20 years later: O.J. Simpson chase, case changed the game
By Mary Schenk
and Christine Des Garennes
Where were you 20 years ago this month, when the networks interrupted their regularly scheduled programming to bring you live coverage of the most-watched car chase scene ever filmed in Los Angeles?
"You're not going to believe this," said Judge Richard Klaus, then a young Champaign attorney. "(Wife) Heidi and I went out to watch the movie 'Speed' and came home and turned on the TV and there he is driving down the highway. I thought: Somebody is making this up."
Dave Warga was selling cars at Champaign's Hill Ford at the time. Cars just like the white Ford Bronco that football legend turned wanted double murder suspect O.J. Simpson tried to make a getaway on the night of June 17, 1994, as 20 police vehicles, then 20 helicopters, gave slow chase — at 35 mph — down Interstate 305. "It just kept going and going," Warga remembered.
Dan Coile was getting ready to work the midnight shift as a third-year Champaign County sheriff's deputy. He got lured in to the TV coverage of the 60-mile police pursuit, like an estimated 95 million others who tuned in to ABC, CBS, CNN or NBC that night.
"We were in the newsroom that night, watching the monitors," said Dave Shaul, then the news director at WCIA, the local CBS affiliate. "It was a national event. Everybody was covering it and kept covering it until (Simpson) got back to his house."
There's never been a chase — or case — quite like the one that started 20 years ago Thursday, when the bodies of Simpson's wife and a former Illinois State University student were found, and ended on October 3, 1995, with a jury finding Simpson not guilty of two counts of murder.
And that, say those who followed it closely, is mostly a good thing.
These are their stories.
Ever wonder why it wasn't until 2012 that the state Supreme Court allowed cameras and recorders in Illinois courtrooms?
Blame the media coverage of Simpson's murder trial, says a Champaign County judge.
Circuit Judge Michael Q. Jones of Champaign was in private practice in a downtown Urbana law firm in 1994, when Simpson was charged with the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman.
A general practitioner, Jones had his fair share of criminal clients. Before private practice, he had also been an assistant public defender in Champaign County handling felonies.
Jones followed the trial coverage both in the newspapers and on Court TV. He wasn't at all surprised at the international media attention it attracted.
"Check off all the boxes of what's a sensational story for a reporter and you don't skip any of them: Heisman Trophy, beautiful wife, love triangle, Los Angeles murder, F. Lee Bailey," he said.
"The first impression I had is this trial set back the timetable for cameras in the courtroom because from my point of view, it affected how everyone acted.
"There subsequently was a lot of concern in the judicial community that if you let cameras in the courtroom, it's going to adversely affect how people act, from the preening of the lawyers to the judge making rulings he might not make if he didn't think the whole world was watching. Of course, that's bad. The right ruling is the right ruling, whether two or 2 million are watching."
For instance, Jones said, the trial swung on the testimony of Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles homicide detective responsible for finding the "bloody glove" at Simpson's residence.
He was later disgraced — and also charged with perjury — when it was revealed Fuhrman boasted of being a member of a group inside the LAPD known as MAW (it stood for Men Against Women), beating up gang members and using racist language when questioning black suspects.
The judge in the Simpson trial, Lance Ito, was heavily criticized for allowing Simpson's so-called "Dream Team" of attorneys to press Fuhrman on his use of racial epithets, shifting the spotlight from Simpson to the disgraced detective.
"I think Ito may have been concerned that he would have looked like someone with a bias toward police officers if he didn't allow Johnnie Cochran to go beyond what I thought was appropriate cross-examination," Jones said. "I think (Cochran) was impeaching (Fuhrman) on collateral matters.
"If (Ito) wasn't concerned that millions of people were watching, he might have been quicker to limit some of the cross-examination that I think ultimately played a large part in the acquittal."
Steve Beckett was teaching a trial advocacy course at the University of Illinois College of Law during the trial. Every Friday, he held what he called an "O.J. Simpson moment" with his class. He'd pick out something that happened that could be instructive in a positive or a negative way, and he'd discuss it with his students.
"It was the first trial I'd seen on TV," said Beckett, a criminal defense attorney from Urbana. "I watched as much as possible."
When the verdict came, the law school brought several televisions out into the school's open space on the ground floor, where everyone gathered around to watch it live.
The general feeling following the case was "he got away with it" and that California is a screwy place where big stars get away with murder, Beckett said.
It was not the first trial televised but "it was the first case of national nature that everybody watched. ... It spurred the 24-hour news networks, the breaking news lifestyle that we all live with now."
The trial also spawned a new position in electronic media — the legal analyst, a licensed attorney who'd go on the air for short segments to second-guess strategic decisions.
Overhyped and overcovered. That's John Paul's three-word take on the case.
The trial led the daily news broadcasts and dominated the front pages of newspapers every day, said Paul, a former local TV reporter and lecturer in the UI College of Media.
"This was in the '90s, when television and cable television were covering it wall to wall," he said. "People stayed home and watched it all day."
This was before Nancy Grace, he said. Networks hyped every little twist and turn and brought in various experts who tried to break down what was happening for viewers.
"The trial seemed to go on forever and ever. Like many of those stories, your interest as consumer waxes and wanes depending on who was testifying that day," Paul said.
"As a local journalist I tried to find local ways to cover it ... but really there wasn't a lot."
It was called the "trial of the century" at the time — and still is in many accounts — but there have been many other sensational trials during the 20th century, Paul said.
In graduate school in the 2000s, he wrote a paper comparing the sensational coverage of Simpson and Bruno Hauptmann, the man accused of kidnapping and killing Charles Lindbergh Jr., the toddler son of the famed aviator.
Carol Vorel was assignment editor at WCIA.
She remembers huddling with staffers in Shaul's office — "he had a color TV" — for the chase and the verdict.
When the jury returned a not guilty, "our jaws dropped," Shaul said.
Vorel, now the news director at WDWS/WHMS/WKIO, said the verdict left "many of us quite surprised. There was a lot of head-shaking, and 'Oh, wow' type of thing."
The case, she said, "opened a lot of doors because it was the first time we saw a lot of the things we see all the time now."
"The chase — hanging with that car what seemed like forever — is something we hadn't seen very often before. The coverage from the courtroom was relatively new. The analysis of the judge, the attorneys, the witnesses ... we hadn't seen it done like that before, either. We began to see how live coverage of big cases was going to evolve."
But none since have racked up the ratings points for the national networks like the Simpson trial did.
These days, Shaul points out, coverage of high-profile cases, such as the George Zimmerman trial, are mostly covered by cable news networks.