Television's most gripping court drama in a long time is the one where everyone knows the ending. The People v O.J. Simpson reached a climax after recreating every detail of the most notorious trial in legal annals.

What kept viewers mesmerised were not the usual questions in a murder case - did he do it, will he get off? Far more intriguing was the chance to reassess the case through the prism of history, and to wonder at how different the world was 20 years ago.

This was an era when a detective could be openly racist, getting away with a mere reprimand for scrawling 'KKK' (the initials of the Ku Klux Klan) on a portrait of civil rights leader Martin Luther King; when DNA seemed like scientific mumbo-jumbo; and when the fax machine was state-of-the-art technology.

At the same time, it was the beginning of an age where celebrity matters more than justice, and fame is worth more than any amount of money or talent or truth - the start, in fact, of the Kardashian age, with a Kardashian on hand to witness it.


So what have we learned about Orenthal James Simpson, the former American football hero who in 1995 stood trial for stabbing to death his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, at her home, along with a restaurant waiter who barely knew her called Ron Goldman? There have been some major surprises.

The glove DID fit

The one thing most people remember from the O.J. trial is defence lawyer Johnnie Cochran's rhyming mantra to the jury: 'If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit.'

The glove was one allegedly found by Los Angeles detectives behind Simpson's house, smeared with the blood of the murder victims. It had been bought for O.J. by Nicole.

But Cochran's team contended the glove did not belong to the former sportsman, and that he could not have worn it to commit the killings because it wouldn't fit over his big hands.

In a moment of courtroom high drama, O.J. demonstrated to the jury that he couldn't push his fingers the full length of the glove. All that is common knowledge.

Prosecutor Marcia Clark makes her closing arguments during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in 1995. Photo / AP
Prosecutor Marcia Clark makes her closing arguments during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in 1995. Photo / AP

But what the TV series revealed is that chief prosecutor Marcia Clark never wanted the glove to be admitted as evidence. It was her assistant Christopher Darden who pushed for the jury to be told about this dubious piece of evidence, believing a credit card receipt would conclusively prove the glove was indeed O.J.'s.

Darden's gamble misfired spectacularly when Simpson made a pantomime of trying and failing to pull the glove over his hand. The dramatised recreation shows what the jury couldn't see - he was clenching his fingers to exaggerate the effect.

Darden was distraught afterwards, certain that O.J. had cheated, and frustrated that he couldn't prove it. His anger that the trial was becoming a farce, and that it was partly his own fault, made him prone to unprofessional outbursts that left the prosecution looking hapless and almost led Judge Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi) to hold him in contempt of court.

The race factor

Few observers outside America fully understood how inflammatory the trial was, threatening to plunge Los Angeles into something close to civil war. Many in the city feared a repeat of the riots of 1992, following the 1991 beating of black lorry driver Rodney King by a gang of police officers, which had been headline news around the world.

The defence's Johnnie Cochran, a charismatic performer with the flair of a gospel minister, was a lifelong campaigner against racism, and saw the Simpson trial as a way to highlight police prejudice and harassment of his fellow black Americans.

But even in the U.S., the depth of detective Mark Fuhrman's bigotry came as a shock. Judge Ito refused to allow the jury to hear or read the full 300-page transcript of taped interviews that Fuhrman had given to an aspiring screenwriter: only two lines were read in court, as proof that Furhman lied when he said that he had not habitually used the N-word and other racial slurs.

Fuhrman was their star witness, a long-serving detective who had been one of the first on the murder scene. Chief prosecutor Marcia Clark had hoped that the jury would see him as an honest, loyal lawman, whose first duty was to justice.

What was withheld from the jury - but is revealed by the TV show - was that Fuhrman regarded black people as vermin, and bragged about how they were beaten to death in police cells. He regretted that officers were no longer permitted to use a choke-hold because too many black suspects had been strangled.

Nonetheless, what was revealed to jurors proved devastating for the prosecution's star witness.

OJ, sex and violence

'The Juice', as America's most famous black athlete was nicknamed (because his initials were also slang for orange juice), had subjected his wife Nicole to numerous beatings, both during their marriage and after the break-up. Nicole's family and friends encouraged her not to report the assaults, because so many of them had become used to the cash handouts that Simpson dispensed.

But the attacks were frequent and brutal. He slapped, punched and kicked Nicole, and dragged her by the hair screaming, "I will kill you."

Shortly before the murder, she dialled 911, the American emergency number, and pleaded that her ex-husband was battering down her door, "going nuts". When the call handler asked if incidents had happened before, she replied: "Many times".

Nicole was no angel either. In the drama, we see her former friend Faye Resnick hawking a memoir that described Simpson's ex-wife as a sexually promiscuous cocaine addict who specialised in 'the Brentwood hello'. Named after the wealthy L.A. suburb where she lived, this somewhat over-friendly greeting involved giving oral sex to a sleeping man.

Only in America

Much of the drama centres on the media circus around the live trial - the chat shows, the current affairs pundits, the packs of reporters at the courthouse, the in-depth newspaper analysis of every disputed detail.

That would never be permitted in Britain, where the media is legally forbidden to do anything more than report proceedings.

To prevent the jurors from being influenced by what they saw, heard or read, televisions were banned in their hotel rooms, as were newspapers, magazines and radios. Police guards prevented them from talking to anyone but each other, and they were allowed to see their families just once a week.

Under such conditions, most people would start climbing the walls, and one juror did suffer a breakdown in the breakfast room.

To make matters more difficult, both the prosecution and the defence were trying to manipulate the jury, by appealing to the judge to dismiss members they saw as unsympathetic to their side.

Defence lawyer Johnnie Cochran wanted a jury of black men, who might relate to O.J. and admire him; prosecutor Marcia Clark sought white women, who might find the defendant threatening.

But to British eyes, the most extraordinary thing was the way Cochran was able to redecorate his client's house and dress it like a movie set before the jury visited the scene of the crime.

There were no police guarding the evidence, and the court didn't appear to check that the scene had not been tampered with - so out went O.J.'s bachelor-pad furniture, and in came photos and artworks that presented him as a cultured family man who took pride in his African-American heritage.

It was a blatant lie, and it went unchallenged.

Lawyer with a double life

The defence almost unravelled when Press reports revealed that Johnnie Cochran had families with two different women at the same time during the Seventies, keeping his life with his secretary Patty secret from his wife Barbara. Both women took the name Cochran.

Johnnie had two children with Barbara, and another with Patty.

It was scandalous, it obliterated the perception of Cochran as a hero-figure, fighting the good fight in court - which could have been disastrous for verdict. This revelation went almost unnoticed in the UK.

Why the DNA was doubted

The chief evidence in the investigation included blood-stained clothing and witness statements. In any trial today, these things would be secondary compared with the DNA evidence, which pointed with certainty to Simpson as the killer: one expert on the witness stand declared the chances of the former sports star being innocent were 100 million to one. But this was 1995, in the early days of DNA testing, and the jury was completely unfamiliar with the  concept. Over days of cross-examination, the defence portrayed it as hopelessly complicated, a dark scientific art.

So, this crucial evidence became one more reason for jurors to acquit Simpson: they didn't understand the prosecution case against him.

O.J. Simpson, center, reacts as he is found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. Photo / AP
O.J. Simpson, center, reacts as he is found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. Photo / AP

To make it worse, the vials containing O.J.'s blood could easily have been contaminated.

The trainee who collected the samples carried the test-tube around in her coat pocket for almost an entire day before submitting it as evidence - a blunder that the jurors could see, without any scientific training, was bad practice.

The phoney drugs war

O.J.'s original chief defence lawyer Robert Shapiro (played by John Travolta) had been demoted when Cochran was brought in.

Shapiro had been openly sceptical about Simpson's innocence from the start. He wanted to strike the best deal for his client in exchange for an admission of guilt.

But with the arrival of Cochran and another big-name lawyer, New Yorker Alan Dershowitz, the game changed: Dershowitz in particular was known for winning apparently impossible cases.

Every possible alternative version of events was explored. The team asked whether Ron Goldman could have been murdered in a jealous rage by a former gay lover, despite the fact that he was not gay.

At one stage, while Dershowitz was in New York with a class of students and the trial was under way in Los Angeles, he sent a fax to Cochran, raising the idea that Nicole had been murdered as part of a drugs cartel war.

The only evidence? Nicole's throat was so savagely cut that her head had almost been severed, an injury often inflicted in drug-related killings and known to gangsters as the Colombian necktie.

But despite the flimsiness of this argument, it was successfully used to confuse the issues before the jury - who would ultimately find Simpson not guilty.

Today, Simpson - who has since released a book, If I Did It, in which he 'hypothetically' explains how he would have carried out the murders - is serving a 33-year sentence for his involvement in an armed robbery at a Las Vegas hotel in which he tried to retrieve football memorabilia.

It's safe to say that few informed observers are confident his murder trial reached the right conclusion.

Kardashian in the court

Reality star Kim and the rest of the Kardashians are never out of the public eye. But their father Robert, who died at 59 in 2003 from cancer, had all but vanished from memory until becoming a central character in the recreation of the trial, played by former Friends star David Schwimmer.

After training as a lawyer Kardashian made his fortune selling 'muzak', or background music, for cinemas.

He and Simpson had been close friends for 20 years before he joined his defence team at the trial (he's pictured there with O.J.). Initially, he was convinced of Simpson's innocence, but then he became unsure. By the time it seemed O.J. might be acquitted, Kardashian was certain of his guilt - but, as he told his ex-wife Kris, he couldn't quit without drawing the attention of the world's Press to himself and his family ... exactly what they'd love today.

The Kardashian clan has accused the drama of petty inaccuracies, but these actually show how close to the truth it is. For instance, in the opening episode, O.J. (played by Cuba Gooding Jr) threatened suicide at the Kardashian home, holding a gun to his head. "Not in Kimmy's bedroom," pleaded Robert. The family say that it occurred in Khloe's bedroom.

Everybody old enough to remember the O.J. trial will know the story began with a meandering police pursuit, watched from news helicopters and by millions of television viewers, as the murder suspect sat in the back of his white Ford Bronco.

With his friend Al Cowlings at the wheel, Simpson refused to pull over, telling police he had a gun and was prepared to kill himself.

What few people realised at the time was that the Bronco was a major piece of evidence: detectives had found blood in the car that matched both the victims as well as O.J. himself.

And it was not widely understood, in Britain at least, that when O.J. got into the car he wasn't making a confused cry for help, but a calculated break for the Mexican border, in the hope of evading trial.

In the event, he returned to his house instead and surrendered to police.

Sleight of hand: O.J. Simpson convinces the jury in 1995 that the blood-stained gloves didn't fit - but the reconstruction showed he clenched his fingers. Inset, his murdered ex-wife Nicole in her modelling days.

• The People vs OJ Simpson will screen on Prime from April 26 at 8.30pm