7 ways the O.J. Simpson case still resonates

Bill Goodykoontz
The Arizona Republic
O.J. Simpson leaves Los Angeles County Superior Court after the jury received the case in Simpson's wrongful death civil suit, in Santa Monica, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1997.

Kim wasn’t the first famous Kardashian.

And for those who weren’t alive in the mid-1990s, or who are simply too young to remember the O.J. Simpson case, that’s just one of many fascinating details about this murder mystery and trial that captured the attention of the nation.

You may be saying: The O.J. Simpson trial was 20 years ago. Why should I care?

Well, it’s not necessarily that the events surrounding Simpson’s arrest for the 1994 murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, were daily news. (Though it was a big deal: headlines blared from legitimate news sources, late-night talk shows and tabloids alike.) But perhaps like nothing else in its history, the trial left a permanent mark on American pop culture, and shaped that landscape today.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a 10-part FX limited series  that premieres Tuesday (10 p.m. ET/PT) relives many of the moments from the case. Here’s a primer on the key aspects:

1. The Kardashians had close ties to Simpson

Long before Keeping Up with the Kardashians came along, Robert Kardashian — former husband of Kris; father of Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and Rob — gained some measure of fame as one of Simpson’s best friends. He reactivated his license to practice law after Simpson was charged with murder, and served as part of the legal “dream team” that defended him. Kardashian died of esophageal cancer in 2003. Now Kris Jenner, his wife was also close friends with Nicole, and she and her then-husband Bruce sat in the courtroom during the trial.

2. It featured a bloody glove

The scene at the Simpson house was gruesome, with blood spatter everywhere. Early on, police said they found a bloody glove that they believed the killer had worn while committing the murders. During the course of the trial, the prosecution asked Simpson to try on a pair of gloves of the same size as the one found at the crime scene. He did — and they were too small. In fact, he struggled to get them past his knuckles. It was a turning point in the trial and prompted the infamous line from defense attorney Johnnie Cochran: “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit.”

3. The acquittal was in a pre-social media era

Yes, O.J. Simpson was acquitted. He’s in prison now, on unrelated charges. Despite overwhelming physical evidence, a jury found Simpson not guilty on all charges, a stunning development that captured the nation’s attention. Keep in mind, there was no such thing as social media during this trial: no Twitter, no Facebook, no hangers-on weighing in on the evidence, designing memes and gifs. But nearly everyone seemed to watch the verdict on TV. In a wrongful-death suit after the murder trial, the families of Nicole and Goldman were awarded $33.5 million in damages. If this had happened under the lens of social media...well, the mind reels.

Witness Brian "Kato" Kaelin testifies under direct examination during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial at the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building in this Tuesday, March 21, 1995 photo. The former Simpson houseguest who was declared a hostile witness by prosecutors has become a media darling.

4. It gave birth to a reality star — sort of

No, we are not talking about the Kardashians again.  Kato Kaelin, a random dude with feathered blonde hair who was staying in a guest house on Simpson’s property, said he heard strange sounds outside during the time the prosecution claimed Simpson had returned home after committing the murders. His bizarre testimony proved of little value to the prosecution, and prosecutor Marcia Clark had him declared a hostile witness. But his flowing locks and disjointed appearance on the witness stand made him famous. In fact, anyone with any connection to the trial seemed to become famous by default. And 20 years later, Kaelin’s still around — he appears briefly in an episode of FX's own new comedy series Buckets as himself, singing the national anthem at a rodeo.

Superior Court Judge Lance Ito addresses the court Sept. 1, 1995, during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in Los Angeles. Simpson was acquitted in the murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman.

5. Murder became a late-night talk show parody

The case was so pervasive in popular culture that Jay Leno introduced a recurring segment on The Tonight Show called “The Dancing Itos,” modeled on presiding judge Lance Ito; Leno and his producers employed men who resembled Ito to wear robes and dance. Seriously. This passed for comedy. Keep in mind, two people were brutally killed. David Letterman resisted similar bits, saying he didn’t find a double murder particularly rich fodder for humor, though eventually he, too, would joke about Simpson. Everyone did.

6. It featured a low-speed chase

The low-speed Ford Bronco chase captivated the nation, and that is no hyperbole. Reportedly, as many as 95 million people watched as Simpson’s friend Al Cowlings drove the white Bronco down an eerily empty Los Angeles freeway, with Simpson in the back seat holding a gun to his own head. Even more bizarre? Crowds gathered on overpasses and cheered from above as all this was happening. NBC was airing the NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, and the game was relegated to a box in the corner of the screen while Tom Brokaw’s narration of the chase filled the rest.

7. It exacerbated racial tensions 

The murders and trial took place a couple of years after the riots following the Rodney King verdict, when white officers were acquitted in the beating of King. Many in the black community supported Simpson, and Cochran used the rocky relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department and blacks as part of Simpson’s defense strategy. It worked. Detective Mark Fuhrman, who found crucial evidence in the case, was pilloried by the defense as racist (tapes were played of him using the N-word after he denied he’d said it). Most of Simpson’s friends were rich white men, and the defense worried about resentment among black women because Simpson’s ex-wife was white. But polls found that white people were far more likely to think Simpson was guilty. The Simpson trial certainly didn’t cause racial relations to crumble, but it didn’t help, either.

Follow Bill Goodykoontz on Twitter: @goodyk