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WHY THE SIMPSON CASE ENDURES

12:00 AM, Jul 29, 1996 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Two years after murdering his ex-wife Nicole and Ronald Goldman and eight months after being acquitted of those murders, O. J. Simpson recently made front-page news. He hosted his friend A. C. Cowlings, two former trial jurors, and various gang members and philanthropists at his Brentwood mansion to support Stop the Violence-Increase the Peace, a gang-counseling foundation that was for some inexplicable reason raising money for battered wives. A week later, it was reported that Simpson would seek custody of his two children on the grounds that the Brown family was not raising them in an " interracial environment." A week after that, a 1992 letter was released in which Simpson blasted his former sponsor Hertz for employing a "cripple" like Bo Jackson and the HIV-positive Magic Johnson.


Why on earth has O. J. been in the news in recent weeks? Does anyone really care about O.J. anymore? As it happens, yes. And passionately. "I have never seen any story with the legs that this one has," says Geraldo Rivera. "It is as compelling today as in the second half of the trial." After his nightly CNBC show began aggressively running O. J. coverage, Rivera's ratings rose by a factor of seven. He still covers the Simpson case whenever the smallest news breaks, and his two nightly airings now draw as many viewers as Larry King, once the unassailable Leviathan of cable talk television. CNN's coverage of l'affaire O. J., meanwhile, raised its own ratings fivefold. King himself has done seven Simpson shows in recent weeks. Burden of Proof, a lunch-hour daily show launched right after the trial's conclusion, is still largely about the case.


Then there are the books. Prosecutor Christopher Darden's autobiography-cum- trial-memoir, In Contempt, with 900,000 copies in print, has spent sixteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, including several in the number-one spot. Number one for the past two weeks has been Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's Outrage: Five Reasons Why O. J. Simpson Got Away with Murder, which, with 400,000 copies in print by mid-July, is Norton's fastest-selling book in seventy years. Darden's colleague Marcia Clark received a $ 4.2 million advance for her own book, due at the turn of the year from Viking. Books are also coming from Dominick Dunne, Joe McGinniss, Jeffrey Toobin, Ron Goldman's family, Johnnie Cochran, Johnnie Cochran's ex-wife, and others still.


Why this interest? If nine months after the verdict, the Simpson case remains an open wound on American public opinion, it can hardly be because of any untied strands in the plot. Vincent Bugliosi is correct to scoff at those who call the Simpson case a whodunit:


We all know what a whodunit is. That's a case where there is evidence pointing to four, five, or six suspects, and the question is, whodunit? But here, not just some of the evidence but all of the evidence pointed to one person and one person only, O. J. Simpson. Not one speck pointed to anyone else.


Nor is the interest in the case without a compass: While anti-O. J. products are selling like hotcakes, proO. J. products are taking a pounding. Infomercial Marketing Report announced that its widely ballyhooed $ 29.95 O. J.-interview videotape had grossed only $ 900,000 and sold only 30,000 copies -- fewer than many nature videos the company puts out. What's more, the books by Simpson's defense lawyers have been remarkably unsuccessful -- Alan Dershowitz's book spent a brief time on the bestseller lists, but the Robert Shapiro and Gerald Uelmen confessionals didn't sell well at all. Americans vote with their wallets, and overwhelmingly they think a horrible miscarriage of justice took place when Simpson was acquitted of the murders in October 1995.


So there's something larger than soap-opera curiosity or celebrity-worship at play in Americans' fascination with the O. J. Simpson case. And that something is race.


New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, whose book is due out in September, puts it this way: "Ten years from now, the importance of this case for race relations will be all people remember about it." A recent Learning Channel special narrated by Julian Bond predicted that the trial's big effect would be to set back racial comity for years to come. Diana Trilling speaks for many white people when she writes that the "fever of delight" among blacks she saw cheering the verdict on television "was the most disturbing feature of the trial."