“This case was never going to be won”: O.J. Simpson’s trial after Rodney King
PHOTO CAPTION: Copies of Detective Tom Lange’s Notes from the double homicide investigation of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman, National Law Enforcement Collection, 2016.8.3
Los Angeles (CA) Police Detective Tom Lange wasn’t surprised by the verdict exonerating O.J. Simpson for the murders of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown-Simpson on October 3, 1995. As lead homicide detective for the investigation, he spent eight days on the stand listing off the wealth of evidence he and his partner Detective Phil Vannatter collected over the course of the investigation. However, the jury didn’t seem interested in what he had to say:
“When I was being on direct examination with Marcia [Clark] I’m answering these questions and introducing evidence, the jurors, they’re a few feet away, are not staring, they’re glaring at me. All jurors have a pad of paper and a pencil. They can write stuff down. This is relevant evidence that I’m producing, introducing in trial. Nobody’s writing anything, which is a little strange. Yet when Johnny Cochran is cross-examining me, they’re writing like crazy, because he’s saying, intimating, that cops plant evidence, cops are racist, cops lie. “You live in Simi Valley where the jury in the Rodney King case was, don’t you?” Three times he asked that. What relevance does that have to do with anything? And they’re writing like crazy. I knew one thing then, that this case was never going to be won.”[i]
To the jurors and millions of viewers watching on TV, O.J. Simpson’s trial fell into a larger context of racial tensions and mistrust of police in the Los Angeles area. In particular, many African Americans were deeply frustrated with the LAPD, and felt the department had a history of mistreating their community. Although the most infamous event exasperating these tensions had occurred four years earlier, it was still on many people’s minds.
On March 3, 1991, around 12:30 am, officers with the California Highway Patrol attempted to stop a speeding white Hyundai. The driver of the car failed to pull-over, and instead led a high-speed chase. When the driver eventually stopped on the corner of Osbourne Street and Foothill Boulevard in the Lake View Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles, several units of the LAPD had joined the chase. The motorist and his two passengers were ordered out of their car and onto the ground.
Across the street, a witness caught the following events on camera. Though the footage was grainy and shaky, it showed a group of mostly white LAPD officers violently beating the African American motorist, Rodney King. For the next several minutes, they repeatedly struck him with batons, kicked him, and shocked him with a Taser. It resulted in multiple skull fractures, a broken leg, and brain damage, among other injuries.
The brutal footage aired on local television stations, leaving viewers shocked and furious. Television stations around the world quickly picked it up. Four of the officers involved were charged with excessive use of force. In response, the Mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, formed an Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, nicknamed the “Christopher Commission.” It found that the Rodney King incident was not an aberration in the LAPD, that there was “a significant number” of officers who repeatedly used excessive force in recent years, and that this was a symptom of larger cultural and structural problems in the department.[ii]
Due to the charged nature of this case, a state appellate court panel ruled that the four officers would not receive a fair trial in Los Angeles. They moved the trial to nearby Simi Valley. During the trial, the defense argued that what the video didn’t show was that King was under the influence of alcohol, was in violation of his parole, was resisting arrest, and had charged at one of the officers. The footage showed King attempting to get up several times, which officers said they thought was a threat. On April 29, 1992, the majority-white jury sided with the defense and acquitted all four men.
After the verdict, people started pouring into the streets of L.A., angry and in disbelief. Protesting and rioting ensued, which led to one of the largest civil disturbances in U.S. history. Over the next five days, the city burned, resulting in over one billion dollars in damage. More than 60 people died. The LAPD was not prepared to respond to this level of disruption. The governor of California placed the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County under a state of emergency, calling in the California National Guard.
The riots officially ended several days later on May 4, but racial tensions and mistrust in the police continued to run high. It was within this background context that the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial took place. While this was just one factor adding to the outcome of the trial, it was an important one. In the end, despite the wealth of forensic and circumstantial evidence pointing to Simpson, the majority-black jury acquitted him of double homicide.
Hansen: “So what do you think the legacy of the O.J. Simpson case has been for the LAPD?”
Lange: “Depends on who you talk to. We did our job. We got more evidence in that case than any other case we not only worked on but ever heard of. That’s what cops do. We can’t be the jury, we can’t be the judge, we can’t be the media, we can’t be the prosecutors. We’re only the cops, and the cops assemble the case, they find the evidence. Much of the evidence that we found wasn’t put on by the prosecution, because they knew, in essence, we were on trial. This is two years after Rodney King; this is right after the riots in L.A. This is a minority jury who didn’t necessarily like the LAPD. They had a lot of negative contacts, right, wrong or indifferent. We were on trial, essentially.”[iii]
The LAPD went through a great deal of change since the events of the 1990s. This included restructuring, new training, and a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2002, Bill Bratton joined the department as Chief of Police and helped initiate a lot of this reform.
“To avoid federal takeover…of the Department, the city entered into a consent decree…And it was and still remains the largest consent decree in the United States. And I addressed it in the same way I addressed all the other issues I’ve oftentimes been challenged to deal with: corruption, inefficiency. You set goals, you work on developing strategies to meet the goals, and you empower people in the organization to assist them in meeting those strategies, implementing those strategies.”[iv]
The results were impressive. In 2009, Harvard University published a study showing that the LAPD had undergone a monumental task—it had instituted new leadership and police oversight, new community policing initiatives, training, and hiring practices. The result was a drop in crime, better morale, more accountability, and a staggering 83% approval rating from the public. This included a significant increase in hope expressed from black survey participants. The report concluded that “the LAPD of today is a changed organization.” [v]
Looking back on the nationally televised trial of O.J. Simpson, it is easy to see how the verdict was influenced by the context of the world around it. Recently, I spent some time with Tom Lange when he spoke at a conference about the investigation that propelled him onto the national stage. His obvious and understandable frustrations about the conduct and outcome of the trial are mitigated by an understanding of where the LAPD stood with the African American community at that time. An issue that he still sees today:
“Later the jury in the criminal case said, “Yes, he probably did do it and maybe he did do it, but we’re not going to find him guilty because we don’t like racist LAPD cops who plant evidence. And unfortunately a lot of that hasn’t changed. There’s a PR problem there… Maybe we ought to take another look at all that. Is that true? Do all of them do that? No.”[vi]
[i] Tom Lange. Oral History Interview with the National Law Enforcement Museum, October 4, 2016.
[ii] Report of The Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, pg.III.
[iii] Tom Lange, Oral History Interview with the National Law Enforcement Museum.
[iv] Bill Bratton. Oral History Interview with the National Law Enforcement Museum, December 12, 2013.
[v] Stone, Christopher, Todd Foglesong, and Christine M. Cole. "Policing Los Angeles Under a Consent Decree: The Dynamics of Change at the LAPD." Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management Working Paper Series, Harvard Kennedy School, May 2009, pg. 68.
[vi] Tom Lange, Oral History with the National Law Enforcement Museum.
For more information about the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, please visit lawmemorial.org. For more information about the National Law Enforcement Museum, please visit lawenforcementmuseum.org.