“They think he’s innocent too, you know.”

I was an eager 24-year-old baby journalist at the York Dispatch/Sunday News, about an hour north of Baltimore. It was 1995 and I was a general assignment reporter working the afternoon shift, meaning I was the catch-all for everything that didn’t fall into anyone else’s specific beat. And that day, I was the official O.J. Simpson reporter, whose name and phone extension appeared in a reader inquiry — without my approval — about whether the former NFL star, actor and pitchman was guilty of the murder of his ex-wife and her friend.

The person on the other end of the line told me that she was, and I quote, “an old white lady” who believed that O.J. Simpson, who died this week of cancer, had not killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman at his ex-wife’s Brentwood, California home. That in itself was interesting, as polls and conventional wisdom held that white people largely assumed the former running back was guilty, by a number The Washington Post had at a whopping 83% at the time. But I needed to ask what she meant, though I already knew.

“Who is they?” I asked.

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“The Blacks!” my new friend declared confidently. Two things were obvious: The woman on the phone had no idea that she was talking to one of the “Blacks,” and that she didn’t know that she was mistaken that all of “us” thought that Simpson was innocent.

Because I have always believed that dude was guilty as hell.

That I was very careful about telling anybody my opinion was very much a part of the national, racial, gender and pop cultural truths of the mid 1990s.

“Do you think he did it?” people would ask. “Umm, what do you think?” I usually answered, because if the inquisitor was Black, I didn’t want to immediately be cast out as a race traitor, and if they were white, I didn’t want them to assume that my opinion was because Simpson was Black. Because I sometimes suspected theirs might be.

Communities are not a monolith — exemplified by my belief in the guilt of the formerly affable Hertz commercial star and B-list actor — but anecdotally, some white people believed his documented abuse of his wife guaranteed his conviction, while Black people were either stalwart in his innocence or bitterly approving of his acquittal because the influence of money and fame had finally worked for a Black man.

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The nuances were, and remain, deftly complicated, and almost 30 years after Simpson’s low-speed freeway run from police, the whole situation left an undigested residue in the back of my throat that still lingers. I remember being sent to South George Street, downtown York’s main business drag, on the day of Simpson’s eventual acquittal to ask passersby their opinion. And I remember that, predictably, white respondents were in disbelief, while the Black men and women I met in the barbershop and beauty supply store clapped.

What was the reason for the disconnect? I think many white women, including Prosecutor Marcia Clark, assumed that the vivid and disturbing photos of a bruised Nicole, entrusted to her sister before her death, would be enough to sway the predominantly female jury.

But Clark and others made what I believe was an arrogant dismissal of the fact that those women were Black, used to themselves and their community being assumed guilty before any recourse. They also may have watched the white policeman who savagely beat Black motorist Rodney King go free three years earlier. Clark didn’t consider the duality of a Black and female identity, and how loyal those jurors might be not just to Simpson as an individual, but as a symbol of one small, rare thing they got to control.

Chris Rock, who was in Baltimore this time last year clowning native daughter Jada Pinkett Smith, put it succinctly in a past comedy sketch, describing jubilant Black people skipping and yelling “We won, we won! What the f--- did we win? Every day I look in the mail for my O.J. prize. Nothing!” Even if no cash was involved, some felt a definite, if fleeting, victory.

I didn’t, because letting off a guilty man, as I believed him to be, didn’t do anything for me. And the fact that Simpson had seemingly rejected the larger Black community for years made me wonder if he was owed that sort of solidarity, and if I, as a little Black nobody, would have been afforded that consideration.

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In the same special, Rock also dropped the disgusting line, “I’m not saying he should have killed her, but I understand,” because Nicole allegedly let Goldman drive a Ferrari her ex had bought her. This is a reminder of the nasty sexual politics of the era, which permitted this to be an edgy joke and made me, a declared young feminist, not immediately throw my copy of the special in the garbage. I am ashamed I didn’t.

So why have I always been sure of Simpson’s guilt? Using my “Law and Order” instincts, no one flees police with a fake beard to facilitate an escape to Mexico if they didn’t do something, particularly as a famous person who might presume he wouldn’t be gunned down on national television. Then there were those graphic photos of Nicole, which a former boyfriend of hers later told me were real. I didn’t approach this as a Black person or as a woman, but as a journalist who believed the evidence.

But I’m human, and all of my identity is fair game. I love many women who have been abused by their partners physically and emotionally. I am also the mother of a Black son who fears that he might be automatically assumed guilty of anything he’s accused of, by anyone.

Then again, I truly believe that if you are guilty, you should pay for it, no matter how many people were wrongly accused before you. I don’t believe O.J. Simpson deserved anyone’s grace, even though there’s a popular theory that he was covering the whole time for his son, Jason, the presumed killer.

Maybe his subsequent conviction for theft of his own sports memorabilia or that book he wrote about how he would have committed the murders if he had committed them, supported my view. Of course it did. You have to be a guilty man or an evil cynic to write that book. It’s gross. An innocent man would never.

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The thing is that O.J. Simpson died legally not guilty of those murders, and that’s where it will stand, forever. But the claw back of civil rights, the rejection of diversity measures and the continued dehumanization of Black men, tells me that we will always be divided not only on his culpability, but on societal debts.

I still think he did it. But I don’t know if that matters.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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