In 1995, the O.J. Simpson trial rocked the United States, putting the star football player into the spotlight for a different reason than he'd ever expected. Twelve years later, Manitowoc County citizen Steven Avery was convicted of murder after being exonerated of rape just years prior. Ultimately, there's one key difference between the O.J. Simpson and Steven Avery cases, and it represents several unique perspectives on reasonable doubt and the flaws within the justice system. The two cases have arguably become two of the most iconic trials in recent pop culture history, but their subjects couldn't be more different.
Two TV series dedicated to Simpson and Avery — The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and Making a Murderer, respectively — were released within just a couple of months of each other. Though the overlap was surely unintended, contrasting the two cases serves a valuable purpose. As the cases continue to rev debates and late-night discussions about who is guilty and who is innocent, one thing remains certain: The inner working of the American justice system is a hard shell to crack. Observing the social status of both defendants might be a start.
As an insanely popular celebrity, Simpson was well-liked by the public — so well-liked that the Los Angeles police force was criticized for bending the rules and allowing him to turn himself in. You already know how well that went. Simpson hopped in a white Bronco and prompted a car chase that dominated national news. In essence, police may have acted more leniently because they were dealing with a famous person. However, Simpson's popularity reportedly didn't exempt him from racial discrimination during his case, The New York Times reported.
Avery, in contrast, was an average man from rural Wisconsin with a car salvage yard and an IQ of about 70, according to his first public defender, Reesa Evans. Unlike Simpson, Avery had a difficult time reaching the public until it was too late, after he had been in prison for nearly three decades in total. Because Avery was an ordinary man whose family was allegedly disliked by his community, he stood little chance of combating the opinion of law enforcement. In fact, Avery probably wouldn't have a new lawyer if Making a Murderer didn't catch the attention of well-known defense attorney Kathleen Zellner.
Once Making a Murderer shot Avery and his alleged conspirator Brendan Dassey to notoriety, things changed for the duo. Hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition urging the White House to pardon Avery, and for the first time, a microscope was put on Manitowoc County's policing practices and its alleged mistakes which were covered in the docuseries. Like Simpson, once his trial was in the spotlight, Avery gained countless supporters who believed in his innocence — a privilege he had not been afforded before the documentary was watched by millions.
No matter how far our society has come, it still judges people based on their socioeconomic status, race, gender, intelligence, and notoriety. Though it's impossible to know to what degree these factors contributed to the Simpson and Avery cases, it's safe to assume that they played a significant role in the way the American public responded to the cases. Today, in a world dictated by the trends of social media, public attention matters, and it does have influence.