The death of Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson after a battle with cancer has brought up old feelings about his sensational murder trial and acquittal in the 1990s.

So, did O.J. really kill his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her companion, or no? Did he get away with it? Did a broken system allow him to get off?

In many instances, one’s point of view depends on if you are white or Black. What I think about the saga is best told from how I became involved with the O.J. trial as a photographer at the Los Angeles Times.

Kirk McKoy took this photo of Robert Shapiro, attorney for O.J. Simpson, as he left the criminal courts building during a lunch break amid the football player’s trial in the 1990s. An unidentified man walked in front of Shapiro, wearing a Simpson T-shirt and carrying a carton of orange juice (O.J.). (Kirk McKoy/The Los Angeles Times)

I was at home when I got the news. The police were doing a slow chase, following behind O.J. Simpson, who was driving a white Ford Bronco on the 405 freeway. Newscasters were begging him to give up. I was excited to get the chance to cover the story — I called my editor and told them where I was headed. Then, I called my dad — “You’re not going to believe this …” — as I grabbed my cameras and headed for the nearest overpass looking for the perfect shot.

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O.J. the football player was the guy I most wanted to emulate on the field. He was a Black man who made the world stop and take notice of his skills; my father and I put him on a pedestal. Dad would say that Simpson embodied the “Be Like Mike” slogan before there was a Michael Jordan. A great football player with a million-dollar smile.

I lived near Beverly Hills and knew the area where I thought he might exit the freeway. But I chose a poor location, and did not get a good shot. My colleague, Al Schaben, got the best angle and photo of the Bronco on the freeway, which became an iconic image still used today. It shows the truck dead center on the highway, with police cars following it and other cars pulled to the side of the road.

It was at the trial where I got some action. It was the trial of the century, and I was there. I was an up-and-coming young Black photojournalist, and recognized the makings of history on the horizon. But it was years later that I truly understood the significance the trial would hold for me as a Black man.

The trial was just a few years after the L.A. riots, which followed the police beating of Rodney King. The O.J. trial had the makings of the same sentiments for Black America. Another Black man being persecuted. Another racial polarizing moment in America.

Reporters surround attorney Michael Brewer outside the courthouse. Brewer was representing Ron Goldman’s family in their lawsuit against O.J. Simpson. (Kirk McKoy/The Los Angeles Times)

There were so many media requests to cover the trial that Judge Lance Ito decided there were to be no interruptions from film crews and photographers. So, a remote-controlled camera was installed above the jury box. A pool was formed, and each media outlet had control of the camera for one day; all of the photos that were selected had to be shared among all the outlets. The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, Los Angeles Daily News and Agence France-Presse manned the camera and supplied photos for the world. I wasn’t chosen to man the remote camera, though I sure wanted to. Outside the courtroom, it was everyone for themselves.

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I was given the job of photographing the circus of media and bystanders outside the courthouse, with instructions to be creative and capture the energy of the trial from the streets. I didn’t care where they put me to photograph the trial. I wanted to be a part of it. I needed to be a part of it. The main reason was that I wanted to be able to talk with my father about it — I wanted him to be proud that his son was there to see it happen and chronicle it. I remember years later, my dad was talking about the O.J. trial with friends and proudly telling everyone that his son was there to see it happen.

There was little to do after court started for the day. Many of the journalists stationed outside the courthouse debated about the guilt or innocence of Simpson. I was one of three Black photojournalists I remember covering the trial. I guess that’s why it was important for me to be there. I remember telling myself that I could help there be more balanced coverage. The jury of journalists believed that he was guilty, and that didn’t sit right with me initially. They got the wrong guy, I thought. He couldn’t have done that.

The sheriff’s van carrying O.J. Simpson to the criminal courts building as spectators and the news media watch. (Kirk McKoy/The Los Angeles Times)

My mind changed as the trial proceeded. Toward the end of the trial, Simpson was asked to put on the gloves found bloodied at the scene of the killings. The gloves didn’t fit. Johnnie Cochran Jr. uttered the words: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Everyone in L.A. was watching. But by that time, I had little sympathy for Simpson. I had no appreciation for the defense team’s claim that Simpson had been targeted because he was Black and famous.

When the verdict was announced, every Black person jumped and cheered. Every white person was silent. This was the biggest racial divide issue I had ever seen. I grew up in a military household. I lived in a world that, at the time, I thought was Black and white. Innocent or guilty. I have come to believe now there were so many shades of gray involved in every story.

My father passed away 13 years ago, and until the day he died, he still believed O.J. was innocent. “I don’t care what you say, he didn’t do it,” he would say.

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Hearing the news of Simpson’s passing, I thought of my father and the hurt look on his face when I told him that I thought he actually committed the killings. I remember the shadow of pain and the look in his eye while shaking his head no. I hurt the old man that day.

We eventually got past our disagreement by agreeing to disagree. Hearing about O.J.’s death reminds me how our beliefs about someone we put on a pedestal can fracture when they fall.

My friends and I still debate Simpson’s guilt or innocence. I remain conflicted about the case. The journalist in me says, he did it all right, and got away with it. But as a Black man, I say that he was tried by a jury of his peers and both sides presented their case for the crime. The jury declared him “not guilty,” and that is what we have to accept. Case closed.

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