11/09/2007 10:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why O.J. Still Fascinates Us

There was a huge tip that former football great turned tabloid icon O.J. Simpson hasn't lost an ounce of juice with the media and the packs of tabloid struck media and gobs of the public. It wasn't the circus horde of TV cameras circling the front of the Las Vegas Regional Justice Center when Simpson showed up November 8 at a hearing to determine whether he'll stand trial on kidnapping and armed robbery charges in the alleged heist of sports memorabilia. It wasn't the tabloid scribblers sniffing around the courtroom for a fresh scrap of scandal. It wasn't even the know of perennial oglers and curiosity seekers that showed up to eyeball the show.

It was the action of Las Vegas officials. They reserved the courtroom for three days. At first glance that seemed odd. Most criminal cases usually are pretty humdrum affairs with judgments made fairly fast about which charges will stand and which ones won't and then everyone is quickly sent on their way. But this is O.J. From the instant the bloody and mangled bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were found in the walkway of Simpson's Brentwood, California apartment more than a decade ago, nothing about Simpson is humdrum. In fact, nothing about him is humdrum even by the silly, over-hyped slavish dote on the misdeeds of sports and celebrity bad boys and bad girls. O.J. has fascinated and disgusted millions for more than a decade for many perverse reasons.

He's the walking, talking epitome of the seemingly eternal racial divide in America. The instant Las Vegas police slapped the cuffs on him it was as if time stood still again. During the murder trial a majority of whites raged that Simpson was a murderer and they were horrified that he might waltz away scot-free. Their worst fear was realized. Meanwhile, the same polls showed that a majority of blacks raged that Simpson was victimized by a racist criminal justice system and prayed that he'd be acquitted. They got their wish.

O.J.'s Las Vegas escapade changed nothing. The same polls, the same questions slanted in black and white, and the same predictable result. In a September Associated Press-Ipsos poll the overwhelming majority of whites said O.J. Simpson would get a fair trial but still thought he was guilty. The majority of blacks said just the opposite.

Simpson didn't invent or originate this sometimes ugly and always frustrating racial divide. It has always lurked just beneath the surface. But he propelled it to the front of public debate and anger. Don Imus, the Duke rape case, Michael Richards, Dog the Bounty Hunter, the Katrina debacle, the Jena 6 case, police misconduct, and drug sentencing disparities. When there is a racial tinge to the issue, the tormenting divide kicks in.

The murders of Simpson and Goldman also stirred public awareness about domestic violence, stirred rage against the double standard in the treatment of rich and poor in the legal system, and elevated celebrity murder cases to media tabloid sensationalism. Prosecutors in the trial skillfully painted Simpson as an irresponsible, abusive and violent husband. This insured that domestic violence would remain a compelling public policy issue that the courts, lawmakers and the public could never again ignore.

The horde of Simpson media commentators, legal experts and politicians that branded the legal system as corrupt and hopelessly compromised fueled public belief that justice is for sale. Simpson's acquittal seemed to confirm that the rich, famous and powerful have the deep pockets to hire a small army of high-priced, high-profile attorneys, expert witnesses, experts, and investigators that routinely mangle the legal system to stall, delay, and drag out their cases, and eventually allow their well-heeled clients to weasel out of punishment.

Many expect the same thing in the Las Vegas case. No matter how iron clad the case appears to be against him, and how many of Simpson's pals cop a plea and say they'll testify against him, few bet that Simpson will ever see the inside of a cell in a Nevada pen. That somehow, someway, he'll pull the money and fame rabbit out of the hat, and dance away again.

Then there is the media. The major TV networks and newsweeklies took the tabloid's favorite obsessions: sex, drugs, violence, the antics of high-profile celebrities, and eagerly applied their shock and gossip reporting to Simpson and in the years after to Michael Vick, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and any and every other celebrity and sports screw-up around. In the process, they have turned much of the public into gossip junkies salivating over the prospect of the next morsel of tabloid titillation.

During the three days, or however many days, Simpson languishes in a Las Vegas courtroom the rumor mill will continue to churn at full steam about what Simpson did or didn't do on that fateful day. There'll be endless speculation about the trial, its outcome, and his fate. That's inevitable. The Simpson case punched too many social, racial, and emotional hot buttons for it to ever slip to far off the public radar scope. Simpson in a Las Vegas docket insures that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press)