20 years later, the real verdict on O.J. Simpson

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Twenty years after the fact, the real verdict on the O.J. Simpson murder trial is finally in.

With a far more diverse population and polls showing blacks and whites reporting better race relations, the results are overwhelming: O.J. Simpson is guilty of murder.

It wasn’t always this way.

In 1995, 60 percent of black people said Simpson was innocent of charges that he killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, on June 12, 1994.

Black people were so angry with racist cops then, they didn't want to see anyone put on trial except the police.

But today, a newly released CNN/ORC International poll finds a majority of black Americans, 53 percent, say Simpson was guilty.

The percentage of whites who say Simpson was guilty has also jumped, from 68 percent to 89 percent. That 21 percent increase is a measure of liberal guilt being dumped.

Overall, 66 percent of Americans said Simpson was guilty 20 years ago. Today, that number is 83 percent.

The racial divide over Simpson's guilt started just after the slayings. The world watched on live TV as one of Simpson's friends drove him in his white Bronco down a Los Angeles freeway.

Simpson appeared to be fleeing police in a “slow-speed chase,” and he was holding a gun that he sometimes pointed at his own head. He also had a passport, a wig and a long goodbye note in the car.

Simpson looked guilty. But racial tensions quickly threw up static that distorted any attempt at a fact-based look at the case.

Race colored any discussion of the case for more than a year during a trial and verdict that transfixed the nation. The story touched several racial hot buttons, from interracial sex to the impartiality of black people serving on a jury for a black celebrity to the use of the "N" word.

After Simpson was acquitted, a CNN poll found 34 percent of Americans agreed that "racial issues determined the verdict, regardless of the evidence presented during the trial." Another 38 percent agreed that race was at the center of the jury's thinking, but "only as [it] related" to the evidence before them.

But the most explosive point of racial anger was the divide between blacks and whites over whether to trust the police.

White policemen admitted to questionable handling of evidence, including Simpson’s blood samples. Simpson's "Dream Team" of defense lawyers said a bloody glove found at the scene did not belong to Simpson but had been planted by police. "If it does not fit, you must acquit," Simpson's lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, said in his closing argument.

Detective Mark Fuhrman, one of the police officers who investigated the case, was portrayed as a racist by Simpson's lawyers.

Fuhrman, who is white, gave them ammunition by denying that he used derogatory terms to describe black people – until he was confronted with an audiotape in which he was heard using the "N-Word."

Anger and distrust of white police as well as charges of police racism draped every aspect of the trial.

Much of that had to do with a man named Rodney King.

Three years earlier, King, a black man who was apparently driving while drunk, sped away from the California Highway Patrol on a freeway in the San Fernando Valley.

When the Los Angeles police caught up to him, a videotape showed King, apparently disoriented, hesitating when he was ordered out of his car. He emerged slowly, laughing and waving to police helicopters. Five officers then rushed at King, shocked him twice with a Taser, struck him dozens of times with their nightsticks and kicked him repeatedly. His face was fractured, his ankle was broken and his body was badly bruised and bloodied.

The tape of the assault was a shock, but the bigger shock came when a mostly white jury found the police were not guilty of using excessive force. Riots erupted in Los Angeles, and 53 people died. More riots followed, from San Francisco to Atlanta. "The jury's verdict will not blind us to what we saw on that videotape," said Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a black man. President George H.W. Bush said it was "hard to understand the verdict," and he said he and his wife, Barbara, were "stunned."

King appealed for racial peace during the riots by asking, during a television interview: "Can we all get along?"

Then came the Simpson case.

When Simpson was acquitted in 1995, Howard University students reacted with cheers and applause. Their reaction had less to do with Simpson's guilt or innocence than a sense of vindication, of payback for the reality of racist cops abusing black people.

Fast forward to today and there is a different view of the Simpson verdict.

PBS made a documentary about the case 10 years ago. In an L.A. barbershop they filmed a black customer who summed up the case: "They framed a guilty man, that's all it was."

After his acquittal, a civil court awarded a $33 million judgment against Simpson for his role in his ex-wife’s and Goldman’s "wrongful deaths."

Today, Simpson is in jail in Nevada for a 2008 conviction of kidnapping, robbery and assault. He is 66 years old, and it will be three more years before he is eligible for parole.

Despite the election of the first black president, the gains Americans have made in race relations remain fragile. A look back at the O.J. Simpson case tells that story.

But so does today's public verdict. For the first time across racial lines, there is agreement that O.J. Simpson is guilty of murder.