The Run of His Life

by Jeffrey Toobin

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Publisher: Random House
Copyright: 1996, 1997
Printing: 2015
ISBN: 0-307-82916-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 498

Buy at Powell's Books

The O.J. Simpson trial needs little introduction to anyone who lived through it in the United States, but a brief summary for those who didn't.

O.J. Simpson is a Hall of Fame football player and one of the best running backs to ever play the game. He's also black, which is very relevant much of what later happened. After he retired from professional play, he became a television football commentator and a spokesperson for various companies (particularly Hertz, a car rental business). In 1994, he was arrested for the murder of two people: his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman (a friend of Nicole's). The arrest happened after a bizarre low-speed police chase across Los Angeles in a white Bronco that was broadcast live on network television. The media turned the resulting criminal trial into a reality TV show, with live cable television broadcasts of all of the court proceedings. After nearly a full year of trial (with the jury sequestered for nine months — more on that later), a mostly black jury returned a verdict of not guilty after a mere four hours of deliberation.

Following the criminal trial, in an extremely unusual legal proceeding, Simpson was found civilly liable for Ron Goldman's death in a lawsuit brought by his family. Bizarre events surrounding the case continued long afterwards. A book titled If I Did It (with "if" in very tiny letters on the cover) was published, ghost-written but allegedly with Simpson's input and cooperation, and was widely considered a confession. Another legal judgment let the Goldman family get all the profits from that book's publication. In an unrelated (but also bizarre) incident in Las Vegas, Simpson was later arrested for kidnapping and armed robbery and is currently in prison until at least 2017.

It is almost impossible to have lived through the O.J. Simpson trial in the United States and not have formed some opinion on it. I was in college and without a TV set at the time, and even I watched some of the live trial coverage. Reactions to the trial were extremely racially polarized, as you might have guessed. A lot of black people believed at the time that Simpson was innocent (probably fewer now, given subsequent events). A lot of white people thought he was obviously guilty and was let off by a black jury for racial reasons. My personal opinion, prior to reading this book, was a common "third way" among white liberals: Simpson almost certainly committed the murders, but the racist Los Angeles police department decided to frame him for a crime that he did commit by trying to make the evidence stronger. That's a legitimate reason in the US justice system for finding someone innocent: the state has an obligation to follow correct procedure and treat the defendant fairly in order to get a conviction. I have a strong bias towards trusting juries; frequently, it seems that the media second-guesses the outcome of a case that makes perfect sense as soon as you see all the information the jury had (or didn't have).

Toobin's book changed my mind. Perhaps because I wasn't watching all of the coverage, I was greatly underestimating the level of incompetence and bad decision-making by everyone involved: the prosecution, the defense, the police, the jury, and the judge. This court case was a disaster from start to finish; no one involved comes away looking good. Simpson was clearly guilty given the evidence presented, but the case was so badly mishandled that it gave the jury room to reach the wrong verdict. (It's telling that, in the far better managed subsequent civil case, the jury had no trouble reaching a guilty verdict.)

The Run of His Life is a very detailed examination of the entire Simpson case, from the night of the murder through the end of the trial and (in an epilogue) the civil case. Toobin was himself involved in the media firestorm, breaking some early news of the defense's decision to focus on race in The New Yorker and then involved throughout the trial as a legal analyst, and he makes it clear when he becomes part of the story. But despite that, this book felt objective to me. There are tons of direct quotes, lots of clear description of the evidence, underlying interviews with many of the people involved to source statements in the book, and a comprehensive approach to the facts. I think Toobin is a bit baffled by the black reaction to the case, and that felt like a gap in the comprehensiveness and the one place where he might be accused of falling back on stereotypes and easy judgments. But other than hole, Toobin applies his criticism even-handedly and devastatingly to all parties.

I won't go into all the details of how Toobin changed my mind. It was a cumulative effect across the whole book, and if you're curious, I do recommend reading it. A lot was the detailed discussion of the forensic evidence, which was undermined for the jury at trial but looks very solid outside the hothouse of the case. But there is one critical piece that I would hope would be handled differently today, twenty years later, than it was by the prosecutors in that case: Simpson's history of domestic violence against Nicole. With what we now know about patterns of domestic abuse, the escalation to murder looks entirely unsurprising. And that history of domestic abuse was exceedingly well-documented: multiple external witnesses, police reports, and one actual prior conviction for spousal abuse (for which Simpson did "community service" that was basically a joke). The prosecution did a very poor job of establishing this history and the jury discounted it. That was a huge mistake by both parties.

I'll mention one other critical collection of facts that Toobin explains well and that contradicted my previous impression of the case: the relationship between Simpson and the police.

Today, in the era of Black Lives Matter, the routine abuse of black Americans by the police is more widely known. At the time of the murders, it was less recognized among white Americans, although black Americans certainly knew about it. But even in 1994, the Los Angeles police department was notorious as one of the most corrupt and racist big-city police departments in the United States. This is the police department that beat Rodney King. Mark Fuhrman, one of the police officers involved in the case (although not that significantly, despite his role at the trial), was clearly racist and had no business being a police officer. It was therefore entirely believable that these people would have decided to frame a black man for a murder he actually committed.

What Toobin argues, quite persuasively and with quite a lot of evidence, is that this analysis may make sense given the racial tensions in Los Angeles but ignores another critical characteristic of Los Angeles politics, namely a deference to celebrity. Prior to this trial, O.J. Simpson largely followed the path of many black athletes who become broadly popular in white America: underplaying race and focusing on his personal celebrity and connections. (Toobin records a quote from Simpson earlier in his life that perfectly captures this approach: "I'm not black, I'm O.J.") Simpson spent more time with white businessmen than the black inhabitants of central Los Angeles. And, more to the point, the police treated him as a celebrity, not as a black man.

Toobin takes some time to chronicle the remarkable history of deference and familiarity that the police showed Simpson. He regularly invited police officers to his house for parties. The police had a long history of largely ignoring or downplaying his abuse of his wife, including not arresting him in situations that clearly seemed to call for that, showing a remarkable amount of deference to his side of the story, not pursuing clear violations of the court judgment after his one conviction for spousal abuse, and never showing much inclination to believe or protect Nicole. Even on the night of the murder, they started following a standard playbook for giving a celebrity advance warning of investigations that might involve them before the news media found out about them. It seems clear, given the evidence that Toobin collected, that the racist Los Angeles police didn't focus that animus at Simpson, a wealthy celebrity living in Brentwood. He wasn't a black man in their eyes; he was a rich Hall of Fame football player and a friend.

This obviously raises the question of how the jury could return an innocent verdict. Toobin provides plenty of material to analyze that question from multiple angles in his detailed account of the case, but I can tell you my conclusion: Judge Lance Ito did a horrifically incompetent job of managing the case. He let the lawyers wander all over the case, interacted bizarrely with the media coverage (and was part of letting the media turn it into a daytime drama), was not crisp or clear about his standards of evidence and admissibility, and, perhaps worst of all, let the case meander on at incredible length. With a fully sequestered jury allowed only brief conjugal visits and no media contact (not even bookstore shopping!).

Quite a lot of anger was focused on the jury after the acquittal, and I do think they reached the wrong conclusion and had all the information they would have needed to reach the correct one. But Toobin touches on something that I think would be very hard to comprehend without having lived through it. The jury and alternate pool essentially lived in prison for nine months, with guards and very strict rules about contact with the outside world, in a country where compensation for jury duty is almost nonexistent. There were a lot of other factors behind their decision, including racial tensions and the sheer pressure from judging a celebrity case about which everyone has an opinion, but I think it's nearly impossible to underestimate the psychological tension and stress from being locked up with random other people under armed guard for three quarters of a year. It's hard for jury members to do an exhaustive and careful deliberation in a typical trial that takes a week and doesn't involve sequestration. People want to get back to their lives and families. I can only imagine the state I would be in after nine months of this, or how poor psychological shape I would be in to make a careful and considered decision.

Similarly, for those who condemned the jury for profiting via books and media appearances after the trial, the current compensation for jurors is $15 per day (not hour). I believe at the time it was around $5 per day. There are a few employers who will pay full salary for the entire jury service, but only a few; many cap the length at a few weeks, and some employers treat all jury duty as unpaid leave. The only legal requirement for employers in the United States is that employees that serve on a jury have their job held for them to return to, but compensation is pathetic, not tied to minimum wage, and employers do not have to supplement it. I'm much less inclined to blame the jurors than the system that badly mistreated them.

As you can probably tell from the length of this review, I found The Run of His Life fascinating. If I had followed the whole saga more closely at the time, this may have been old material, but I think my vague impressions and patchwork of assumptions were more typical than not among people who were around for the trial but didn't invest a lot of effort into following it. If you are like me, and you have any interest in the case or the details of how the US criminal justice system works, this is a fascinating case study, and Toobin does a great job with it. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-07-23

Last modified and spun 2016-07-24