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Lessons from the O.J. Simpson Trial: Five Tips for Arguing Your Case Outside the Courtroom

With 20th anniversary television specials and other media events marking the Oct. 3, 1995 conclusion of the O.J. Simpson criminal trials, analysts are again dissecting the many reasons for the “not guilty” jury verdict.

As one of the journalists who reported on Simpson’s criminal and civil trials, I saw firsthand the many missteps by the judge, police and prosecutors. All were magnified by the microscope of unprecedented media coverage of the prosecution of the former Heisman Trophy winner for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman.

While the police, attorneys and the judicial system can learn much from the many mistakes in this case, the widely publicized trial also offers the five following lessons for those of us who need to argue our cases outside the courtroom:

  1. Know Your Audience: Knowing which groups and individuals you wish to persuade and what outcome you need for each one can make all the difference in determining messages and methods for arguing a case outside the courtroom. In the Simpson trial, Johnnie L. Cochran, Simpson’s lead attorney, knew his audience: the jury. He knew its 12 members were pre-disposed to his argument that the LA Police Department had either bungled or deliberately skewed the evidence to make Simpson “appear” guilty. A very different jury at the Santa Monica courthouse reached a much different conclusion in 1997. It found Simpson responsible for the murders and ordered him to pay $33.5 million to the victims’ families. He never paid the judgment.
  1. Control the Forum: When making your case outside a courtroom, you can control the forum by determining the best method, timing and location for reaching audiences. Simpson’s attorneys took control of the courtroom with the help of Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the trial. He didn’t rein in the attorneys, and he allowed too many sidebars and sideshows. He ended up with too little influence and the defense attorneys with too much.
  1. Tell the Story: Starting a story with the most interesting information, anecdote or compelling point will capture and hold an audience’s attention. Instead of using that approach, prosecutor Marcia Clark started with domestic abuse allegations because she wanted to destroy Simpson’s image. This significantly delayed the presentation of the most compelling part of the case – the horrific and brutal slayings. The autopsy photos shown to the jury and the media clearly showed a crime of passion. The civil trial started with the murders and then moved to domestic violence evidence to explain Simpson’s motive for killing his wife, creating a much more compelling case.
  1. Be Confident: Confidence is essential to convincing others, and it requires a commitment to the case you’re making. Simpson’s attorneys were clearly the more confident of the two legal teams. The prosecutors often appeared disorganized or flustered. Cochran frequently took advantage of their lack of confidence, even goading prosecutor Chris Darden to make the disastrous decision to have Simpson try on the “bloody glove,” which linked Simpson to the murders. Simpson’s courtroom demonstration of struggling to put on the glove led to Cochran’s infamous refrain, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
  1. Tell the Truth: Using personal anecdotes, facts and figures makes presentations believable and persuasive, while exaggerations and fabrications undercut everything else you say. In the Simpson trial, audio recordings of LA Police Detective Mark Fuhrman using frequent racial slurs proved he lied when he denied being a racist and undermined the entire police investigation. Fuhrman found the bloody glove that directly linked Simpson to the slaying – a finding the criminal jury clearly didn’t believe.

As one of Simpson’s criminal trial attorneys, Alan Dershowitz, recently said: “We didn’t win this case. They lost it.”

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