The most memorable line from O.J. Simpson’s 1994-95 jury trial, other than the “not guilty” verdicts, was defense attorney Johnnie Cochran’s genius phrase, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” That clear, simple rule is widely thought to be a key factor in Simpson’s acquittal. In today’s post, we’re going to look at that statement and its circumstances in the context of the LSAT.
For those who don’t know, O.J. Simpson was an American football legend and a well-liked, if not terribly talented, actor. The nation’s perception of Simpson changed dramatically in 1994 when television programs across the nation were preempted to show Simpson, in a white Bronco, engaged in a slow-speed chase with police.
Over the next several days, details of a horrific crime captured everyone’s attention: the murder of Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Both Nicole and Ronald were brutally murdered, and Simpson was arrested for the offense.
In what was the most-watched trial in history to that point, lawyers spent months laying out the case for and against Simpson. In just one of many blunders, the prosecution asked that Simpson be required to try on a pair of bloody gloves found at the crime scene.
Here’s the problem: even if the gloves fit, that wouldn’t prove anything. Anyone who purchases gloves knows that they're not sized as closely as some other types of clothing and accessories. How many of the approximately 9 million people living in the L.A. area in 1994 wore that same size gloves? However, if the gloves didn’t fit (as they didn’t at the time of Simpson’s trial), then that result would seriously damage the prosecution’s case.
In other words, the prosecution, at trial, was taking a risk by asking for an experiment to be conducted in front of the jury when the results were unknown, the upside for the prosecution was slim, and the downside for the prosecution was great. That's a ridiculous trial strategy (listen to this ABA podcast about tips for trying your first case). It would have been more effective and less risky for the prosecution, by a solid use of dramatic narrative in closing argument, to create for the jury the mental impression of Simpson wearing the gloves. In their mental recreation of the crime, it’s most likely that Simpson’s gloves would have fit just fine.
But let’s talk about the glove and Cochran’s famous rule in light of the LSAT. First, think about an assumption involved in the test. The prosecution’s theory was that Simpson was the murderer and wore the gloves when committing the murders. Therefore, they thought, the gloves would fit him at trial.
But this assumes that neither Simpson nor the gloves had changed since the time of the murder. In essence, the prosecution fell for a version of the Time Shift error, thinking that because something has been a certain way in the past, then that thing will continue to be the same in the future.
Things had changed, though. At the crime scene, the leather gloves had been soaked in blood, and then were frozen and refrozen several times. So, the gloves were necessarily different than they were on the night of the murder.
And Simpson had changed as well. Time had passed and he was under considerable stress. Simpson also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and regularly took medication for his condition. A prosecution theory for why the glove didn’t fit was that Simpson had stopped taking his medication prior to trial, causing his hands to swell.
And what about Cochran’s famous statement, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”?
Clearly, this is a conditional rule. But let’s break the rule down a bit. What Cochran was saying is that if the gloves don’t fit, then the prosecution had failed to prove that Simpson murdered one or both of the victims. This rule draws an equivalence that isn’t necessarily supported. So, let’s look at it a bit further.
The application of the rule would be that if the gloves don’t fit Simpson now, then they didn’t fit him on the night of the murder, either. If gloves didn’t fit Simpson on the night of the murder, then he didn’t wear them or for some other reason leave them at the crime scene. If Simpson didn’t wear the gloves or leave them at the crime scene, then he did not commit the murders.
See how Cochran’s rule had some serious assumptions within it as well? Now, to be fair, the job of the criminal defense is not to prove innocence, but to create reasonable doubt. The prosecution in the Simpson case was making a circumstantial argument, essentially building a chain of evidence, in which each piece of evidence is a link in that chain. To win, the defense simply needed to convince the jury that at least one of the links in that chain was flawed.
Here, Cochran and the defense team removed a link from the circumstantial chain of evidence by demonstrating, at the prosecution’s request, that the bloody gloves didn’t fit Simpson. The rest, as they say, is history.
Image: "Mistake" by Herman Yung.