The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two decades later, black and white Americans finally agree on O.J. Simpson’s guilt

O.J. Simpson holds up his hands before the jury after putting on a new pair of gloves similar to the infamous bloody gloves during his trial in Los Angeles on June 21, 1995. (Pool photo by Vince Bucci/ via Associated Press)

We are re-upping this poll, from September, in light of the news today that the LAPD has located a knife from O.J. Simpson's property.

Black and white Americans seem to agree on very little these days, if it has anything at all to do with race and the criminal justice system. But new data from a Washington Post-ABC News poll has identified an issue once regarded as a key barometer of America's racial divide where that divide has been closed.

We're talking, of course, about O.J. Simpson.

The share of Americans who believe that Simpson was "definitely" or "probably" guilty of the murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman is moving in the same direction across racial lines. A majority of both sides agree that he was at least "probably" guilty," and never before have black and white Americans been closer to agreement.

Now to be clear, 20 years after the jury announced its June 1995 not-guilty verdict in Simpson's criminal trial, white and black opinion on this matter remains pretty divided. A full 83 percent of white Americans said that they are "definitely" or "probably" sure of Simpson's guilt. By contrast, 57 percent of black Americans agreed.

But what's noteworthy here is that both figures have reached an all-time high and are moving in the same direction, despite two successive summers in which questions of possible police misconduct and systemic racial disparities in the criminal justice system — issues very real in the Simpson case — have occupied the headlines.

The Washington Post's astute polling team points out that part of the change might well be driven by technical changes. The specific wording of the question about Simpson's guilt changed just slightly over the course of the 21 years that The Post-ABC poll has queried Americans on this issue. Also, in 1997, a civil jury found Simpson liable for the deaths of Brown Simpson and Goldman. (Notice those 1997 uptick in the trend lines up above. That a civil court found Simpson responsible and that his punishment involved a court-ordered multimillion-dollar payout might have shaped public perception at the time.) Of course it's also true that, over the next decade, white America's confidence in Simpson's criminal culpability declined while black America's grew.

Much of black America initially read the verdict as a cause for celebration — that the system that advantages the wealthy and the white had, in this instance, set a very rich black man free. For white Americans, some of whom were no doubt less familiar with or at least personally affected by a criminal justice system that today is increasingly viewed as less fair to African Americans, Simpson was just a wealthy and abusive black man who might have gotten away with murder.

Then, there was the contingent — precise size unknown — of Americans (some black, but mostly white) who felt that Simpson had long been due some kind of public comeuppance or even pulverizing punishment. He had married a white woman. He managed to get away with, or at the very least escaped, serious punishment for abusing her. And the group of Americans uneasy or utterly outraged about some or even all of the above — if we are honest — brought together a most unusual coalition. White-woman-dominated feminist organizations, anti-domestic violence advocates, avowed segregationists and racists, believers in God's earthly wrath, those who sought schadenfreude — you name it. Some of all of that was in there.

But it is also worth noting here the effect that the Simpson trial and verdict had on American culture long-term. (And, of course, why this question remains a part of the Washington Post-ABC News poll).

The phrase "if it doesn't fit, you must acquit," was not always instant, in-the-know, laugh-line fodder. It stems from a dramatic moment in the Simpson murder trial. Simpson's lead attorney, the late Johnnie Cochran, said it about a glove drenched in the victims' blood that police said Simpson dropped while allegedly trying to conceal his crime.

Then, there was that sock found in Simpson's bedroom. The sock, visibly stained with the blood of Simpson's ex-wife, had not been spotted or noted by police until spending time in a police laboratory. And an expert witness hired by Simpson's defense team explained that some of the stains appeared in corresponding or parallel locations on either side of the sock, making it nearly impossible that the sock was stained with blood while a human foot was inside of it.

The "Dream Team" of Simpson's lawyers argued that this was evidence that the Los Angeles Police Department had tried to frame Simpson, applying blood to the sock while it lay flat on some surface. What people often refer to as "the 'CSI' effect" — the reluctance of juries to convict in the absence of clearly incriminating forensic science and the growing reliance of prosecutors on an array of (all too often scientifically unsound) forensic testing to meet jury demands — might well have also begun in the Simpson courtroom. To loosely paraphrase Jay-Z: Men lie, women lie, but people are convinced that forensic laboratory science does not.

And, most importantly of all, the Simpson trial forced an America still busy congratulating itself for racial progress made in the 1960s, '70s and '80s to fully reconcile that idea with rising urban crime and violence connected to the crack wars and sporadic reports of police brutality that seemed to culminate in a horrible series of events in Los Angeles. The Simpson trial became a kind of measuring stick or stand-in for race relations. It was a racially charged story that also included, in the words of New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, almost all of the other topics that obsess America without fail: sexual relationships, sports, violence and a criminal mystery witnessed only by a dog.

[A posthumous remembrance: Johnnie Cochran, the attorney on the people's defense team]

Remember, the Simpson trial and all the news about America's racially bifurcated take on the criminal jury's verdict happened well before terms like "mass incarceration," "policing for profit" and even "racial profiling" were firmly ensconced in the socio-political mainstream. Yes, this was already the stuff of academic research and, given the way that some people continue to equate hip-hop with utter ignorance, ironically musical lyrics. But, things were very different in 1995.

[OJ Simpson charged in alleged robbery]

Then there's the matter of Simpson and his present status. In 2007, Simpson's name had shown up intermittently, like an unwelcome-but-familiar guest, in headlines. He had not paid the civil judgement his ex-wife's family and the Goldmans won against him.

But that year, Simpson took up nearly permanent residence in the news when he stormed into a Las Vegas hotel room, armed, in order to reclaim memorabilia that Simpson claimed belonged to him. He went to trial and was sentenced to 33 years in December 2008. That conviction has withstood legal challenges as recently as this month. Now, with that in mind, scroll up again and check out that public opinion chart. Note since 2007, both black and white public opinion about Simpson's guilt in the the death of his ex-wife and Goldman has increased.

[Sept. 11: OJ Simpson appeal rejected by Nevada Supreme Court]

And yet, substantive cases involving questions of police misconduct and systemic injustice have come to the fore and remain very much a hot topic.