It was both the tabloid story of the decade, and a sober indicator of the enormity of the nation's racial divide. Uncomfortable issues we prefer to ignore—not only racism, but domestic violence, and the special status we confer on celebrities—were suddenly part of the national conversation. "Did he do it?" was ultimately superseded by a more disquieting question: "Why did they react that way?"
Given the intense interest in, and symbolic power of, the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, it's no wonder why so many social scientists—at the time, and over the next 20 years—incorporated it into their research. With Ryan Murphy's miniseries The People vs. O.J. Simpson premiering Tuesday night on the FX network, it seems a good time to take a look at how the case has resonated in the academic literature over the past two decades.
When the African-American actor and former football star was acquitted of murdering his white wife, the differing reactions of the black and white communities—relief and joy vs. disbelief and horror—revealed a deep divide in perceptions of the United States' justice system.
While we fixated on tiny details, our reactions came down to what Simpson symbolized: either a pampered rich and famous man who literally got away with murder, or an unusually prominent example of the unfair treatment of African Americans by the judicial system.
Our nation's racial divide has seldom seemed so stark.
"It began with Simpson, a black man in a white Bronco, driving along the Los Angeles freeways," psychologist Ernest D. Washington of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst wrote in the Journal of Black Psychology in 2000, five years after the events. "It was a scene out of an old Western movie, or perhaps the deep South. The black man was running away, and the white lawmen were on his trail."
"Whites saw these symbols as indicating a criminal running away from punishment. Justice was being done. Blacks saw it as another instance in which racist police were chasing a black man."
Washington points to a series of racially charged symbols that shaped perceptions about the case, including Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman's "dramatic use of the 'N' word." While whites tended to view such language as abhorrent but ultimately unimportant, he argues that, among blacks, it evoked "an array of narratives" about prejudicial treatment.
He also cites the symbolic importance of lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, who is remembered for his clever refrain dismissing a key piece of government evidence: "If the gloves don't fit, you must acquit."
"An intelligent, articulate, and skilled African American lawyer held center stage on American television for eight months," Washington writes. "In retrospect, the celebration (of the 'not guilty' verdict) was probably more for Cochran than for Simpson."
REFLECTING, OR EXACERBATING, RACIAL ANIMUS?
Did the trial simply reflect the lack of trust between black and white Americans, or did it exacerbate it? And if it did make race relationships worse, how long-lasting was its effect?
In an attempt to answer the first question, a team of research psychologists led by Jason Nier of Connecticut College conducted an experiment in which 208 white undergraduates filled out a survey designed to measure racist attitudes. They expressed their level of agreement with such statements as "Blacks are getting too demanding in their push for equal rights."
The test was administered one week before the verdict, one week after, and again two months later.
"Whites' racial attitudes became more negative following the verdict, indicating an increase in prejudice against African-Americans," they write in the April 2000 edition of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. "Whites who felt that Simpson should have been found guilty expressed higher levels of prejudice following the verdict, relative to their pre-verdict levels. Furthermore, this increase was durable for at least nine weeks after the verdict."
A separate study published in 2010 suggested it actually lasted far longer than that. A research team led by University of Michigan psychologist Terri Conley conducted three experiments—one right after the trial, a second five years later, and a third five years after that—to see if subliminal reminders of the case inhibited interracial cooperation.
Even after a decade, "Inducing white and black participants to think about Simpson inhibit performance on cooperative interaction tasks, perceived consensus, and liking" among mixed-race pairs, the researchers report. In contrast, thoughts of Simpson "positively influenced task performance, perceived consensus, liking, and similarity" among same-race students.
"The manifestation of shared reality represented by the Simpson trial has had a profound and long-term effect on intergroup relations at the interpersonal level," they conclude.
BUT DID HE DO IT?
Yes, according to Czech scholar Jiri Drabek. In a paper published late last year, he creates a "Bayesian network," a set of mathematical probabilities designed to determine the likelihood of a proposition being true. Looking separately at three key pieces of evidence (Simpson's gloves, the knife believed to be the murder weapon, and a series of bloodstains) and two additional factors (motive and "occasion and escape"), he concludes the probability that Simpson stabbed his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman to death is 99.99999 percent.
AND IN THE END, SIMPSON STARTED CSI
The Simpson case gets a prominent mention in a 2012 paper in the Idaho Law Review on the use of DNA evidence. Rick Visser and Greg Hampikian write that the trial "marked a turning point in the public's attitude toward DNA and other scientific evidence," with millions of Americans receiving their first exposure to the then-new technology.
Noting the public's fascination, television news magazines "began producing a steady stream of shows in which DNA was highlighted," they note. "Then, in 2000, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation debuted on CBS." It became a long-running hit—by one measure, the most-watched show in the world—and it spawned the "CSI effect," in which jurors (at least in the minds of some prosecutors) expect conclusive DNA evidence in every homicide trial.
To the extent it is real, such an effect is ironic, since at the seminal Simpson trial, the presentation of DNA evidence was often "incomprehensible," Visser and Hampikian write.
They note that the legal term used by the expert witnesses was "not excluded." An example of how they worded their findings: "O.J.'s socks had at least six blood stains, of which three could not exclude Nicole, and the other three could not exclude O.J."
Put that way, this is less than rock-solid evidence, and it bolsters another of Washington's points in his aforementioned 2000 essay. "The jury was guided by the legal standard of reasonable doubt," he notes. "It is likely that the public used the much-less stringent standard of the preponderance of evidence."
And their perceptions were driven, in large part, by the very different assumptions blacks and whites brought to the case—beliefs about the police, courts, and society which, as events over the past two years have shown, remain strongly held, and deeply divisive.
"The Simpson trial," Washington concludes, "told us more about ourselves as a nation than we cared to know."
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.