People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson
Los Angeles Country Superior Court (1995)

For almost a year, Americans were riveted by the O.J. Simpson case. They’d seen the bloody crime scene photos and the slow-motion “chase” down an LA freeway, with Al Cowlings driving the suspect home in a white Bronco, trailed by a host of cop cars. Taken into custody, the ex-NFL star was charged with the knifing deaths of his estranged wife Nicole and a restaurant employee who was returning her glasses, Ronald Goldman.

Over the months of the trial, and thanks to TV coverage, we became familiar with an intriguing cast of characters, including Kato Kaelin, who lived in an apartment out back; Judge Ito; the prosecutors, Marcia Clark and Chris Darden; the defense attorneys, Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro; detective Mark Fuhrman. And it seemed that most of the nation was glued to the screen when Simpson’s acquittal was telecast at 10:00 a.m. (PST), October 3, 1995.

Though released that day, Simpson was hit, in 1997, with a successful “wrongful death” civil suit by the Goldman family. He wasn’t in a position to pay the millions in penalties assessed, though he raised some money through auctioning memorabilia. Then, in 2007, he joined in a robbery to reclaim some items he felt were his, and he now serves time in a Nevada jail for that offense.

I think it’s fair to say that most observers think Simpson “got away with murder” in the criminal trial, though Cochran and Shapiro wrote books defending the decision. (Clark and others have written books to the contrary.) The evidence, some of which was suppressed in the initial trial, was damning, including DNA analyses of crime-scene blood and matching shoe prints.

Some say the jury composition was decisive, in that 8 of the 12 members were black, that the defense attorney Johnnie Cochrane “played the race card,” discrediting the testimony of Detective Furhman (whom he once typified “a genocidal racist, a perjurer, America’s worst nightmare and the personification of evil”), and that Los Angeles was stewing from the police beating of Rodney King. Indeed, there was a level of telecast celebration in the black community, some even saying that it was high time that a black man likely guilty of black on white crime was released after so many whites guilty of violence toward blacks had been exonerated – “pay back,” if you will. (Some also say the fact there were only two college graduates on the jury reduced the impact of technical DNA testimony.)

Be that as it may, “mistakes were made” in the prosecution itself, most dramatically in allowing Simpson to try on the glove once soaked in blood and repeatedly frozen by its caretakers in the evidence process. With Johnnie Cochran declaring “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” Simpson more or less struggled to put on the glove, the difficulty likely enhanced by the glove’s soaking and drying and perhaps by his failure to take his anti-inflammatory arthritis medicine.

In the end, the jury didn’t take long to decide that the prosecution had failed to make their case for Simpson’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” – less than three hours of deliberation after over eight months of trial. Which raises the question of how much doubt is reasonable.

Seventeenth-century French philosopher, Rene Descartes, argued that maximum doubt was reasonable, at least as a beginning point. Having heard all sorts of competing knowledge claims, seen man’s susceptibility to illusion and delusion, and wanting to find a solid foundation on which to build all respectable belief, he doubted everything he could, including God’s existence and the reality of the physical world (as opposed to a dream state). He discovered that the one thing he couldn’t doubt was that there was some doubting going on, so there must be a doubter, namely himself.

That’s not a lot to know, of course. The person who goes around saying that the only thing he really knows is that he exists as a doubter is a useless bore. Fortunately, Descartes thought he’d found a way out of his state of minimal – indeed, scarcely discernible – confidence. He figured that an infinite being had to be the cause/source of his thoughts of infinity (you can’t get a greater than a lesser) and that this infinite being (obviously, God) must be perfect and thus disinclined to let us be systematically fooled by what seems to be a genuine world. So, using his reason, he climbed his way back to the surface where he could work and converse with those who hadn’t gone through his descent to the abyss where everything was up for grabs.

Turns out, the world of philosophy was more impressed with his downward climb into skepticism than with the ladder he used to get back out. And they admired his search for something indubitable. “Reasonable doubt” wasn’t satisfying; they wanted “impossible doubt.” And so Foundationalism was born.

Some would find certainty in sense experience at its most basic level, e.g., “I’m being appeared to redly.” Others we’re keen on such principles as “Everything has a sufficient reason for its existence and behavior” or “You can’t both have X and not-X.” And they would get busy building on these certainties. But then they would be confronted with fresh onslaughts from the skeptics, wondering, for instance, how you could know you were using the word ‘redly’ the same as you did yesterday, whether some of these necessities were really just definitional items or policy resolutions and not descriptions of the world.

The bigger question was whether iron-clad certainty was worth pursuing in the first place. Wasn’t it enough that a claim be plausible? Could you really have more than probability? After all, didn’t we work that way all the time, giving guesses our best shot and checking things out in the aftermath to see if our convictions could stand the test of time? Weren’t we really following what philosophers called “Inference to the Best Explanation”? If so, maybe Descartes sent us on a multi-century, wild goose chase.

This isn’t to say that doubt is a bad thing in itself — just that you can overdo it, as with the Simpson jury. Indeed, while they said the government lawyers failed to demonstrate Simpson’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” I’m more inclined to say that their failure to deliver reasonable justice is manifest, “beyond a reasonable doubt.”