COMMENTARY


Time Magazine
November 13, 2000


By James Poniewozik

Justice in the Blood

The O.J. Simpson saga's genes connect a disturbing mini-series and the DNA-sleuthing flatfoots of CSI



In Late 1995, Scientist Joseph Bonuso unveiled Solomon, a powerful computer program that could try cases, infallibly without the need for juries. It ran testimony through polygraph analysis; it crunched legal algorithms on a team of supercomputers. Media from the San Francisco Chronicle to CNN covered Solomon, which had just done what a much criticized jury of humans had not. It had found O.J. Simpson guilty of murdering Nicole brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

The catch? Solomon was a hoax, perpetrated by serial prankster Joey Skaggs. It's not hard to see the story's appeal. After a socially and racially divisive trial, many Americans - especially non-African Americans - believed that 12 Angelenos had rejected irrefutable DNA evidence to set a murderer free. Solomon played to a machine-age civic fantasy: a bloodless robot, immune to gambits and race cards, that would dispense justice like a candy machine. (Nor is it only a conservative wish; the anti-death penalty crowd has embraced DNA evidence to reopen capital cases.)

Given the John Henry-vs.-the steam-drill conflict in modern justice, the surprise hit of the new TV season is not such a surprise. CSI (CBS, Fridays, 9 p.m. E.T), a slick, formulaic crime drama set in Las Vegas, is a cop show with a twist: the heroes are crime-scene investigators (CSIS), forensic scientists who use high-tech tools to nab crooks. The show has a certain Vegas-y rock-'n'-roll sleaze appeal, but underneath it all, CSI is the geek Quincy, in which the true stars are the nail clippings, computer records, carpet fibers and above all DNA, performing like clockwork the same magic that they didn't on Simpson.

Where Dragnet satisfied a yearning for incorruptible cops, CSI evinces a longing for incorruptible machines, "Just the facts, ma'am" taken to its logical extreme. The CSIS (led by William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger) are bland, undistinguished types, as if to indicate how secondary the human factor is in this fantasy world of justice by the numbers. When you're guilty on CSI, you're guilty all the way; the computer says so. There is no relativism, no my truth and your truth. It's science. It's nothing personal. And we never have to see the cases go through the messiness of a trial.

It is that human messiness that is captured in CBS'S excellent and disturbing Simpson mini-series American Tragedy (CBS, Nov. 12 and 15, 9 p.m. E.T.). Based on a book by Lawrence Schiller and former TIME correspondent James Willwerth, with a script by Norman Mailer - and contested in court by O.J., who tried to prevent its airing - it delves into the nest of brilliance, ego and sheer weirdness that was the high priced Simpson defense. For the dream team portrayed here, justice is no science but rather a mix of fact-finding, gamesmanship, theater and politics - including the jockeying among Johnnie Cochran (Ving Rhames), canny, blustery and beset by late doubts about the client; Robert Shaprio (Ron Silver), shrewd and preening; and F. Lee Bailey (Christopher Plummer), bloviating but deeply loyal to the Juice.

Above all, justice is p.r., and no one understands that better than the mediagenic client, whose celebrity-stoked peculiarity Tragedy captures astutely. Simpson (Raymond Forchion) is a man warped by self-consciousness, who skeeves his lawyers by protesting his innocence too much, drifts into non sequitur football metaphors and micromanages his defense with one eye on his post-trial image, berating his team for not raising the flag at this house during the nototious jury walk-through. (In a nod to the importance of image, we almost never see Forchion's face; he fulminates offscreen and by speakerphone as if, like Muhammad, O.J. is an icon too powerful to depict.) But there's a real savvy to his loopy vanity. TV is air and water to O.J., and he knows that even with a sequestered jury, he must make his goal-line stand in the media. "Leave it to the pillow talk," he says.

Is O.J. right? Can TV not only reflect but also affect our idea of justice? Shapiro in Tragedy certainly thinks so. He suggests asking his TV-biz pals to air reruns of movies in which an innocent man is framed to influence the jury pool. But the audience has to be predisposed to the message - just look at CBS's much hyped remake The Fugitive, a Miranda-era liberal crime drama about a wrongly accused man that has disappointed in the ratings. However much TV affected O.J.'s life, O.J. affected TV too, reminding us - as Tradegy affirms and CSI's machine dreams reassuringly deny - that as long as justice remains in human hands, it will never be just a matter of the facts, ma'am.



Back to Home Page


© 2000 Joey Skaggs