PBS Frontline: "The O.J. Verdict"

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Ofra Bikel
Producer/Writer/Director
Wednesday, October 5, 2005; 11:00 AM

On October 3, 1995, an estimated 150 million people stopped what they were doing to witness the televised verdict of the O.J. Simpson trial. For more than a year, the O.J. saga transfixed the nation and dominated the public imagination. Ten years later, veteran Frontline producer Ofra Bikel (The Plea, Innocence Lost), revisits the "perfect storm" that was the O. J. Simpson trial. Through extensive interviews with the defense, prosecution, and journalists, Frontline explores the dominant role that race played in the most controversial verdict in the history of the American justice system.

"The O.J. Verdict" airs Tuesday, Oct. 4, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

Producer, writer and director Ofra Bikel was online Wednesday, Oct. 5, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss "The O.J. Verdict."

The transcript follows.

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Meridian, Miss.: Why was a man getting away with the murder of two people considered justice? If the defendant had been a white man would he have been declared innocent with the evidence presented to this jury?

Ofra Bikel: That he was getting away with murder was a very wide-spread view, but it is an opinion - not the judgment of the jury. As for the question would Simpson have been acquitted by a jury of white men, we just don't know the answer to that.

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Silver Spring, Md.: O.J. Simpson claims his private investigation into finding the killer has been hampered by the L.A. Police Department. Is this true to your knowledge? And is Simpson's attempt to find the "real" killer sincere?

Ofra Bikel: I don't know anything about it, and I don't think so.

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Ossining, N.Y.: Have you met any legal experts who think that O.J. might have been acquitted in a continental European court room where the judges examine witnesses and the lawyers play a subdued role?

Ofra Bikel: I haven't talked to any legal experts who could answer how the case would go in Europe. But you don't know until you have the case.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Would it be fair to state this was not a trial of O.J. Simpson, but of the Los Angeles Police Department and District Attorney's office and whether a defendant was brought to trial on properly presented evidence?

Ofra Bikel: I'm not sure how to answer that.

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La Union, New Mexico: I was horrified,repulsed and deeply saddened to be reminded of the Simpson acquittal of ten years ago. The simple truth is that he brutally murdered two vibrant young people-

one of which one was the mother of his two children. A decade later he still enjoys his freedoms even to make thousands of dollars every time he signs his murderous name on a shirt or a ball. We should all be ashamed,and some of us, maybe, damned ashamed.

Ofra Bikel: Everybody is repulsed and horrified by the murder. But the jury found that there was a reasonable doubt. Simpson was acquitted by a jury, and the state was unable to prove that he was guilty. This is the system in the US.

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Elk Grove, Calif.: Since DNA testing, how many African American men have been release from incarceration due to the advent of DNA testing? How may white men have been release?

Ofra Bikel: I'm not sure of the number. You can get the answer at http://www.innocenceproject.org/ (The Innocence Project). About 160 people total have been exonerated and released because of DNA evidence, although I don't know how many are black. I would assume that the majority of those exonerated are black, although I don't have the numbers.

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Austin, Tex.: Do you feel that the glove question was the turning point?

Ofra Bikel: It was a turning point because it was found by Detective Fuhrman, who was a racist. It was found by Fuhrman, who became a key witness and it was discovered that he was a racist.

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Washington, D.C.: Given your in depth analysis of the verdict, what reaction would you suppose would have occurred among African Americans should O.J. have been found guilty by that jury?

Thanks.

Ofra Bikel: That's a good question. I think there probably would have been been great frustration and great anger but I don't think there would have been riots.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't know if your program was meant to expand a dialogue on race. If it was, it did not. It did not because it backed away from many questions.

It did not ask questions such as: does a trend exist wherein predominantly African American juries are by and large predisposed to acquit an African American defendant in a crime committed against a white person? Or even: is acquitting African Americans by African Americans irrespective of guilt or innocence one way of making a statement, sending a message? If so, what in the world does this say about how a huge proportion of the population feels about the justice system? What can be done so that African Americans have more confidence in it, lay claim to it with more assurance, and do not feel the need to use it as a tool to assuage wounds of the past (or indeed the present, the greater challenge)?

There appears to be a gap in the way blacks and whites approach the justice system (as jurors). While I believe a large part of that stems from racism suffered by blacks, I also feel that the solutions to judicial racism have evolved to a point where, to me at least, they appear to be dysfunctional.

These are my impressions both as a viewer of last night's program and as a juror on a murder trial.

Ofra Bikel: The evidence shows that most black juries readily convict black defendants, all over the country.

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Morrisville, N.C.: At this stage in the game, no one really believes that O.J. wasn't the "real killer," right?

Ofra Bikel: Wrong. Some people believe that he was not the real killer.

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New York, N.Y.: Producer Bikel, please mention to the white audience the fact that throughout the various centuries, in northern and southern courts, white men charged with murdering blacks were habitually exonerated by a cast of all white juries. So why are whites so outraged by one "just" verdict rendered by a competent jury? I thought whites believed in justice and the jury system or do they?

Ofra Bikel: That's what I hoped that I did in the show. I didn't do it directly, but that's what I was hoping to do. My whole show was why whites were so outraged.

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Atlanta, Ga.: It's amazing to me that this is still a story ten years later. I think it is a story because of race. A black celebrity was on trial for the killing of two white people. The media called this the "Trial of the Century". The Robert Blake trial had a white celebrity on trial for killing a white woman. The media didn't give this trial an intriguing name nor did white America react with the same level of shock when the verdict was read. Why? What are your thoughts on this matter?

Ofra Bikel: Again that's what I tried to examine in the program - how much was it about race.

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San Antonio, Tex.: In interviewing members of the defense team, did you discern much bitterness regarding their portrayal in the press?

Ofra Bikel: Yes. In the press and in the letters they got.

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Clifton, Va.: I'll never forget where I was when the verdict was announced: at work still within my first month as a paralegal at a D.C. firm. After the verdict, one of the partners said to me "are you sure you still want to get into this business?" Ten years later, I'm an attorney at that same firm, but I still look back at that day and wonder what we've learned as a society in those ten years. In making your documentary, were you able to gain any perspective on that question?

Ofra Bikel: That was what I tried to do in the program.

Ofra Bikel: That is what I tried to do in the program. What I found was that the black and white communities have very different realities, especially in the justice system.

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Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Since the gloves found at the crime scene did not fit O.J., why do many still believe O.J. is guilty, when it is clear that someone else was involved.

Ofra Bikel: Because they believe what they want to believe. And people who believe that the gloves belong to O.J., believe that the gloves have shrunk because of the blood on them.

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Pittsburg, Calif.: I recently attended class across the street from O.J. Simpson's brothers home (Truman Simpson) in Pittsburg, California during O.J.'s Court Trial. At that time Truman's home was basically a home compared to every other house down the block. I don't know if O.J.'s life had anything to do with it or not, but immediately after he was found NOT GUILTY, I noticed Truman's home immediately painted and he moved out of the house. He had lived there for number of YEARS prior to O.J.'s trial. This I question...why the sudden move? Where did he obtain the cash to do this? It is in a low income housing district. Truman is an injured vet.

Ofra Bikel: Like most people, I simply don't know. And I have to take the jury's verdict at face value.

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Bethesda, Md.: Wait a minute - you've studied this case for the PBS show, and you are still taking the "well, the jury found reasonable doubt" line as if that verdict is to be respected? Sounds like you're in the group that should be "ashamed" that a previous questioner referred to, as in parts of the media that are so afraid of offending some segments that they cannot do their job (i.e. - honestly address certain matters).

Ofra Bikel: If you believe in the American system, all you can count on is the jury's verdict. What else would you rely on? The television? The media? That's all you have, the jury's verdict.

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Washington D.C.: Is society's reaction to O.J. since the trial a part of this retrospective? Should it be? Evidently PBS believes this trial was some kind of turning point. Do you believe this trial triggered race implications in other crimes/trials?

Ofra Bikel: No I don't think that the O.J. trial was a turning point. I think it was a Rorschact Test of the situation as it was then and as I think it still is.

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Wheaton, Md.: What did people other than whites or blacks think of the trial and verdict? Did Latinos or Asians decide along race lines?

Ofra Bikel: I don't know the answer to that.

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Maryland: What is O.J. doing these days besides selling autographs?

Ofra Bikel: As far as I know, playing golf.

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Washington, D.C.: Would someone other than the late Johnnie Cochran have won the same verdict? Did O.J. specifically look for a black lawyer or just someone with a good rep?

Ofra Bikel: It's hard to think of the trial without Johnnie Cochran. He had a pivotal role in it. Also remember that O.J. had eight other lawyers who were white.

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Vienna, Va.: I saw your online video "Getting Beyond the O.J. Thing". One of the women referred to Nicole Brown as "blue eyed". Nicole Brown had brown eyes. I have heard Spike Lee make the same error. It makes me think that people see what they want to see when discussing social issues and when they serve as jurors. What do you think?

Ofra Bikel: I think you are right. People see what they want to see when discussing social and racial issues.

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Malvern, Pa.: There are two things about the O.J. trial that have always puzzled me:

1. The rationale for O.J. killing in a rage was that he saw his ex-wife with another man. However, some time after their marriage broke up, he actually spied Nicole having sex with another man. If anything was going to really set him off in a rage, it would be seeing her in that situation, not the situation in which they were killed.

2. The media didn't appear to look at Ron Goldman. No interviews with friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, just his immediate family. Who was he? Was he gay? If so, why wasn't it just as plausible that Ron Goldman was the primary rage target from a gay lover and Nicole was the bystander?

In my opinion, there was immediate tunnel vision that O.J. had to be the killer and no one really bothered to think about other possibilities. The so-called eyewitnesses of the white Bronco and bloody glove never convinced me.

Ofra Bikel: That is probably what the defense would say.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: The gloves might have fit, even if blood shrunk, if Simpson was not required to wear latex gloves on his hand so as not to destroy the evidence on and in the glove. He essentially had to wear gloves before he put on another pair of gloves. They were his gloves.

Ofra Bikel: You may be right.

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Munich, Germany: Do you think that the Simpson trial was a milestone in the history of the U.S. judicial process? It appears to have been the first trial that was simultaneous watched and judged by hundreds of millions of TV viewers.

Whereas many people believe that the overwhelming public participation influenced the outcome of the trial, it didn't seem to prevent the same thing happening in the Michael Jackson trial.

Your thoughts?

Ofra Bikel: In terms of the people watching, it was a milestone. And I don't think that the public participation influenced the verdict. The jury was isolated.

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Washington, D.C.: You said "black and white communities have very different realities, especially in the justice system". Is that saying that we get as much justice as we can afford?

Ofra Bikel: I'm afraid so.

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New York, N.Y.: Overall, I enjoyed the documentary. However I was disturbed by your failure to challenge Jeffrey Toobin when he made the assertion that the verdict was "wrong," and then suggested that an all white jury, which he believes would have delivered a guilty verdict, would be "right." Implicit in this assertion was his own racism. Did you let him get off the hook?

Also, why was the last voice in the film his? For me, that suggests that his voice - and, by implication, white voices - carries more authority.

Ofra Bikel: I don't think it was my job to challenge Jeffrey Toobin. It was his opinion, and I thought it was an interesting opinion. As for the last voice, it seemed to be the right way to end the film. To say that O.J. himself is not really important.

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Ofra Bikel: I thank everybody for your interest and I hope that the program was of some value. Good-bye and good luck. Ofra Bikel.

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