It was the verdict that brought a nation to a halt.
On Oct. 3, 1995, in a Los Angeles courtroom presided over by Judge Lance Ito, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, and with that the infamous OJ Simpson murder trial came to a close. But for the families of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown, their closure was yet to come.
The Simpson trial – wherein a man, once an American football superstar and celebrity idol, stood before the court, charged with the brutal murders of his ex-wife, Brown, and her friend, Goldman – became equivalent to trashy reality television. It had all the elements of a daytime drama: the horrified news anchors, the once-media darling turned murderer, and the big shot lawyers. It sounded like it was made for TV, and it will be when the FOX network’s The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson is reportedly released this year.
And, thanks to the birth of the 24-hours news cycle, the major players became stars. Judge Ito went on to pseudo-celebrity status, the talking heads built their names, and who can forget poet-cum-defense attorney Johnnie Cochran? All of it, from the moment the first television trucks rolled up to the Superior Court in Los Angeles County, turned a trial into a spectacle.
Which brings us to the recent decision by South African media to broadcast the trial of the ‘Blade Runner,’ 27-year-old Oscar Pistorius, the man who captured the imaginations of the entire nation, atop a pair of carbon fibre prosthetic legs. Pistorius, a Paralympic gold medalist track star who made his way to the Olympics to compete against the world’s greatest on the grandest stage, will soon stand trial for the Feb. 14, 2013 slaying of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
MultiChoice, a South African television provider, will own and operate a channel, called The Oscar Pistorius Trial: A Carte Blanche Channel. Though the decision has yet to be made on whether Judge Thokozile Masipa will allow cameras inside the courtroom, the channel will still dedicate every single, solitary minute to fulfilling the societal need for a sadistic form of voyeurism.
Make no mistake, the network is not operating in the interest of necessity; a channel of this ilk exists as a license for MultiChoice to print money.
In Alan Dershowitz’s book America On Trial: Inside the Legal Battles That Transformed Our Nation, it’s reported that an estimated 100 million people stopped to hear the Simpson verdict and that trading on the New York Stock Exchange slowed by over 40 per cent In comparison, this year’s Super Bowl drew an average of 111.3 million viewers, according to the International Business Times.
The media circus surrounding the trial does nothing to promote justice either. It supports MultiChoice, it will certainly serve to endorse those who advertise, and, in a sordid way, it will vault Oscar Pistorius to the next level of celebrity, where even those unfamiliar with his athletic achievement know his name. Much like Simpson, once a face of the Naked Gun movie franchise and an NFL Hall of Fame halfback, whose celebrity now exists in the infamy of his murders, Pistorius will become a figure in pop culture. The verdict will be secondary.
It’s a common misconception that Simpson was never found guilty for the deaths of Goldman and Brown. When the acquittal came and the satellite trucks drove away, the first and final season of the OJ Simpson Show came to a close. But the story didn’t end there. Simpson was found liable for the wrongful deaths of Brown and Goldman in a 1997 civil trial that took place in Santa Monica, Ca. It wasn’t televised, and it’s often forgotten.
This trial will be – and one could posit already is – South Africa’s Simpson trial. And the family of Steenkamp, just like the families of Goldman and Brown before them, will be thrust into the spotlight. For the 17 scheduled days the trial is set to take place, an entire nation will be speaking about, forming their own opinions on, and citing their personal verdicts regarding the trial surrounding the death of their beloved daughter.
For the Steenkamps, they’ve already been subject to a full year of reading, watching, and hearing about the death of their daughter. The closure, for them, won’t come with a verdict, and it won’t come in the weeks that follow. Like the Simpson trial, which took over headlines and airwaves nearly a year in advance of the opening statements, and stayed there for months following, Pistorius’ trial stands to play out the same way.
So the Steenkamp’s tragedy will be prolonged. Not by a need for them to have their lives thrown into the media spotlight, but the need for a sensationalist form of media to make another dollar. Another family will be forced to grieve while bathed in the bright lights of TV.