Impassioned speeches. Hostile cross-examination. The (gasp!) surprise witness or new piece of evidence. And, sometimes, a life hanging in the balance. Courtrooms are inherently theatrical; little wonder they’re a favoured setting for dramatists, from The Crucible and Witness for the Prosecution on stage, to Twelve Angry Men on the big screen and the slew of legal TV shows. “I object!” “You’re out of order!” “You can’t handle the truth!”
Of course, one of the most sensational trials in history was the 1995 OJ Simpson case. It played out like a drama, thanks partly to Judge Ito’s decision to allow cameras into the Los Angeles courtroom, and partly to the feverish media coverage of a story that had it all: murder, celebrity, sex, race. Prosecutor Marcia Clark noted that initially, TV viewers complained because the trial interrupted their soap operas. Soon, the Simpson trial became their soap opera.
Defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran revelled in that spotlight. What could be more theatrical than his famous use of a prop, forcing Simpson to try on the bloody glove found at the scene of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s murders? Topped off with that slam-dunk Cochran line: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
The Simpson jury spent nine months as a captive audience to this unfolding real-life melodrama. There was no reprieve: even on their day off, the judge kept up the drama – arranging a private showing of the play Love Letters (playing in the West End from later this week) in the courtroom itself.
It sounds cruel, but this bizarre site-specific production was actually part of a mercy mission to keep the Simpson jury sane. They were sequestered for a staggering 265 days, longer than any other jury in American history. That meant almost nine months of arguably inhumane conditions. They were kept in isolation at the Hotel Inter-Continental, and, to avoid outside influence, were not allowed newspapers, radio or TV. Nor could they go anywhere or see anyone. It was the criminal justice equivalent of the Big Brother house.
The incoming jurors had no idea what they would be facing, explains Carrie Bess in her book Madam Foreman: A Rush to Judgement, which she co-wrote with two of her fellow jurors, Amanda Cooley and Marsha Rubin-Jackson. “We were not warned what it would be like to be sequestered, and I think that was cruel.” She recalls the day of separation, in January 1995, when “many of the jurors and their loved ones were crying.” They were then taken to the hotel, where they and their belongings were thoroughly searched. It felt like entering prison.
From then on, they had to follow strict rules and timetables: when to get up, when to eat, when to exercise. They could only phone people and receive mail on the weekends, and could never discuss the trial. As Bess puts it: “We were no longer in control of what used to be our lives.”
Rubin-Jackson was a newlywed, and had planned to join her air force officer husband in Hawaii, where he was stationed. “[I thought] Oh, it’ll be over in March. Then March comes and I’m thinking, I’ll give them until June. And they kept going on and on. One of the conversations we had with Judge Ito, he indicated that we’d probably be home by August. Then August came and went.”
Eventually, a few supervised “conjugal visits” were allowed, and deputies escorted jurors home on rare occasions, like funerals. Bess lost her older sister during that time. “I flew back to Missouri on the red-eye, stayed there for four hours, and flew back for the trial to keep from holding it up.”
Unsurprisingly, tensions soon arose among this closely confined group of strangers. Jurors became anxious, depressed, irritable; some reported persistent headaches, one even suffered a heart attack. Cliques formed and dispersed – young versus old, black versus white. They took votes on which movies to watch, but that didn’t stop fights breaking out. One juror slapped another round the head. The jury had already seen two members dismissed. If it lost any more, there was a very real possibility of a mistrial.
This pressurised setting needed a release valve, and it came in the form of live entertainment, facilitated by one of Judge Ito’s clerks. On the jury’s day off, musical groups, comedians and actors were trouped through the courtroom to distract them.
Lynn Redgrave, of the renowned Redgrave clan (she was sister to Vanessa and Corin) had appeared in the original Broadway cast of AR Gurney’s 1988 play Love Letters, alongside her husband John Clark, and the pair agreed to reprise their performance for the jury in May 1995. Redgrave specially delayed her flight to Australia, where she was shooting the movie Shine with Geoffrey Rush and John Gielgud, and – with “the hefty approval” of the playwright, according to Variety – she and Clark entered the empty courtroom 104, next door to courtroom 103, where the Simpson trial was taking place, and prepared to give what must have been a surreal private performance.
Gurney’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play was already a popular two-hander, tracing the lifelong relationship between childhood friends. Although physically separated, they stay in touch via letters, and that epistolary form means actors don’t have to learn lines.
It has attracted a parade of big-name performers, including, in the rotating cast of the original 1989 off-Broadway production, Christopher Walken, Holland Taylor, William Hurt, Christopher Reeve and Victor Garber; and, on Broadway later that year, Stockard Channing, Robert Vaughn, Elizabeth McGovern, Jason Robards, Elaine Strich, and Timothy Hutton.
It was also performed by Larry Hagman and his Dallas co-star Linda Gray; by the striking combination of Mel Gibson, Sissy Spacek, Brian Dennehy and Carol Burnett; as a fundraiser by Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones, charging $2,500 a ticket; by the co-stars of the iconic movie Love Story, Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal; by real-life married couple Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson; on TV by Laura Linney and Steven Weber, and, in the 2014 Broadway revival, by Mia Farrow, Anjelica Huston, Diana Rigg, Martin Sheen, Alan Alda, and Candice Bergen.
In May 2020, Sally Field and Bryan Cranston mounted a digital production to raise money for the Actors Fund, and it is to be one of the first shows back on in the West End this week, starring Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove.
But surely none can compare with that remarkable 1995 performance for the OJ Simpson jury. It must have had a particular resonance for those jurors, separated from their own loved ones.
As the trial rumbled on, the jury was eventually allowed out for supervised trips: to the Goodyear Blimp, new movies, a private audience with Jay Leno, a tour of Universal Studios. Then, after nine long months, during which they were presented with 126 witnesses and 1,105 pieces of evidence, they finally reached the verdict. As juror Brenda Moran told the New York Times: “I feel free.”