Tuesday, 19 April 2016


The language that divides us. The People V. O.J. Simpson: The Run Of His Life, was released to coincide with the TV series, which in America was called American Crime Story: The Run Of His Life: The People vs O.J. Simpson. Similiarly, in America the book's primary title was The Run Of Life. Because OJ's career as a running back (and Hertz airport hurdler) was probably not something a British audience would recall, that title was played down. And the vs. was changed to v. because a British audience wouldn't be able to make that narrative leap either.

You can listen to or read my essay 'OJ and Our America' which I did for Cultural Frontline, on the BBC World Service, in my previous posts on this blog. I did that after seeing the first two episodes of the TV series, which prompted me to read Jeffrey Toobin's book. In fact, if you're playing catch-up with the series, I'd suggest you read the book early on too, because it will give you another picture of the case and the trial, and put things into context. It's also a great read. Toobin was writing from the standpoint of a legal observer, and he takes on the legal issues with the same sort of dramatic drive the series does, but with much more depth and context. And without actors to make characters more sympathetic.

The title is a little misleading. The Run Of His Life is really better applied to the famous Bronco chase, a run where he eventually turned and went the wrong way before being brought down in his own driveway. The trial was really the run of their lives for many of the other people involved: in a bigger sense, OJ might have been better served had he followed either of his original plans, of suicide or escape. That was the moment the trial leapt into the netherworld of celebrity: as Toobin says 'the world waited to see if O.J. Simpson would blow his brains out on national TV'. Irony is a major player in the Simpson case. As Toobin writes, 'only O.J. didn't understand the preeminent place of race in his own defense'. 'I'm not black. I'm O.J.'

Really the title might have been 'The Indifference To Truth'. Toobin talks of the shamelessness of Alan Dershowitz, but points out 'shamelessness is a moral, rather than a legal, concept.' He then quotes Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman on 'the indifference to truth that all advocacy entails'. He doesn't note the irony of a law school dean assuming the law's rules apply; outside the world of attorneys (and who knows, perhaps even inside occasionally) advocacy may pursued via the truth. Call me naïve and put me on the OJ jury. It's chilling to actually read OJ's 'suicide' note, which begins 'First everyone understand nothing to do with Nicole's murder'. That could be the title of a book too.

Toobin is absolutely brilliant on the way the defense's case was built on lies, and the lies built into performance, helped by the inertness of Lance Ito and the prosecution intent on playing Judy to the defense's Punch. His was the first piece on the 'race card' in the OJ trial, the strategy which proved effective, but he doesn't miss the smaller things. Barry Scheck's fragmentation of the prosecution's overwhelming DNA evidence was filled with explanations that ere 'fanciful, and some were silly'. They posited an LAPD that was both 'totally inept and brilliantly sinister' (this is in Marcia Clark's closing argument in the TV show. Maybe the glove was enough, but without Scheck's dumping of a ton of mud in the recombinent waters, it might not have been.

Although the TV series is based on Toobin's book, much material seems to have been gleaned from other sources, most notably Larry Schiller's 'as told to' inside story, which is where, for example, the brilliant scenes of Johnny Cochran redecorating OJ's house before the jury can see it is drawn. That he was able to do that speakes volumes about the ineptitude of Ito's court. Toobin is good on many of the sleazy tactics, such as deliberately withholding witnesses, but I can recall others, like swamping the discovery process, that I might have read in his columns but which aren't in the book. No matter: Toobin's book is full of the sort of astounding bits of absurdity that became the daily fodder for the OJ audience. LA DA Gil Garcetti's press officer, Suzanne Child's, would wind up 'dating' talk show vampire Larry King. And at times, like many magazine writers, he has to give the best lines to his colleagues on the daily beat. Mike McAlary's take down of Robert Shapiro presenting himself as the hero of the trial was deflated by Mike McAlary of the New York Daily News, who explained Shapiro was 'a typical Hollywood invention--a character tan-deep in make-up and significance'. Toobin also explains elsewhere that Shapiro drove a Bentley, but it 'was a used Bentley'. Years ago, when I reviewed Chris Darden's OJ book (you can link to that here) I pointed out where Darden said proudly he drove a Mercedes, but that it was 'only a used Mercedes'. In LA, I said, that passes for asceticism.

It's also brilliant on the internal battles within the defense team, particularly Shapiro's exclusion from it as the trial went along.The best thing about reading Toobin is to get the small bits that form the basis of the series' legal argument in more detail, and in tracking the personalities in more depth. F. Lee Bailey in particular comes off far worse than Nathan Lane's portrayal, but almost all the TV show's characters lack the desperate edge that Toobin gives them. And Toobin ends with a postscript on the civil trial, which took place in Santa Monica, not downtown, and of course went against OJ. It's a somewhat better, if less dramatic, but more ironic ending. This is a book to read regardless of whether you've seen the show or not. Because even if you don't intend to watch, after you read this, you will.

The People V O.J. Simpson: The Run Of His Life

by Jeffrey Toobin

Arrow Books, £7.99, ISBN 9781784758867

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