For the life of me, I can’t understand what all the fuss is about Judith Regan and her canceled book about O.J. Simpson.
As far as I can see, Ms. Regan has done precisely what the justice system was never able to do — establish O.J.’s guilt and get him to confess to the killing his wife Nicole Brown and the apparently innocent bystander Ronald Goldman.
This is no small accomplishment. The case has festered for over a decade. Most of the public felt extremely frustrated by the verdict, which seemed to contradict the bulk of the evidence. African-Americans, on the other hand, were dancing in the street when the acquittal was announced.
Afterwards, the case went on to the kind of split decision that often emerges from the justice system these days. The criminal courts said innocent but the civil courts said guilty. With a lower standard of proof and more relaxed rules of evidence, a civil jury had no trouble deciding O.J. had done the crime and ordered him to pay the victims’ families $33 million — not a cent of which has ever been paid.
What all this left hanging is the public’s right to know what actually happened. That’s the original purpose of criminal trials — one that is increasingly overlooked by the judiciary. Punishment is one thing but the public’s sense of justice, especially in a high-profile case like this, lies largely in reaching a conclusive decision on whodunit.
Since the Miranda ruling and other reforms of the Warren Era, criminal trials have become increasingly arcane proceedings that only the lawyers really understand — which is probably the way they wanted it in the first place. Any piece of evidence, no matter how real or damaging, can be ruled “inadmissible” because of some obscure violation in police procedures.
Confessions, for example, are now practically illegal. The Miranda warning states so explicitly that you don’t have to talk to the cops that if a suspect does open his mouth and confess, it can only mean: a) the cops beat the confession out of him; b) they used illegal coercion, c) the suspect was too stupid to understand the warning, or d) there was an incompetent attorney involved somewhere.
Yet people still confess all the time and that’s what frustrates the reformers. Police detectives will tell you suspects constantly come in either wanting to match wits with the cops or wanting to get something off their chest. That’s the impulse toward confession that the Warren Court overlooked — the defendant’s desire to clear his conscience. Police detectives say suspects will often remain in a hyperactive state for days, pacing their cells, talking with anyone, until they finally blurt out their confession. Then they go back to their cell and sleep like a baby for twelve hours. When you confess a crime, you rejoin the human race. Confession is good for the soul. The Catholic Church has known this for centuries.
Thus it isn’t at all surprising after all these years to find O.J. finally coming clean. Sure he couches his confession in a “this-is-how-I-would-have-done-it” mode. Police often suggest this themselves as a prelude to an actual confession. And sure he posits a mysterious “friend” who supposedly accompanied him every step of the way. Guilty people often do that too. James Earl Ray, in confessing to Congress of killing Dr. Martin Luther King, insisted a mysterious “Raul” had accompanied him the whole time. There was no such person.
How do we know O.J.’s confession is real? There are small points in the book that — as the detectives say — “only the guilty party could have known.” For example, he says what set him off was seeing Nicole’s dog wag his tail in greeting when Goldman came to the door. He knew Goldman had been there before, even though Nicole denied it. That’s a beautiful little detail. People don’t make up things like that. It had to have happened.
So to my mind, Regan has performed a remarkable public service — one that the justice system, with its convolutions over procedural arcane, has largely abandoned. That O.J. broke down while she interviewed him on TV only makes it more compelling. It’s too bad she had to pay him a $3 million advance, but the profits from the book were going to go to the Goldman and Brown families. And sure, O.J. is now renouncing his confession but that’s what always happens anyway. As soon as the guilty party confesses, defense lawyers jump in claiming it was “coerced” and try to get it excluded from the trial. The defendant usually catches on and ends up agreeing with them.
Confessions, finality, “closure” — these are things the justice system no longer offers to the public at large. Even if a verdict is reached, there is always a chance it will be reversed ten years down the road by some appellate judge who decides the judge was looking cross-eyed when he read the jury instructions.
Judith Regan has approached things the old fashioned way. She has gotten O.J. to bare his soul. I say more power to her.
Last week Anita O’Day, one of the three or four greatest jazz singers of all time, died in Los Angeles. For people who have followed her career over the decades, there was none better.
O’Day led a rough life, running away from home at age 12 and getting her first taste of success in a 1930s dance marathon. By the 1940s she was the vocalist for Gene Krupa’s band, crooning up-tempo melodies and combining with trumpeter Roy Eldridge to make the popular hit, “Let Me Off Uptown.”
It was after the Big Band Era ended, however, that she really hit her stride. Working with small combos and arranging her own music, she put out a series of albums in the 1950s that became collectors’ items. I remember spending hours listening to one of them in college. “She uses her voice just like an instrument,” said my awed roommate, whose hipster older sister had passed it on to us.
O’Day finally broke through to the public in “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” the documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. On Sunday afternoon, she teeters onstage in high heels, a cocktail dress, and a huge hat. The drummer begins playing a hypnotic African rhythm on the congas and O’Day starts chanting something. After about eight bars you realize it’s the lyric to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” After the first chorus, the quartet comes in behind her and she does a slow, rocking version to the original tune. Then after another 16 bars the tempo jumps again and she scats her way through two more choruses. What she has done is the epitome of jazz — taking one song and turning it into three completely different tunes, all of them original and fascinating. Her second number, “Tea for Two,” ends with the combo passing one-bar lines among themselves at lightning speed, with O’Day’s voice the fifth instrument. Jazz was never done better.
O’Day had a tough life. She chased a few drummers, never married, never had children. She was addicted to drugs and alcohol for years and nearly died of an overdose in the 1960s before giving it up. After leaving home at 12, she never really returned. Yet her vagabond’s life gave her an outsider’s perspective few singers ever attain.
I saw her once in person in a club on the East Side of Manhattan in the 1970s. Chet Baker, another lost soul, was in the band. At one point, they started “Ace in the Hole,” which is supposed to begin with somebody in a San Francisco saloon calling out the request. I saw what was coming so I hollered from the crowd, “Hey, Anita! Sing ‘Ace in the Hole.'” She cracked up and called back, “Meet me at the bar for a drink.”
Ten minutes later, as I stood in line waiting to collect my drink, some barfly had gotten ahead of me and was bending her ear with some lugubrious yarn. After a few minutes, she had had enough. “Listen man,” she said, “if I’m gonna listen, you’ve got to talk!”
They didn’t make them any tougher. Or truer.
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