On Thursday, O.J. Simpson was granted parole, allowing him to be a free man after serving nine years of his 33-year prison sentence, which he'd been given in 2008 after being convicted of robbery and kidnapping. As with Simpson's 1995 double murder trial, his parole hearing was a highly-anticipated event that drew significant public interest, and yet one tweet about Simpson's release sums up why the attention around the former football player's incarceration status may be misplaced.
"We are dialed in for OJ's legal outcome, but the general public didn't pay any real attention to Sandra Bland or Philando Castile verdicts," wrote sports journalist and FanSided founder Adam Best on Twitter.
Bland was a black woman who died in police custody in 2015, while Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop the year later. Both Bland and Castile died under disputed circumstances, and although both of their families eventually reached settlements in wrongful death lawsuits, the officer who killed Castile was acquitted of all charges, and there were no indictments in the Bland case at all.
But Best is drawing attention to a different fact, which is that neither the Bland nor the Castile cases attracted nearly as much as public attention as Simpson's ongoing legal woes. This is despite the fact that, much like Simpson's high-profile double murder trial in 1994-95, the Bland and Castile cases were intertwined with larger and highly pertinent issues of race and police brutality in American culture.
We are dialed in for OJ's legal outcome, but the general public didn't pay any real attention to Sandra Bland or Philando Castile verdicts.— Adam Best (@adamcbest) July 20, 2017
This touches on two elements that are inseparable from Simpsons' trials: fame and race.
It's easy to forget that before he was charged with double murder, Simpson was a beloved, world-famous celebrity. This was initially thanks to his football career, but he later branched out as spokesperson and actor, most notably in the Naked Gun films. This is one big reason (though certainly not the only reason) why his 1994-95 trial drew such massive, unprecedented public attention, and why his parole hearing on Thursday, too, was such a highly-anticipated news event.
Race is also a salient aspect to all of this. The Academy Award-nominated ESPN documentary O.J. Simpson: Made In America did an excellent job of analyzing how existing racial tensions in 1990s America played out on a public stage during Simpson's murder trial, and as Best points out, there are shades of that same dynamic in Simpson's more recent legal woes.
The deaths of Bland and Castile did draw some media attention, but not nearly as much as the death Simpson's wife, Nicole Brown. The same goes for the subsequent legal developments: Simpson's trial dominated headlines and airwaves for over a year, while the lack of indictment in Bland's case, for instance, appeared and disappeared from the news rather quickly.
Simpson is an awful human being, but damn, if media devoted 1/10 of scrutiny on him to police who murder black citizens...#OJSimpsonParole— Charles Clymer🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) July 20, 2017
In other words, the murder of a white woman captivated the country's attention for a year, while deaths of a black man and black woman at the hands of the police — as well as many other high-profile incidents of fatal racial policing — did not. Although many people surely weren't thinking about it this explicitly as they absorbed the details of both cases, it is an indisputable fact, and one that some people have found disturbing.
Given that Simpson has been a fixture of American life for so long, and in so many wildly different capacities, it's likely that his trials and tribulations will always be subject to intense public scrutiny. But it's important to keep in mind that the attention he receives stems not just from the crimes he's allegedly committed, but by larger societal issues of race and fame that are forever intertwined with his story.