Crime and profit: Murder most lucrative

O J Simpson is back in the headlines in the US with a $3.5m deal to speculate on how he would have killed his wife, if he had. Andrew Gumbel reports on the enduring legacy of the case
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This is a story that purports to be about the most sensational celebrity murder of the past two decades, but really it is all about money and television ratings. O J Simpson, the former American football superstar and B-list actor who was famously acquitted of the double murder of his estranged wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman, claims that he has something new to say about the case.

Or, more precisely, he has agreed to a distinctly tawdry bargain whereby he gets paid $3.5m (£1.8m) by two different branches of Rupert Murdoch's media empire and, in return, he speculates publicly on how he might have committed the gruesome crimes of more than decade ago - on the purely hypothetical assumption, of course, that he actually committed them.

Simpson has a book coming out later this month entitled If I Did It - the word "If" bleached out on the cover page and the words "I Did It" appearing in blood-red capitals. If that weren't titillation enough, he has also taped two hour-long interviews with his publisher, Judith Regan, that will air on Murdoch's Fox Broadcasting network just ahead of the 30 November publication date. Conveniently, the television interviews will coincide with the end of the November "sweeps", the test period when advertisers measure the audience figures of each of the major networks and set their payment rates accordingly.

It is hard to imagine a shabbier deal all around. Ms Regan has been dropping hints right and left that what her interviews really amount to is a confession. Nobody, though, appears ready to believe her. Ever since his acquittal in 1995, O J has adopted one disingenuous position after another. First, he stated that he would conduct a tireless search for the "real" killer, but then he moved to Florida and spent much of his time playing golf.

He did not alter his position even after he was found civilly liable for the murders in 1997 and ordered to pay $33.5m to the families of the victims. On the contrary, he set about locking up his assets, with the help of Florida's relatively indulgent property protection laws, and to this day has not paid out a penny to either the Goldman family or Nicole's relatives, the Browns.

Already in 1998, just a year after the legal odyssey came to an end, he played the game of speculating that he was himself the killer. "Let's say I committed this crime," he told Esquire magazine. "Even if I did do this, it would have to have been because I loved her very much, right? " In 2004, he conducted a series of television interviews similar to the current crop, purportedly to promote a reality television series that never actually saw the light of day. He also disclosed - in a conversation with Fox News - that he sometimes felt angry with his dead wife for getting murdered.

Now he seems to be having no trouble discussing the gruesome details of the killings. Nicole and Ron Goldman were slashed to death so viciously that Nicole was almost decapitated. In the one quote being released in advance of the full interview, Simpson observes almost breezily: "I don't think any two people could be murdered without everybody being covered in blood." At every turn, Simpson has only enraged and upset the Goldmans and the Browns further. And this week, as he once again stands to rake in money the victims' families are unable to get their hands on, he appears to have a struck a peculiar nerve in the broader culture, too. Sure, America was fascinated by his arrest and trial at the time - he was, in many ways, the living embodiment of reality television before the genre had been properly born - but now the fascination is competing with an unmistakable sense of disgust.

Every media outlet that reported on the book and television interview deal earlier this week felt obliged to make a big show of holding its nose. Editorial writers, pundits and bloggers all slammed Simpson, the Fox network, Judith Regan and Rupert Murdoch for scraping the bottom of their respective barrels. "This is a disgusting nexus of media and real life," a former network executive called Bob Benson wrote in a widely distributed e-mail. "Paddy Chayevsky, who wrote Network, would believe his prophesy had become real. A killer who escaped judgment because of a flaw in the system is allowed to flip us all the bird more than a decade later, while two companies build sales on their clever exploitation. Enough." And yet, even as it knows it is being duped and hoodwinked, the American media seems to be falling for the lure of the Simpson name anyway. Meredith Vieira, the host of the Today show on NBC, told her viewers: "The first thing I want to do is take a shower." But then she launched straight into a lengthy discussion with NBC's legal analyst, Dan Abrams, giving Simpson the very oxygen of publicity which she claimed to feel so uncomfortable about.

In California, the San Jose Mercury newspaper perhaps summarised the split mood of revulsion and attraction best. On the one hand, its thundering editorial said: "Disgusted Americans should boycott Simpson's book and the Fox interviews." But on the other, it conceded: "All the good bits will be replayed on news shows and reprinted in newspapers, anyhow." Such puritanical self-loathing - that bizarre way mainstream America manages to be both prude and peep-show addict at the same time - is of course precisely the phenomenon that Fox is cashing in on.

If anything, Murdoch outlets like the New York Post and Fox News have been talking up the outrage, all the better to profit from it. Bill O'Reilly, one of the more prominent right-wing screamers on Fox News, told his viewers the decision to air the Simpson interviews was "simply indefensible, and a low point in American culture". He then felt obliged to add: "For the record, Fox Broadcasting has nothing to do with the Fox News Channel." That might come as news to Rupert Murdoch, who owns both, or even to Roger Ailes, the founding head of Fox News who is also chairman of Fox Television Stations, which runs the network. It might also comes as news to Judith Regan, who is not only herself a Murdoch employee but publishes books written by O'Reilly's Fox News colleagues and once had a show on the station herself. No matter: a little manufactured outrage can only be good for business.

Regan, meanwhile, has had a real humdinger of a week herself. Having started out cocky and triumphant, she appears to have gone into psychological meltdown mode as the media made its displeasure felt. On Wednesday, she felt obliged to tell an audience in New York that the interview was "not fiction", although she quickly conceded she did not know if O J himself would necessarily agree with that. On Thursday, she put out an extraordinary 2,000-word statement in which she disclosed that she, like Nicole Brown Simpson, was a past victim of physical abuse and that her interview with O J was intended to establish his guilt and bring comfort to abuse victims everywhere.

CNN's legal analyst, the eminent lawyer and author Jeffrey Toobin, immediately laughed that one off as "insane". "You need the CNN psychiatrist, not the legal analyst," he told his host. The Brown and Goldman families, meanwhile, dismissed her explanation as yet more rank opportunism and an attempt to justify the unjustifiable. And so America is thrust, once again, into a tabloid hell of its own making. A decade ago, the eyes of the world were on the courtroom where O J struggled to put on a glove supposedly worn by the murderer and his lawyer, the flamboyant Johnnie Cochran, proudly proclaimed: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." A visiting Boris Yeltsin felt compelled to ask Bill Clinton if he thought O J was guilty. And news of the not guilty verdict - a response to the incompetence, lies and naked racism of the Los Angeles police - was so all-consuming it almost prompted President Clinton to postpone the start of his State of the Union address to Congress.

It is hardly going to be the same circus now. But the O J trial - all nine, gruelling months of it - marked the first flowering of the 24-hour cable news channels, and those same channels will not hesitate now to milk the beast all over again. Simpson, meanwhile, has nothing to lose and everything to gain. He can't be hated any more than he is already - he has been living the life of a virtual pariah for years. He can't be stung for more money, since he has successfully resisting paying out what he owes up to now.

And, even if he does confess, he can't be put back through the criminal justice system because of that constitutional provision so beloved of Hollywood and mystery writers, double jeopardy. Nobody can be tried twice for the same offence, even if compelling new evidence comes to light. The Juice, in other words, is home free, and we all have to suffer the consequences.

The trial of the century which split America down the middle

What was the biggest American television story of the 1990s - the first Iraq War, the Monica Lewinsky affair, or the Oklahoma City bombing? The answer may well be none of the above. As the spectacle that gripped the country, nothing matched the O J case.

The televised trial began on 24 January 1995 and ended on 3 October with Simpson's acquittal, to the near universal disbelief of whites and much rejoicing among blacks. In the intervening eight months, a ghastly murder had been transformed into a daily soap, in which the lead prosecutor's latest hairdo became a national talking point.

The verdict, after the jury had deliberated for just three hours, was watched by 150 million Americans, a larger television audience than for a Super Bowl. Its only rival for the title of "Trial of the Century" was the 1935 trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnap and murder of the Lindbergh baby.

Gavel-to-gavel coverage on the cable channels turned participants into A-list celebrities. Judge Lance Ito, criticised for allowing his courtroom to become a media circus, inspired a regular "Dancing Itos" spot on Jay Leno's Tonight show during the trial. Somewhat surprisingly Judge Ito is still on the bench, still hearing trials in Los Angeles. Kato Kaelin, OJ's free-loading lodger whose spaced-out demeanour became metaphor for the entire event, is still around after his 15 minutes of fame. After the trial he became a radio talk show host and a star of pay-per-view strip poker.

Prosecutor Marcia Clark - she of the hairstyles and the increasingly flustered courtroom style - wrote a book on the trial that made her $4m, before getting her own reality TV show. She is now a special correspondent and legal analyst for Entertainment Tonight. Her colleague Chris Darden, who made the epochal blunder of having OJ try on the "bloody gloves", which seemed not to fit, went on to teach criminal law and now runs his own law firm. In his defence, Simpson assembled a "Dream Team" group of lawyers. Silky-smooth Johnny Cochran, who turned the glove fiasco into the catchphrase, "It it does not fit, you must acquit," died last year. F Lee Bailey was later disbarred, for misconduct in another case.

Robert Shapiro remains a celebrity lawyer in LA, while Barry Scheck, whose skill in discrediting seemingly irrefutable DNA evidence played a huge part in the acquittal, runs the Innocence Project, using DNA evidence to exonerate people wrongly convicted. Alan Dershowitz, then and now a law professor at Harvard, is one of America's most respected legal experts.

The biggest villain of the trial was Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles policeman who found the gloves (one at the murder scene, the other at Simpson's home). The defence defined him as a racist, and proved he lied when he denied using the word "nigger". He moved to Idaho and is now a legal pundit for Fox News.