Celebrities in the dock: OJ Si

Celebrities in the dock: OJ Simpson vs Oscar Pistorius

The non-stop media coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial may seem like a novelty in South Africa – but when it comes to treating celebrity court cases, the art of courtroom reporting is steeped in precedents – such as the case against OJ Simpson

Celebrities in the dock: OJ Si


A REVERED athlete facing murder charges, caught up in the midst of a media frenzy. Sound familiar?

Commentators have already coined the Pistorius trial the “OJ moment of this generation”, making reference to the now infamous proceedings against American Football runner back OJ Simpson almost 20 years ago. But as we tweet, blog and broadcast non-stop news from the North Gauteng courtroom, the uncanny and damning similarities between the Pistorius case and OJ Simpson’s trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson in Los Angeles seem to escape most contemporary attention spans.

Both cases started with the tragic and violent deaths of young, intelligent blonde bombshells, whose main pursuit in life was to play the celebrity game. And both cases implicated sporting heroes, who had previously been celebrated as national treasures in their respective countries and beyond. But the similarities don’t stop with those two bookends. In fact, OJ’s and Oscar’s individual trials themselves might have a lot more in common than what meets the eye when you set out to compare details of the two high-profile cases, which jointly changed the face of court reporting.

Both athletes, faced with murdering their respective significant others, battled with issues of compromised evidence from the crime scenes in either case. With OJ Simpson, questions arose during his 1995 trial of whether certain pieces of evidence (such as the ill-fitting glove) may have planted by the police at the crime scene in order to indict the erstwhile American Football star.

In the case of Oscar Pistorius, similar crime scene mismanagement issues were brought up when the murder scene at his Pretoria home turned out to have been contaminated during the onset of the initial investigation. The lead investigator in the Pistorius case, Hilton Botha, was removed from the investigation when the embarrassing news transpired that he had not taken necessary precautions according to protocol – such as wearing protective covers over his shoes at the crime scene or properly handling ammunition found at the house. The lead investigator in OJ’s case, Mark Fuhrman, even received a perjury sentence during the Simpson trial for lying about his methods and motivations during the investigation, which included entering OJ Simpson’s home without a search warrant while he was remanded in custody.

But the parallels go on. The issue of artificially trying to make evidence fit one way or another prevails as a qualifier in both cases. Barry Roux’s now-infamous defence that Pistorius may scream like a woman is oddly reminiscent of the “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” defence brought forward by Simpson’s attorney Johnny Cochran when it turned out that the bloodied glove found at Simpson’s home didn’t exactly fit his hands. At the very least, both lawyers should get brownie points for their creative defences, although the over-stretching, cocky rhyming slang of Cochran wouldn’t stand a chance in any South African courtroom, where – unlike the USA – juries do not determine the verdict. Still, at the current rate of presenting sensationalised evidence the Pistorius trial, we might yet hear a defence on account of Roux along the lines of “if the blades don’t fit, you must acquit.”

And then there’s the courtroom drama itself to examine, epitomised by Judge Thokozile Masipa’s initially-languid and later-aggressive conduct during Pistorius’s ongoing trial. It can be deemed as somewhat reminiscent of Simpson’s hearings, where Judge Lance Ito’s own courtroom style while presiding over the year-long hearings in the murder case made him a reluctant media star in his own right, attracting criticism for his brand of hot-and-cold antics as far-reaching as accusations of schizophrenia.

Perhaps most importantly it should be mentioned that both cases faced increased scrutiny and excessive reporting subsequently when it comes to the recurrent issue of racism. In OJ Simpson’s trial, racist tendencies were brought up as cornerstone evidence against lead investigator Mark Fuhrman, with several days of the proceedings spent on determining when Fuhrman had last used a derogatory term to describe people of colour.

With Oscar Pistorius however, the entire South African culture 20 years post-apartheid was widely examined in the media months ahead of the trial, with Pistorius’s defence consistently featuring a mysterious intruder as his explanation for the tragic events on the night of 14 February last year; the untold but commonly-held assumption being that this intruder would more than likely hail from a previously disadvantaged background.

OJ Simpson has already told the press that he firmly believes in Oscar Pistorius’s innocence, despite the fact that public opinion isn’t exactly trending in his favour. Should Pistorius be acquitted in the end, one ultimate parallel between the two sporting stars might cement their relationship forever as “blood brothers”.

By Sertan Sanderson, 2014