O.J. Simpson’s criminal trial captivated the country, and, as the trial went on, viewers subconsciously divided themselves into two camps. One camp believed that the former football player was innocent while the other camp viewed his actions as guilty. Simpson’s sensationalized crime for the alleged murder of his wife Nicole Simpson and her proposed lover drew an abundance of media attention and made the judicial system realize that finding an impartial jury would be difficult. Based on the circumstantial evidence, many ordinary citizens believed that Simpson was guilty. Nevertheless, it is up to a jury to find one guilty or innocent. Simpson was found innocent of murder in his criminal trial; however, the jury in his civil trial unanimously found him liable for the death of his wife and her alleged lover. As one of our country’s most controversial cases, experts and researchers continue to explore the criminal jury’s selection, unconventional sequestration, and notorious verdict.
As part of the jury selection process, prosecutors and defenders select the jurors that they feel will produce their preferred verdict. Chustz (2005) has explained that potential jurors must fill out a 68 item questionnaire, and this “information gives the attorneys a head start in trying to ascertain the significant characteristics of each potential juror” (p. 28). While it depends on the case, typically the defense team will try to identify jurors who would be sympathetic to the defendant; whereas, prosecutors will try to determine the jurors who are not afraid to convict. After the questionnaire process, either the judge or lawyers determine potential jurors during voir dire. Ultimately, it is a gamble because each side needs an opposite verdict yet they are only able to pick 12 jurors who they feel are impartial.
For O.J.’s criminal trial, Simpson’s defense team relied on Dr. Jo-Ellan Dimitrius to identify jurors’ subtle characteristics that would likely suggest they would provide a not guilty verdict. Dimitrius revealed that she focused on three characteristics: compassion, socio-economic background, and satisfaction with life to allow her “to look through any stereotype and to the person’s underlying qualities and experiences” (Chustz, 2005, p. 28). Because of Simpson’s race, many speculated that the verdict would rely on those who did not demonstrate racist attitudes. Dimitrius’s specifications suggest that she did not look at the color of a person’s skin because that would imply stereotype.
In high profile cases, after the jury is selected, they may be sequestered in order to remain impartial. However, the jurors in Simpson’s criminal trial were sequestered for an unorthodox amount of time. Hansen (1995) has noted that the jurors were sequestered for 225 days and “confined nearly half as long as the defendant himself” (p. 16). Hansen’s comparison reminds the general public that sequestered jurors are essentially prisoners themselves. Because of the psychological toll of the lengthy isolation, opponents of the innocent verdict claim that the jurors’ impartiality diminished over time.
It was a surprise for many as the jury declared that there was reasonable doubt regarding Simpson’s guilt, so they determined that he was innocent of the double murder. Schuetz and Lilley (1999) revealed that “the O. J. Simpson criminal jurors noted that evidence played an important role in their decisions” (p. 124). In order for one to be declared innocent or guilty, prosecutors and defense attorneys must supply enough evidence that convinces a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Evidence, including witness testimony, plays a large role in our judicial system, and some believe that the police mishandled the Simpson evidence. In the criminal jury’s case this evidence was the reason why they were unable to decide that Simpson was guilty. On the other hand, in Simpson’s civil trial, critics maintain that the jurors based their guilty verdict on the same evidence. Ultimately, it is the opposing verdicts that ensure that the Simpson trial will remain one of our most controversial cases in the history of our judicial system.
Simpson’s criminal case lasted approximately nine months; however, the jury returned with an innocent verdict after a four hour discussion. Uelmen (1997) has explained that “The chief criticism of the Simpson jury was that it did not deliberate long enough.” Because the trial itself took the better half of a year, it seems that the amount of evidence that the jury would have to consider would take much longer than four hours. Critics suggested that the jury had made up their minds well before the closing statements. On the other hand, critics of the civil trial speculated that the jurors were racist (Fukurai, 1998). Subsequently, jurors for each case have endured incredible criticism over the years.
Nevertheless, in regards to the jury selection, it must be said that in each trial, both the prosecutors and defense agreed upon the 12 jurors. In fact, Uelmen (1997) has emphasized that “What is frequently overlooked about the Simpson case is that, when both sides stood up and announced that they accepted the jury…neither side had exercised all of its peremptory challenges.” In case a potential juror exhibits bias, the prosecution and defense is able to reject that particular person and he or she will be eliminated. However, Uelmen (1997) revealed that “The prosecution had exercised only ten of its twenty peremptory challenges… [and] used eight of those ten challenges to excuse African-American jurors.” While many suspect that the jurors were at fault, critics do not consider that the lawyers had to ultimately choose their jurors. In a sense, the prosecution’s decision to excuse mostly African-Americans suggests that they suspected same race jurors would show more empathy to African-American Simpson as there is perceived discrimination in the criminal justice system (Fukurai, 1998). On the other hand, the defense seemed to base their decisions on other factors.
In addition to the race factor, critics believe that the criminal trial jurors did not spend any time reviewing the evidence. Schuetz and Lilley (1999) have noted that jurors often use evidence to recreate the story of the actual crime. Because the criminal jury revealed their verdict in a short amount of time, many opponents believe that they did not base their decision on any evidence. In addition, it was revealed that initially two jurors believed that Simpson was guilty. Uelmen (1987) has determined that in order to have a true deliberation, the majority must listen to the minority’s doubts. Schuetz and Lilley (1999) have agreed and said that if “juries keep the focus on the weight of the evidence calling for a guilty vote…[the] deliberation takes longer and thereby emphasizes the elements of guilt” (p. 137). In other words, the criminal jury seemed to approach their discussion from the standpoint that Simpson was innocent. In addition, the jury specifically requested other evidence in which there was some doubt, but they returned with their innocent verdict before they were given the evidence. Moreover, the jury in the civil trial used the same evidence in their deliberations, but they had the advantage of Simpson’s testimony. Consequently, Simpson’s testimony, as he attempted to explain the evidence, played a large role in the civil trial’s guilty verdict.
Jurors have an enormous burden placed upon their shoulders because they represent the community at large. In Simpson’s criminal trial, jurors lived in isolation with the occasional conjugal visit, and some believe that the length of their seclusion may have affected their judgment. While we expect that sequestered jurors maintain their impartiality over a period of time, the actual length of this particular trial’s sequestration is inexcusable. On the other hand, the civil jurors may have tried to right what many believed to be wrong. Nevertheless, we will continue to consider Simpson’s criminal and civil trial outcomes as controversial because we all maintain individual perspectives of what constitutes reasonable doubt.
Chustz, M. (2005). The art of jury selection. Journal of Legal Nurse Consulting, 16(1), 27-29. Retrieved from http://www.aalnc.org
Fukurai, H. (1998). Is the O.J. Simpson verdict an example of jury nullification? Jury verdicts, legal concepts, and jury performance in a racially sensitive criminal case. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 22(2), 185-210. doi: 10.1080/01924036.1998.9678617
Hansen, M. (1995). Sequestration little used, little liked. ABA Journal, 81(10), 16-17.
Schuetz, J. E., & Lilley, L. S. (Eds.). (1999). 7 Jury Decision-Making Processes in the O. J. Simpson Criminal and Civil Trials. In The O.J. Simpson trials: Rhetoric, media, and the law. Retrieved from 1999
Uelman, G. F. (1997). Juries and the criminal justice system: What role?: Jury-bashing and the O.J. Simpson verdict. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 20(275).