.

 

People were glued to their television sets as a struggling actor named Brian "Kato" Kaelin become an overnight celebrity, simply by testifying at the trial. Yes indeed, Kaelin was unknowingly a trailblazer for a future crop of reality television stars who think it is easier to get famous for doing nothing than by actually working hard to achieve something. However, Kaelin, unlike today’s generation of self absorbed, non-deserving attention mongers, was trying to make something of his life and didn’t want that kind of notoriety. In the words of the man himself: “Never has a man done so little to be recognized by so many.” That being said, we’re still talking about him 20 years later, and Kaelin, like the other “cast members of the ensemble” in some shape or form, found a way to cash in on his newfound fame.

 

Then there were prosecuting attorneys Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, both of whom received million dollar book deals after the trial and became guest commentators on every major network news channel. Clark even once reported from the red carpet during the Emmys! Meanwhile, Darden became an actor (you’re not misreading this), appearing on such shows as Touched by an Angel and (gulp) Muppets Tonight! Coincidentally, both lawyers left the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office after the trial, but one has to wonder whether they left on account of the trial's absurdity or whether the payoffs were too plentiful to ignore in the wake of their newfound fame.

 

Of course, we can’t forget O.J.’s defense team- nicknamed “The Dream Team,” long before former NFL quarterback Vince Young cursed the 2011 Eagles squad by anointing them the same honor. There was Robert Shapiro, who went on to play himself in numerous television shows and later co-founded the massively successful website LegalZoom.com. Do you seriously think the website would get half the recognition it gets if Shapiro wasn’t associated with it? Photo: www.theaustralian.com.au

 

As successful as Shapiro became, however, nobody benefitted more from the group of lawyers representing Simpson than Johnnie Cochran. Although Cochran already had a reputation as a long-respected attorney in the Los Angeles area, the O.J. Trial catapulted his name up to a stratosphere unmatched by anyone else associated with the trial. "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" became Cochran’s signature quote used during the trial. Cochran uttered this line when he was referring to the bloody gloves the prosecution believed Simpson was wearing when he allegedly committed the murders. Cochran was also referenced in several songs and was parodied in the form of Jackie Chiles, a fictional lawyer on the TV series Seinfeld. Chiles was responsible for prosecuting Jerry Seinfeld and his friends in the series finale. Like Clark and Darden, Cochran also wrote a book and appeared in numerous television shows and movies before his death in 2005.

 

Last but fittingly apropos, the O.J. Simpson Trial’s biggest beneficiary was undoubtedly the family of the late Robert Kardashian, Simpson's defense attorney and friend. Yes, the same Kardashians we all know and mostly loathe. It was the first time many of us had heard that name and sadly, it wouldn’t the last. If that name doesn’t define reality television, nothing ever will.

 

You know the rest of the story. In a trial that many said made a mockery out of the justice system for numerous reasons, Simpson was acquitted of the murders, and racial lines were severely divided in this country as a result of the verdict. Some think the prosecution botched evidence that overwhelmingly incriminated Simpson. Others claimed that the trial was based more on sensationalism than substance, and that a possible death sentence resulting in a Simpson conviction would incite race riots that would have made the 1992 Rodney King fiasco look like a Sunday picnic. Is anyone seriously shocked to hear that O.J. Simpson was reportedly beaten to a pulp by skinheads in the Nevada prison where he is serving his jail sentence? Photo: Getty Images

 

As for Simpson himself, the backlash following the trial was beyond extreme. Even though he was declared innocent in a court of law, in 1997 a civil jury found Simpson liable for the wrongful deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Furthermore, Simpson didn’t exactly improve his tarnished image when he was arrested several times over the following years for crimes ranging from assault to speed boat infractions. 


However, in what many consider to be an ironic twist of fate, Simpson was arrested in 2007 on charges that he held up a Las Vegas casino hotel room with a gun and seized sports memorabilia that allegedly belonged to him. When three of Simpson’s co-conspirators plea bargained with the prosecution in exchange for their testimony against him, Simpson was sentenced to prison for 15 years on charges of kidnapping and armed robbery. He was recently denied a request for a new trial.

 

No matter what your opinion is regarding the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase and his subsequent murder trial, society is still obsessed with the events that occurred 20 years ago this month. To this day, people remember where they were during the freeway chase, where they were when O.J.’s verdict was read, the response from their peers in the trial’s aftermath, as well as their own personal theories as to what really happened that fateful night of June 12th, 1994, when two innocent people suffered a tragic and untimely death.

 

The Trayvon Martin incident and the actions of Donald Sterling further prove that racial overtones still exist in our culture, and it seems that the ideas of notoriety and fame have become one in the same. Furthermore, the slightest incident of celebrity misbehavior is now dramatized and even glorified by every form of accessible news media, and no matter how serious the crime may or may not be, a slap on the wrist is now clearly the rule and never the exception.   

 

Yes, the events of June 17th, 1994 were true reality television at its finest.

We just didn’t know it yet.  

Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com

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Freeway photo: worldsoccertalk.com

Dream team photo: www.theaustralian.com.au 

Jail photo: Gety Images