Perfect victims: If the catcher’s mitt fits...
By looking sideways at the stats Bill James changed baseball forever. As this extract from his new book shows, he’s now trying to do the same for famous crimes
Tuesday 12 July 2011
What is there that remains to be said, about the OJ Simpson case? It was long enough ago now that a few of you won't remember it. It was beyond belief. We didn't have as many cable channels then as we do now, but a lot of people had 30, 40, 50 channels on their TV. When the OJ Simpson trial was on, there would be live coverage of it on at least five channels, and often on most of the channels. I can remember dealing with a cable system of about 30 channels – of which, at times, 20 would be broadcasting the live feed of the OJ Simpson trial.
This unmatched level of saturation coverage turned everyone associated with the case into a household name. This was not a new phenomenon; in the late 1930s every informed American knew the names of Henry Breckinridge, John F. Condon, Violet Sharp and Amandus Hochmuth, peripheral figures in the Lindbergh case.
It was not new, but it was new to us; most people alive in 1994 had never seen anything like it. I think that there are essentially three questions that remain about the OJ Simpson epic:
1) Were the murders premeditated, or an act of blind rage?
2) Why did the story grow to such phenomenal proportions?
3) Why did the system of justice fail?
On the first issue-did OJ go to Bundy Drive intending to kill Nicole? I simply do not know. My intuition is that he did not, but that he went there to spy on her, and something happened that caused the situation to get out of control. I don't have a compelling argument to make on this issue. It seems like there should be some way to figure it out.
On the issue of why the OJ Simpson case took over the media and dominated it the way no other case ever has, my explanation would be this. If you were to write a formula to predict how much publicity would be given to a particular crime, that formula would use both variables and constants-that is, both stable and predictable elements, and irrational or arbitrary elements.
There are a thousand cases every year just like it that don't become at all famous; no one can really explain why that one did. It just happened. It's arbitrary.
The notoriety that attached to OJ Simpson's murder of Nicole Brown Simpson was not arbitrary, because one can look at the elements of the case and predict that it would become very famous. OJ Simpson was perhaps the greatest running back in the history of football. He can't just murder a couple of people and nobody will say anything.
I would explain it this way: that in the case of OJ Simpson, both the stable and the random elements controlling the publicity turned up extremely large. It happened mostly because of small details concerning the white Ford Bronco slow-speed chase. On 17 June, 1994, OJ arranged to surrender to authorities-and then didn't. He apparently was thinking about trying to run away, and also contemplating suicide. The news that OJ Simpson-a fixture on our TV screens as a football star, football commentator, product pitchman and a minor movie star – the news that Simpson had become a fugitive from justice shocked the nation. In the hours after that shock, Simpson's Ford Bronco (being driven by a longtime friend) was spotted by police, and news media began watching the pursuit, which went on for an inexplicably long time. More channels and more channels began to join in the coverage.
It was that chase that made the case into a national obsession; if you take away that incident, the case would have been famous, but there would have been one network broadcasting the trial, rather than all of the networks.
Crime cases increase in fame when there is continuing action in the story. In most crime cases, the continuing action in a story is predictable. A beautiful little girl goes missing. It is predictable that, at some point, her body will be found. At some point, somebody will be arrested. An attorney will be hired or appointed. There will be a trial. There will be a conviction. There will be sentencing. There will be appeals.
All of this is continuing action in the story, but it is largely predictable. When there is an unpredictable second act in a case that the nation is already following, that tends to cause the coverage to explode. The Boston Strangler became extremely famous because, after the case was already in the news, there were several additional murders. The Zodiac committed additional murders after he had begun writing to the newspapers. Ted Bundy became as famous as he did because, after he was already in the news at a certain level, he escaped from prison and committed additional atrocities. This caused his story to explode. The white Ford Bronco chase, being covered by all of the television networks in real time, was a gigantic explosion within a story that people were already covering.
And the timing was right for it. The number of cable television networks increased substantially in the late 1980s. By the early 1990s those networks were searching for an audience. At the time of Nicole Brown's murder, there was a lot of cable television air time that wasn't strongly committed anywhere. It could go wherever it saw an audience. It just happened.
On the third issue ... why did the system of justice fail in this case ... there are six culprits who get smacked for it:
The police, who screwed up the investigation,
The prosecutors, who bungled the presentation of the case,
The defense lawyers, who deliberately obfuscated the issues,
The judge, who lost control of the trial,
The jury, who failed to perceive what was obvious to most people, and
The news media, whose intrusion into the story made it more difficult for the
machinery of justice to work.
I would allocate the blame as follows:
* To the police, about 5 per cent. The police investigation of Nicole Brown's murder was not bungled; the case was well investigated, the culprit was promptly identified, and much more than sufficient evidence to convict the accused was given to the prosecutors. Some mistakes were made. An inexperienced criminologist was sent to the crime scene. Some evidence was mishandled. These mistakes were minor, and would not ordinarily have been noteworthy.
* To the prosecutors, about 35 to 45 per cent. District Attorney Gil Garcetti made a mistake in allowing the case to be prosecuted in downtown Los Angeles, rather than the Santa Monica courthouse nearer to where the crime was committed. This decision was apparently made as a consequence of a recently instituted policy about where to file cases; Garcetti simply failed to perceive that this very unusual case might not be best handled by routine policy directives. The result of that essentially inexplicable decision was that Simpson, a black man accused of murdering a white woman, would be tried by a predominantly black jury.
* Chief Prosecutor Marcia Clark offended the jury by hammering for weeks on prior incidents of domestic abuse, rather than simply presenting that evidence and moving on. She put her case in slowly and deliberately, making it an ordeal for the jurors, who were sequestered and thus unable to live normal lives. Defense Attorney Johnnie Cochran realized that a sequestered jury would appreciate it if he put on his case as quickly and directly as he could-in contrast to Clark, who sometimes had experts spend four to six hours presenting their credentials. As the case dragged on Clark became progressively more shrill and unlikable. I couldn't stand the woman, myself, and the jury couldn't, either.
Assistant Prosecutor Chris Darden made a huge error in asking OJ Simpsonto try on gloves left at the scene, which had stiffened and shrunk, allowing Simpson to pretend that the gloves didn't fit. Prosecutors failed to call to the stand several witnesses who could have placed OJ Simpson near the scene of the crime, but who had damaged their credibility as witnesses by attempting to profit from their story. They failed to fully vet Officer Mark Fuhrman, whose testimony they didn't desperately need, and whose racist history became a central focus of the trial. The prosecution made numerous large errors, and bears substantial responsibility for the failure to convict.
* To the defense lawyers, 0%. The defense attorneys did what defense attorneys are supposed to do: they made it as difficult as possible to convict their client.
* To the judge, Judge Lance Ito, about 35 to 45%. Ito started well, but lost control of the case. He allowed irrelevant issues to take center stage in the trial. He ruled that the issue of whether Mark Fuhrman had made racist comments at some point in the past was irrelevant and the testimony inadmissible-and then inexplicably allowed the defense attorneys to spend days talking about the matter and presenting witnesses and evidence about the matter. The entire issue had nothing to do with the case, and should never have been allowed to enter the trial. There was a witness to the murder, an earwitness who heard OJ shout "Hey!" three times about the time of the murder. The witness reportedly told police that, when he heard the voice, he thought it was OJ, but in the trial, he wasn't allowed to say that; he was allowed only to say that he thought it sounded like the voice of an African-American man. This led to a silly extended debate about whether the witness couldrecognize a black voice as opposed to a white voice. That issue should never have arisen; the witness should have been allowed to say what he had heard. I don't think Ito's a bad guy; I think he's a very good guy, and a good judge. People make mistakes. I'm sure that if Ito could do it over again, he would never allow testimony about whether Mark Fuhrman had, at some point in his past, used the N-word. But he did, and he bears more responsibility for the failure of the trial than any other individual.
* To the jury, about 2%. The jury was denied information about the case that was available to everybody else in the country – not irrelevant information, not prejudicial information, but valid and legitimate information to which they should have had access. They could have seen through the fog of distortions created by the defense better than they did, but it wasn't really their fault.
* To the news media, about 10 to 15%. The media did intrude into the case in ways that were improper, making financial arrangements with witnesses that compromised their testimony. The extraordinary level of attention to the case distorted everything, making it impossible for things to be done in a normal fashion. Some witnesses seemed to be playing for the cameras; other witnesses seemed to be afraid of the cameras. Jurors had to be sequestered for months because everybody was talking about the case all the time, and this led to jurors having a peculiar perspective on the case. If the trial could be run again, it would have a better chance of finding justice if it could be run without being covered by hundreds of reporters.
OJ is in jail now, where he belongs, and perhaps it doesn't matter for what, or anyway it doesn't matter to me. But the OJ Simpson case re-ignited the Popular Crime industry. From then until now, people have been looking for the next really big case. I don't know if there will ever be another case as big.
Perfect Victims by Bill James is published by Simon & Schuster (£12.99)
What happened to the other Moneyball men?
Alongside Bill James, Beane was at the centre of the Moneyball story. The Oakland general manager subverted conventional thinking to turn Major League misfits into all-stars. His methods have since been widely copied by other teams, such as Toronto and Boston. As a result, the once-successful Athletics now find themselves back struggling among their competitors. Beane can take consolation in that he's being played by Brad Pitt in the Moneyball film.
John W Henry
With his background in high finance, John W Henry was one of the first baseball-club owners to embrace a more scientific approach to recruiting staff and players. He appointed Bill James – and the then 28-year-old Yale graduate, Theo Epstein, as Boston's general manager – and the Red Sox went on to win two World Series. In 2010 Henry bought Liverpool FC. One of his first appointments was Damien Comolli, Spurs' former sporting director, suggesting he will be bringing a Moneyball approach to recruitment.
Alongside Beane and James, DePodesta is one of the main figures in Moneyball. Like Epstein, an Ivy League graduate with a love of baseball, DePodesta was hired by Beane as his assistant at Oakland. His analysis quickly took over from the hunches of old scouts in the team's recruitment process. Oakland's initial success led the Los Angeles Dodgers to hire DePodesta as the team's general manager in 2004 at the age of just 31.
Who is Bill James?
In the 1970s, Bill James wrote his first Baseball Abstract, which sold 75 copies. In it, he argued that a lot of baseball thinking and analysis was asking the wrong questions and resulted in players being valued incorrectly. His approach slowly helped create a new science of sports analysis called “sabermetrics” which was adopted by the Oakland Athletics for recruiting players in the 1990s. Both Oakland’s and James’s stories featured in Michael Lewis’s 2003 bestseller Moneyball (soon to be a film). By this point, baseball’s owners, including the Boston Red Sox’s John W Henry, had woken up to the inefficiencies in baseball recruitment and James was appointed to the Red Sox’s staff. But away from his day job, James is a crime obsessive. Perfect Victims is a near case-by-case sideways look at some of America’s most famous crimes.
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