Racial Tension, Police Brutality, Celebrity Culture, a Failed Criminal Justice System
A new documentary about the Simpson case offers frightening parallels to America today. Carl Douglas, a member of the so-called Simpson “Dream Team,” shares his front row seat.
From the perspective of the OJ Simpson case, it’s not hard to understand the acquittal of police officers charged with violent crimes in Ferguson or Baltimore or anywhere else. The same racial tensions we see today between the police and communities of color were at work in Los Angeles in 1994. That tension was responsible for the acquittal not only of OJ, but also of the officers that beat Rodney King and, by extension, the officers that picked up Freddie Grey.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Carl Douglas, Johnny Cochran’s former law partner, talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about the lure of white celebrity culture, the ongoing racial component of criminal trials with African-American defendants, and how even in this era of 24/7 communication, white neighborhoods are often still clueless about what goes on with law enforcement in black communities.
Douglas appears prominently in the new ESPN documentary, “OJ: Made in America,” a story much more about Americans than about OJ.
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Full Text Transcript:
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio Whowhatwhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
If you’ve seen the ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America, you know it’s about a lot more than O.J. Simpson or the Brown-Simpson-Goldman murders or even the trial that once captivated the nation. It’s a story about race, about identity, and about self-perception, and most of all about the relationship between police and their community. It’s a little bit frightening that this story from 22 years ago is still playing out with police and communities in every corner of America. The story took place in 1994 and1995, but the issues raised in Ezra Edelman’s stunning documentary are just as relevant today. Joining me here on Radio Whowhatwhy to talk about it is one of the attorneys that was part of Simpson’s so-called “dream team”. Carl Douglas was the managing attorney in the law office of Johnny Cochran, and he had a seat at the table for every aspect of this American tragedy. It is my pleasure to welcome Carl Douglas to Radio Whowhatwhy.
Carl Douglas: Jeff, my pleasure having me, my friend.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here! One of the things that the documentary brings out and reminds me, is that it’s not possible to really understand almost any aspect of this story without really understanding the issue of race in Los Angeles and the LAPD in the 80s and 90s.
Carl: And you know, Jeff, I thought that was a fabulous focus of the documentary. Beginning as it does telling the story of Los Angeles, I’m a resident here and I was two years old, this is the city that I love. But it is virtually impossible for anyone to even begin to understand how some crazy jury could find Mr. Simpson not guilty, without appreciating the context of my city at that time.
Jeff: And not only the city at that time but really the 20-year history that had come before– even in arguably longer than 20 years–and what had gone on between the LAPD and the black community. Things that were in many ways a precursor to what we’ve been seeing playing out as recently as last week in Dallas, in Ferguson, in Baton Rouge.
Carl: Indeed and, you know, those stories that were told are stories that I am well familiar with. Beginning with the story of the death of Leonard Deadwyler in the early 60s and going through all of the things there. But that really was the first time I had ever seen those stories juxtapose as they were on film. And so it really was for me the greatest description depiction of my great city and the troubling history that I’ve ever seen on film.
Jeff: The other thing that it’s a reminder of is that the people that live in the better neighborhoods in these cities have no idea what’s going on in these rough urban neighborhoods. We see it in this story with respect to Los Angeles, but it’s certainly something playing out in other cities as well.
Carl: Indeed that is so and regrettably that is so even today. I continue to try civil rights cases in and around Los Angeles, and I am continually confronted with trying to explain to my anglo-brethren the fact that there are indeed two Americas where police really do treat them with respect and there is a sense of trust.
Jeff: And this is the back-drop, it is even more fascinating to look in this documentary at the fact that O.J. Simpson strode the center of this divide and was even confused about his own identity.
Carl: Um…I’m not sure Jeff, if I would say that he was confused. He knew always that he was a black man. But he strived to attain beyond race. He wanted to really live the ideals of Martin Luther King and being judged by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin. He was well aware of his own blackness, but he was seeking to attain a different level of accomplishment, if you will. In fact, for many years he did sort of, quasi, attain that level where he was looked at beyond the color of his skin. And I know as an African-American kid growing up in Los Angeles, it was always great inspiration to me to see someone who looked like me running through the airport for Hertz, or selling Chevrolet automobiles, or even drinking RC Cola, which he used to sell, in the early 60s.
Jeff: But there was never any participation on his part in any of the causes of the day. That’s one of the points that Edelman makes in the documentary, that he lived in a very different world. There’s a scene in the documentary and you probably remember better than I exactly where it takes place, a bar or someplace where OJ is surrounded by other African-Americans and somebody makes a comment: “What’s OJ doing hanging out with all those black people?”
Carl: Yeah, yeah. And you know, it was a reflection of the different nature of his outlook on race because he was proud that that white person commenting did not see OJ as black, which is disturbing to me but that’s just, you know, the nature of how he looked at himself. It’s interesting because one of the most troubling or counterintuitive things that my white friends are always difficult to understand and the fact the inconsistency is discussed repeatedly in the documentary, and that is the notion of O.J. Simpson being used as a civil right symbol because of this disconnect that he always had with the African-American community. And I have always tried to explain the celebration of African-Americans across this globe to the verdict as not being just a referendum on O.J. Simpson, the person, but rather a celebration of the accomplishments of black professionals and the notion that competence comes in all colors. People often have a difficulty understanding how O.J. Simpson could ever be used as a symbol for racial injustice given his background.
Jeff: That’s the underlying irony of it, but I guess the broader question is: as you watch OJ decline in the course of this story, is did he pay a price for that? Was there a psychological price that he paid for that confusion, for that straddling two worlds?
Carl: When he stands before his maker, I’m sure that’ll be the final judge of that, Jeff. I know and the film reflects it, OJ was seduced by the lure of white celebrity. And the depth with which he fell as reflected in the final episode of this great documentary is indeed a testament to how he was never ever able to recapture the attraction and the positivity of the majority community, and how that lack of appreciation drove him to the morass in which he found himself.
Jeff: I have to ask you this because this is somebody else that you know and have worked with. Did Michael Jackson suffer from the same thing that lure of the white community? I mean, somebody else did everything including surgery to be part of the white community.
Carl: That is a fascinating question. Both individuals are really complex in similar ways and in different ways. Certainly Michael Jackson did not seem to use his celebrity to embrace some of the issues that were particularly endemic to the African-American community. Some might say he was a little younger perhaps and not as sophisticated. But I can appreciate the parallels that one would seek to draw and how celebrity can change you significantly and not always for the better.
Jeff: Back to the OJ story, were you surprised, you or Johnny Cochran, or anyone from the defense team, that once–and in this goes to the heart of the society that we’re talking about– the issue of race was on the table and once that race became a part of this trial that the defense never addressed or never tried to address or in any way find an opening in exactly the thing that we’re talking about, the fact that OJ was so much a part of the white community and the lure of white celebrity as you say that never even entered into the defense argument as a way to counter some of what was being put forth.
Carl: We certainly were obligated, Jeff, to go in the direction that the evidence took us. Before the trial ever started, we on the defense was confronted with this workers compensation lawsuit that we found that was filed by Mark Furman who was one of the central detectives in this case. A lawsuit where he tried to get off of being a police officer because of the stress of dealing with black and brown citizens made him hyper violent, and that knowledge really crafted the foundation of our defense, coupled with the significant collection issues that we uncovered early on, committed by criminalists employed by the LAPD. So we never had to get to that other question. Certainly his celebrity was always the elephant in the room, and we as defense lawyers wanted always to take advantage of that and try to exploit that to our benefit as advocates. But early on, it was clear that race was going to be a central theme in the case, just given the stress lawsuit that Mark Furman had filed years before.
Jeff: But the idea of race as part of the trial entered long before Mark Furman, I mean going back to even Shapiro’s conversations with Jeffrey Toobin.
Carl: But those conversations were based on Shapiro having learned about the lawsuit. But you also have to understand, Jeff, that there is rarely an occasion when a trial lawyer in downtown Los Angeles can conduct any kind of a trial without in some ways being mindful of the impact and the influence on race, particularly a criminal trial, particularly a criminal trial if there is an African-American defendant. Whether it’s the OJ or NO-Js of the world, in Los Angeles a defense lawyer always has to consider whether there is a racial component that the defendant can exploit, because there is such deep-seated distrust in Los Angeles and in many urban areas across this nation between minority communities and their police department.
Jeff: Given that, and I don’t think that there’s anybody that could argue that that’s not the case, particularly in Los Angeles. Given those facts, why do you think by virtue of hindsight that the prosecution was so caught, seemingly caught off guard, by that issue in this trial?
Carl: Because there was so much evidence, Jeff, that they were seduced by the sheer volume and magnitude of the evidence that they were acquiring against Mr. Simpson. They thought that just the sheer weight of that evidence would trump any other considerations even of race. And that was a grave miss-appreciation, if you will, of the central significant that race has in all cases. They thought there was so much evidence that it would trump any issues of race whatsoever, I suspect.
Jeff: That really was a sense of being not only legally wrong with respect to the trial, but also politically tone deaf with respect to Los Angeles.
Carl: You got to understand, Jeff, that Marsha Clark, who was the lead lawyer, historically in the two years that she had practiced prosecuting cases in downtown Los Angeles, had developed an affinity for African-American women in particular. There were many women who after they had served on juries would write her letters or give her phone calls, and they were being contacted for months, if not years later. So she thought that she had a particular affinity. She is also a trial lawyer. And we, by just our very nature, have to have a strong sense of our own self and of our own instincts. Criminal lawyers in particular take great pride in the instinctual nature of our ability to gauge a witness or a situation, and we disdained some of the more traditional tools that several lawyers used like jury consultant and focus groups. It was with that backdrop that you can appreciate that there was a jury consultant who volunteered his time to the prosecution and advised the prosecuting team that female juries were not necessarily pro-O.J. Simpson which was in of itself counter-intuitive. Marsha ignored that and went with her gut instead.
Jeff: But, doesn’t some of the blame–I mean this was a sense of it that I came away with watching the documentary–to what extent does some of the blame or a lot of the blame have to rest with Gil Garcetti? He’s a political figure, he’s an elected, and the buck stops with him.
Carl: The blame for the verdict I don’t place at his feet other than that he was the district attorney at the time. I applauded the decision that he reached, that the case should be tried downtown. Legally initially, there was a grand jury that was formed and there was the prosecution intent to have the case tried or at least the hearing done by the grand jury and that has to be downtown in Los Angeles. Robert Shapiro and Jerry Oldman filed a motion to get that grand jury disbanded, which then kept the case downtown. But because Gil Garcetti was an elected official, he met with members of the African-American community. Remember this is in the wake of the Rodney King verdict and there was great distress among the black and brown community because the Rodney King trial had been shipped an hour and a half outside of Los Angeles to Simi Valley which happened to be an area populated by a lot of law-enforcement officers. There was a great sense that that verdict did not speak of justice. And to his credit, Gil was responsive to those voices and came out, as you saw in the documentary, applauding and believing that a case could still be held in downtown Los Angeles and a fair-minded jury could find even O.J. Simpson guilty of murder.
Jeff: But to your point with respect to the issue of race and cases in downtown Los Angeles to the extent that he should be applauded for keeping it down there as an elected, absolutely true. But then he shouldn’t have been surprised to the extent that race became an issue in this, whereas Marsha Clark seems surprised at every turn.
Carl: Agreed. Agreed. Agreed. You know that is often, Jeff, the elephant in the room particularly with liberal Caucasians, who will be offended if they were ever accused of being racist and who often are tone-deaf to the racial realities that still exist in a modern complex American society like ours. One of the important things that I like to take from this documentary is, even though we were talking about 1995, these issues are still very, very ripe today. I have a 24-year-old son who did not know about O.J. Simpson then, but really can connect with the issue of race and police misconduct etc. given the headlines that are going on across this great nation of ours.
Jeff: And talk about your decision to participate in Ezra Edelman’s documentary and what you thought that he was trying to put forth.
Carl: Well, first of all, I am a great fan of the entire 30 for 30 franchise. Being a sports fanatic, I was very interested in doing something that had the ESPN name attached to it. When I met Ezra Edelman and learned that he is the son of Marian Wright Edelman, the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund, I was very enthused by that because I knew he came from great stock. Then, when I thought about the fact that at that time he was talking about a five hour documentary which was in my mind an unprecedented commitment to the subject matter, I realized that O.J. Simpson could not speak, Johnnie Cochran was dead, Bob Kardashian was dead. Many of the other lawyers for whatever reason on the defense would not speak. I thought it critical, Jeff, that I speak out and that I give balance to the conversation so that someone would be there to give inside to the other side. And it was 20 years then so enough time had passed that I could be more candid in some of my discussions and explanations as well.
Jeff: And are you ever surprised that 20 years later this is still as central an issue as it is, not only the racial issues that underlie it, but just the fascination with the case and the trial and everything surrounding it?
Carl: I am still surprised. I was surprised after five years, and then ten, and then fifteen. And then there was a big swirl of activity after twenty. When The People v. O.J. Simpson series came out on FX, there was another swirl of activity again. And now this great documentary is the topper on all of that. But I think because the more things change, the more they remain the same. And because the documentary focuses as much on issues of race and the evils of celebrity that are still very ripe and relevant today, the trial still captures the fascination of the [adoring?] public.
Jeff: It is also fascinating and it’s impossible to leave out the fact that although as you mentioned before he’s dead, but that Bob Kardashian and his family are symbols of some of the celebrity issues that are aired here in this case.
Carl: Yes and, you know, one of the funny little anecdotal scenes was the scene of Thomas Riccio, – I call him the snake – who was speaking to O.J. in Vegas and Kim Kardashian was on the screen and O.J. was her godfather. And O.J. thought that the show she had, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”, was never going to be a hit and would be off in two weeks. Little did he know what an iconic figure she’d become as a result of that show.
Jeff: What does this case tell you about celebrity?
Carl: Well, one thing that I knew but was reinforced in me was that we Americans love to build our celebrities up, and then we love to watch them be torn down as well. For as many admirers of Lebron James, for example, there are detractors of him as well. And that is one of the curious fascinations that I take from this entire experience.
Jeff: Carl Douglas is prominent in O.J. Simpson: Made in America, the documentary as produced by ESPN. Carl, thank you so much for giving of your time today to us here on Radio Whowhatwhy.
Carl: Yes, it’s my pleasure of having me on, my friend. Thank you so much.
Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio Whowhatwhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio Whowhatwhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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