O.J. Simpson Case at 20: Media Personalities Debate Legacy, Influence of Cameras in Courtroom

OJ Simpson 1994 Car Chase - H 2014
AP Photo/Joseph Villarin

OJ Simpson 1994 Car Chase - H 2014

On the anniversary of Nicole Brown Simpson's murder, Larry King, Discovery president Henry Schleiff, former O.J. lawyer Howard Weitzman, and others discuss the role of media and celebrity in the courtroom.

Cameras in the courtroom, along with police misconduct, prosecutorial ineptitude and race remain hot-button issues twenty years after the double murder on Bundy Drive of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman  – which took place June 12, 1994.

That was clear at the O.J: The Trial Of The Century Twenty Years Later event held Thursday night at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, which also served as a premiere for a new documentary by Nicole Rittenmeyer, OJ:Trial Of The Century, which began to air Thursday on Investigation Discovery. An edited version of the realistic documentary about OJ’s arrest and criminal case was shown before the panel.

Everyone shared strong feelings about the televising of the OJ trial.

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“I don’t like cameras in the courtroom,” declared Howard Weitzman, who had been O.J.’s attorney in 1994 but did not stay on for the criminal and civil cases. “I can say a lot,” said Weitzman, “but I’m not going to…I never regretted not getting involved. I did watch a lot of it. It was fascinating theater."

“I disagree,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law and legal correspondent to CBS and NPR. “I think the camera is just the messenger. If we don’t like what we see in the court room, we need to change what’s happening in the courtroom.”

Levenson said in most court rooms seating is limited, so the only way the public can see inside is through television. “If there are things we don’t like,” she added, “the judge has to keep control.”

To a gale of laughter, Larry King said he obviously is in favor of cameras in the courtroom. “I think the Supreme Court should be televised,” said King, recalling how the O.J. case became an obsession on his CNN show during that period; and how he even moved to Los Angeles, where he met his current wife, to stay on top of the case.

“I broadcast two and a half hours of the car chase,” said King, adding: “I respect Howard but I think he’s dead wrong on this.”

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Kimberle Crenshaw, a professor of law at UCLA, said she favored cameras at the O.J. trial because “there are so many aspects of this trial that were important for the public to see.”

She said those included the sensitive race issues and the underlying cause, domestic violence by O.J. against Nicole. “When you see how jury trials actually work,” she added, "you have a sense, 'Okay, We have an image of what a trial looks like and now here is reality.'"

Even the host for the evening, Henry Schleiff, group president of Discovery Communications Investigation Discovery, Destination America and Military Channel, stated his strong support for cameras in the courtroom. He headed Court TV and had been an advocate of televising cases.

Schleiff recalled a joke he said Larry King told him about the way it worked on his CNN show back when the OJ cases were dominating TV. "If we had God booked and O.J. was available," Schleiff said, "We would bump God."

In the face disagreement with his position on cameras, Weitzman responded he is from “the old school,” and worries when the landscape of the justice system shifts. ”I’m always afraid you’re going to get the wrong result for the wrong reason,” said Weitzman, adding: “I don’t think the judge can handle it. I’m concerned the lawyers will act differently…I have had my share of televised trials and I don’t like it.”

However, he equivocated on whether the cameras affected the O.J. verdict. “Whether you agree with the result [of the criminal trial in which OJ was acquitted],” said Weitzman, “I don’t think the cameras helped the process.”

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And it has only gotten worse, added Weitzman, as TMZ and other 24/7 entertainment news sites weren’t around in the OJ era. He said he has seen how intense publicity can change things. He saw it in the way people reacted to OJ, whether he was in the white Bronco during a slow speed chase that ended in his Brentwood driveway or during the trial.

“You see it [now] on TMZ and Access Hollywood,” said Weitzman, “they can’t get enough of it... We’re feeding the public what they want. The more access they get, the more they want…Celebrity is what the public makes them, not what the celebrity makes of themselves.”

Moderator Brian Lowry asked King if the O.J. trial took place now, how it might be different. “It would be wildly different today,” responded King, citing the growth of more celebrity media, on TV and online. “As bizarre as that was it would be tenfold today.”

King was also asked if at the time he and CNN discussed whether their wall-to-wall coverage might be shaping the actual trial. “We talked about it all the time,” said King. “We talked about it on the air. Are we affecting this trial?”

You have to understand, added King, that O.J. became the most important issue for them. “If World War 4 had broken out, we would say, ‘We’ll tell you about it at midnight’…It was bizarre, beyond bizarre.”

Weitzman cited his client Justin Bieber, without ever mentioning the singer’s name, to explain the impact the tidal wave of celebrity media has on the judicial process today. “I represent a 20-year-old singer,” said Weitzman, adding: “The encounters he has had -- I don’t ever remember being involved with somebody arrested for throwing eggs at somebody’s house. I think that’s a result of all the pressure [media coverage puts] on this case…and on the city attorney.”

During questions from the audience, Weitzman relented a bit and said there are places where he would like to see cameras used in a courtroom, most notably the U.S. Supreme Court.