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For most people, memories of O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial are visual: the Bronco chase, the bloody glove, Kato Kaelin’s hair. For others, they are aural: Johnnie Cochran’s “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” rhyme, the swear words uttered by everyone when the verdict was read. For me, the primary memory is the taste of bologna and cheese sandwiches.
That recollection has come back to me thanks to FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and tonight’s episode, which centered on the jury. It took me back to the mid-’90s, when I was working as a correspondent in People magazine’s Los Angeles bureau. When word filtered through the office on Oct. 3, 1995, that the jury would announce their verdict the next day, we mobilized with military precision. A dozen of us were given a special bit of information we had to keep to ourselves: the name and address of one of the jurors.
The fact that we had these details, courtesy of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, was proof of how the media had taken more control of the case than the attorneys; it didn’t fill me with a lot of faith in our judicial system that such private information was so readily available. Still, with the name Brenda Moran — before then only known as Juror No. 7 — and a South Los Angeles address in hand, I set out to the location armed with a purple People swag bag, just like what I’d use to woo publicists into availing their celebrity clients for interviews. (Remember: this was pre-TMZ.) The plan was to go to the address that night, just in case someone was home and would be so impressed with our present that he or she would convince Moran to give us her story first.
As I parked in front of her house, it felt very wrong yet also kind of right. Sort of like eating lunch at McDonald’s. I knocked on the door and an older African-American man answered. He was Moran’s father, so I quickly ripped through the spiel about how I just wanted to tell her story accurately and sensitively. Without enthusiasm, he took the gift bag, thanked me and shut the door. I looked in the front window and saw him set my People bag on a dining room table next to a dozen other gift bags with logos from such outlets as Inside Edition and the Los Angeles Times. I’d gone there justifying my invasion as serious journalism. Instead it felt like the time I went searching for the woman who beat up Shannen Doherty in a Sunset Strip bar.
By the time I arrived at her family’s house at around 7 a.m. the next day, there were already half a dozen TV news trucks parked in front. Several reporters, notebooks in hand, huddled together chatting amongst themselves. I decided to knock on the front door and reintroduce myself. Moran’s dad came to the door and instead of talking about O.J., we talked about anything else: the start of football season, the weather, what Will Smith was really like.
Some of the other reporters drifted over to listen, but none chimed in. Maybe that — as well as the cachet of People — is what earned me an invite into the home. I noticed all the family pictures and Mr. Moran pointed out a photo of a young woman he explained was one of his other daughters. She’d died in a car accident a few years earlier, he explained softly, and Brenda still hadn’t recovered from the loss.
Gradually, friends and family filled up the house and he explained that while I couldn’t sit with everyone to watch the verdict being read, I could stand in a nearby corner to observe. That was where I was when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder. And where I heard Mr. Moran and his guests cheer the news while the press out front groaned. A phone rang shortly after — it was Brenda alerting her family that she was free from her nine-month sequestration and would be home soon.
I was invited to sit on lawn chairs in the garage and wait, joined by Mr. Moran and Brenda’s brother. Someone made us lunch and, as we hung out, her brother steered the conversation toward our mutually eclectic musical tastes that included everyone from Bon Jovi to De La Soul to Garth Brooks. For the next few hours, reporters would wander over to get an update on Brenda’s arrival. Her dad would politely explain that he wasn’t sure when that would be.
Finally, late in the afternoon, everyone discovered Brenda actually lived a couple blocks up the street but had used her parents’ address on her jury paperwork. She’d been dropped home there, so the horde rushed over, only to discover she already was inside, doing an interview with Dan Rather. She wouldn’t be talking to anyone else, but her family assured me they’d get me a couple of minutes. Sure enough, after Brenda “no commented” her way through the Rather questions, we talked quickly.
She made a few statements about the case, like describing how the prosecution’s attempts to paint Simpson as an abusive spouse who had become a killer as “a waste of time.” In the end, she and the other jurors faulted the detectives and prosecution for not making a compelling enough case. But most of our brief chat was about the difficult life on the jury. (American Crime Story managed to capture some of that angst in tonight’s episode.) Because of their “not guilty” verdict, many observers lost sympathy for a group of people who’d just lost nine months of their lives. But I remember at the time feeling more sorry for her than angry.
She looked exhausted, explaining how she’d lost 30 pounds in the course of the trial. There were many nights she just lay awake, missing her family and, in particular, her 3-year-old nephew. After a few minutes, she asked for time alone with her family, suggesting I could come back the next morning to talk more. However, when I returned, the woman who answered the door told me Brenda had lawyered up and was seeking a book deal. I was shocked. How could someone who seemed so sincere the night before suddenly become so mercenary? Maybe after spending the better part of a year with a front-row view to something the entire world was curious about, Brenda figured she might as well profit from the experience.
I called her new attorney’s office and was told I could attend an afternoon press conference he’d arranged on top of a Beverly Hills parking garage. I did, but never got close enough to even shout a question. Brenda and I never spoke again, although neither of us was quite done with O.J. Simpson. She’d get into trouble for possible jury tampering during Simpson’s 1997 civil trial. And I spent the night of that verdict on the phone relaying the results to Courtney Love (another story for another time).
And that brings me back to the sandwich. As the popularity of The People v. O.J. Simpson indicates, the country never lost its fascination with the Simpson case. But whereas the show remembers the trial with the familiar faces of Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden and Robert Shapiro, I remember it for the bologna, American cheese and white bread sandwiches I shared that afternoon with the Morans. People who had no reason to trust me allowed me into their home. We spent the day gossiping about the music and movie stars we all cared about. I completely get why the Simpson saga has come to symbolize America’s racial divide, but for me that lunch in the family’s garage always has proved the opposite.
Craig Tomashoff is a freelance writer who covered the O.J. Simpson trial for People magazine.
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