Nobody Ever Talks About Black Women: Exploitation in O.J.’s Murder Trial

Ms. Willis
Aug 4, 2017 · 8 min read
Black women in the O.J. Simpson murder trial (clockwise from top left): Yolanda Crawford, juror; Simpson’s family; Carrie Bess, juror; and Brenda Moran, juror

When O.J. Simpson’s infamous murder trial was occurring in 1995, I was just 7–8 years old and the only things I remember vividly were the video of the Bronco chase and the reactions of Black people when he was acquitted. All I understood was that O.J. was in trouble for possibly killing some people and that Black people were happy he didn’t go to jail. Like most millennials, with each revisit to the “trial of the century,” I learned more and more about the case, its participants, and its impact on society.

One of those revisits is Oxygen’s new true crime series, “The Jury Speaks” which takes a look at high-profile cases from the perspective of the jurors who decided those cases. While I never planned on watching the whole series (one of the episodes was about George Zimmerman’s case and the preview was especially triggering), I was eager to watch the Simpson episode. For a case that was polarizing along white/Black racial lines, today almost everyone — regardless of race — believes O.J. was guilty. I wanted to know how the jury felt about their verdict now and if they’d give the same verdict considering public opinion.

Whether or not they’d vote the same was included in the episode but the most intriguing thing I learned was that the jury was composed of mostly Black women, a demographic that both the prosecution and defense sought after during jury selections. Now, I have to admit, my knowledge of court proceedings and their inner workings is based on fictionalized TV dramas and mainstream media. Neither of which give you the whole truth. So I thought it was odd that the lawyers on both sides were in complete agreement about having this one group of people on the jury. Aren’t you guys supposed to be like, fighting all the time? I thought. Blame SVU.

Just a second before the TV could answer me, it dawned on me why everyone would want Black women on a jury deciding the fate of a Black man accused of killing white people. Then Chris Darden, one of the prosecutors in O.J.’s trial, confirmed my thoughts on the screen and I was astonished. Of all the O.J. trial stories that I heard, why have I never heard this aspect before?!

Naturally, I went to Facebook to rant (insert Rihanna winking gif). Then I realized my rant should/could/probably needs to be a separate piece, so I asked a question instead:

Just a few minutes after I posted my inquiry, my friend reposted, adding that the perception of the entire case and its effect on society would have been totally different had O.J. killed Marguerite.

Marguerite? As in his first wife? As in his BLACK first wife?! Damn…I don’t know shit about O.J. Simpson.

I mean, I knew the basics. Simpson was a great football player. He was in Roots and some other movies. He was married to a white woman. His murder trial was an iconic 90s moment. However, when my friend mentioned Marguerite and another friend explained that she and O.J.’s family was at his trial every day, I realized that O.J. had this whole Black ass life that I knew nothing about. I needed context.

Ultimately, I found myself in front of the TV again, watching the documentary O.J.: Made in America. I figured if it was eight hours long, it would give me all the information I needed about O.J., in general, and for this piece. I was right. Watch the film as there is no way I can articulate a synopsis that does it complete justice. Though, for the purpose of this writing, here’s the main takeaway: O.J. Simpson tried very desperately to separate himself from his Blackness until Blackness was the only thing that could save him.

O.J. Simpson with his daughter, Arnelle; son, Jason; and first wife, Marguerite

So, it’s 1995. The celebrity that everyone loved, O.J. Simpson, is on trial for killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. The trial is in downtown Los Angeles, which is mostly Black. We’re a hop, skip, and a jump away from Rodney King. And everybody wants Black women on the jury. Why?

According to Chris Darden, Marcia Clark, lead prosecutor, and the other lawyers working with them (all white) underestimated the impact that the Bronco chase had on the Black community. Moreover, Clark — who said that in previous cases, Black women had been some of her best jurors — figured that because O.J. was married to a white woman, and off the strength that he killed a woman, Black women would have no sympathy for him.

Johnnie Cochran knew better. And I single him out because had he not been brought on, the defense team (all white) wouldn’t have been savvy enough to push the racial tone of the trial. Cochran, an established civil rights lawyer at the time, knew that Black women would identify more with O.J.’s Blackness and the Black community’s collective fear and mistrust of police. This being counterintuitive to the fact that O.J. had cheated on and left his Black wife, left the Black community, and didn’t want to associate with Black women or being Black, period.

Well ain’t this some bullshit? Here was a man that had thrown Black people away and when he realized that white people were more than willing to discard him, he called on Black folks to save him in the guise of Cochran and civil rights. In turn, Cochran used Black women to do the saving! As I write this, I’m chuckling, thinking if there will ever be a moment in history when Black women could put these damn capes down and just BE. Why are we always called on to fix other people’s shit?! I digress…

The reasons for wanting Black women in the jury didn’t surprise me because it’s really a microcosm of Black women’s relationship with white women and Black men. White women, specifically white feminists, expect us to eschew our Blackness and all that comes with it in order to stand on this perceived common ground of womanhood. In the documentary, Marcia Clark said:

How come you’re so loyal to this man? Who married a white woman! And was dating her while he was married to a Black woman. I mean, doesn’t any of this make you feel a little less defensive of him?

She thought that Black women would see that there was violence done against a woman, and that she was a woman defending another woman. Clark gave no credence to race or the fact that the jury would connect with neither her nor Nicole Brown, but with the belief that yet another injustice was going to be done by the system against someone Black. This really speaks to white women’s inability to understand Black women’s intersecting identities and how each one steers our movement through the world.

Marcia Clark (r) says something to Chris Darden during O.J. Simpson trial (Getty Images)

Then there’s Black men, who don’t necessarily want us to forget about our womanhood but don’t particularly give a fuck about it either. Not until it’s relevant to them and their needs. In general, Cochran wanted anybody Black on the jury, man or woman. But consider the fact that the original jury was more racially diverse with 6 Black, 3 white, and 3 Hispanic jurors. Over the course of the trial, the defense made five motions to dismiss jurors, who were all non-Black and replaced with Black women.

Eight of the twelve deciding jurors were Black women. Do you know who they saw supporting O.J. each day of his trial, for 200+ days? A front row of Black women including his mother, his sister, his grown daughter from his first marriage, and Marguerite. If the Black woman that O.J. cheated on and left to be a single mother stood by him, why wouldn’t the Black women in the jury be inclined to do so as well? Cochran understood this dynamic and Black people’s mistrust of the legal system, and he exploited both to free a Black man that wanted nothing to do with the people being used.

I oscillate between fascination and anger when confronted with the imagery of a white woman and a Black man trying to use Black women as conduits, and the Black man being more successful in his exploitation.

From l to r: Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, and Chris Darden (Getty Images)

What makes this whole situation more egregious is public opinion of the jury, then and now. In O.J.: Made in America, one of the interviewees described the jury selection as “reverse Darwinism, survival of the most unfit jurors” and called the jury pool a “bad lot.” Immediately after the verdict, everyone was talking about how stupid the jurors were and how they weren’t smart enough to understand the DNA evidence.

Today, when people talk about the trial, they can easily point out the sexism that Marcia Clark had to endure but they still make disparaging remarks about the jury, sometimes laced with coded language. It’s this dichotomy of recognizing the hate a white woman had to endure while inflicting the same on Black women that really twists the knife in our back. These jurors spent nine months away from their homes, jobs, and families because it was their civic duty to do so. If you want to be angry that they “made the wrong choice,” be mad at the legal culture and system that shaped their biases and the man that manipulated the racial narrative of the whole trial.

Youtube comments on Simpson trial jury vs. comments on Marcia Clark

Hindsight is always 20/20 and by the time O.J. wrote that garbage book, If I Did It, majority of Black folks asked themselves, “What the hell were we thinking in 1995?” But honestly, it wasn’t about freeing O.J., nor was it a complete disregard for the two lives that were taken away. As Sylvester Monroe pointed out in his article, Cochran had managed to put racism, police brutality, and the injustice of the legal system on trial in place of O.J. Simpson. That’s what we were cheering for. One victorious moment after centuries of defeat.

I just wish we didn’t have to stand on the backs of Black women to get that victory.

Ms. Willis

Written by

Baltimore. Teacher. Writer. Blerd. Queer. Womanist. Perpetual introvert. Serena is Queen. Beyoncé is Bae. Octavia is my Muse.

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