Editor’s note: Tracy Miller is an assistant district attorney for the Orange County District Attorney’ Office. Here she writes about serving as a law clerk for the prosecution during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial.
Over two decades ago, the not-guilty verdicts in the O.J. Simpson case shocked America. I am a career prosecutor, and that was the first case I ever worked on.
After the verdicts, I was disgusted with our flawed system and a society where a trial for the brutal homicide of two innocent people had become a reality TV show.
I was saddened that viewers worldwide found entertainment in dancing judges, a fame-thirsty houseguest, and a double-homicide suspect that led police on a slow-speed chase while the world watched.
With the TV show, “American Crime Story: The People V O.J. Simpson” currently airing, and after 20-plus years of reflection, I have realized the trial of the century held several life lessons for us all.
‘You Aren’t Going to Get the Job’
I got a D+ in criminal law.
That was an interesting problem, given the reason I went to law school was to become a deputy district attorney.
Being a prosecutor was the only career I’d ever wanted.
One of my law school professors set up an interview for me at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
“I can’t tell you what case you are interviewing for,” she said. “You aren’t going to get the job, but you at should at least see what the inside of the DA’s office looks like.”
My interview was with (not-yet-famous) Christopher Darden for a law clerk position on the prosecution team for the O.J. Simpson case.
A line of law students, with better grades than mine, sat in the hallway, waiting to be interviewed. During our meeting, I told Chris a joke to break the ice, and then I showed him my transcript with the D+ on it.
I’ll never forget what happened next.
Chris said: “I like you. I think I could work with you 60-plus hours a week. The job is yours.“
Chris treated all of the law clerks extremely well and gave us opportunities we never would have otherwise had.
I served coffee and ordered lunch, every day, for famous people, as they waited for their turn to testify in court.
I assisted with legal motions, observed the prosecutors prepare the witnesses, learned how to work (and fix) a copy machine, and occasionally went to court.
Mostly, I watched.
I observed the behaviors and interactions of the prosecutors, police officers, witnesses, victims’ family members, and the judge.
During the trial, I learned some things about the law, but I learned even more about life.
These are the top five life lessons:
Women leaders are widely misjudged
Marcia Clark had it rough.
Being a trial lawyer is extremely stressful, and being a prosecutor has the added stress of fighting for victims who no longer have a voice to fight for themselves.
Marcia had the additional pressures of being the lead prosecutor on the trial of the century. She was ruthlessly criticized for her hairstyle, her suits, and for being a single mother. Her ex-husband sold private photos of Marcia to the tabloids during the trial.
In contrast, none of the male attorneys were condemned for their appearance or their marital status. One day during the trial, I was in an elevator with Marcia when an unexpected legal issue arose. She quickly cited not only the case that addressed the issue, but the page number, and exact number of the corresponding footnote.
Marcia is strong, smart, direct, witty and extremely hardworking. I learned to never criticize a woman for her style or status, but to instead pay attention to her character, experiences, work ethic and values.
Ending domestic violence is everyone’s responsibility
When the verdicts were read, I was sitting in what we called the War Room, an overflow room on the 18th floor of the D.A.’s Office where the support staff and some family members watched the trial on television. A member of the Brown family cried out immediately after the verdicts were read, “What about the babies?! What will happen to the babies?!”
She was worried about the future of Nicole and O.J.’s children, and fearful that O.J. would now be allowed to raise them.
During the trial, one of my tasks was to transcribe the several 911 tapes on which Nicole had called begging for help, because O.J. had brutally beaten her. Listening to these disturbing tapes often gave me nightmares.
O.J. beat Nicole repeatedly. He made her bleed and gave her severe bruises. Once, he even locked her in a cellar.
Many people in the Simpsons’ inner circle knew that O.J. beat Nicole, and yet did nothing to stop him. Did they think it wasn’t their business? Did they give him a pass because he was famous? Why was she ignored when she said, “He is going to kill me some day and get away with it.”
This trial taught me that domestic violence happens in every socio economic and racial group in America. Often, the victim is criticized for being too emotional, or ignored because she continues to go back to the abuser.
Immediately after the trial, domestic violence laws became stronger in California. I learned from this case that domestic violence is a serious problem in America, and that societies must be vigilant to recognize, prevent, stop, prosecute, educate and be educated on domestic violence.
The message matters
On the day of the opening statement, the prosecution law clerks brought in a cake that read, “Kick the rich lawyers’ ass.” We were so proud of that cake and its message. Even as law clerks, we could tell that the government lawyers were very out-resourced by the defense. They had more lawyers, more money, better equipment, more expert witnesses, more support staff, and more expensive suits.
The entire case took on a life of its own.
Although we had great intentions, that cake had the wrong message. By reacting to the “Dream Team,” we were buying into their propaganda. The trial experience taught me the vital lesson that when life challenges you, don’t overreact. Trust your training and education, and keep your plan simple.
The simpler the plan, the better.
Karma is real
The 24-year-old me was convinced that justice always prevails, and “good” always wins.
At the time, I thought that a guilty verdict would lessen the pain of the horrific crimes committed upon Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown.
I now know that our justice system can’t take the evil in our society and wrap it in a nice package. Although I strongly believe in our system, it can never completely compensate for the losses of the victims and their families.
I’ve also learned that, often times, life itself eventually provides justice. After all, O.J. is currently serving a 33-year term in prison for a robbery in which he took property that he claimed was taken from him.
The trial taught me that there is karmic energy in the world. Everything we do, everything we put out into the universe, eventually comes back to us.
What we give is what we get.
Teamwork is vital
We are a society that loves to criticize and engage in Monday-morning quarterbacking.
In our fast-paced society, negative, often inaccurate, stories immediately go viral, while thousands of police officers — true heroes who risk their lives daily for our safety — get no media coverage whatsoever.
I have spoken to hundreds of people over the past two decades about the O.J. Simpson case. Many of them have been quick to point out what they would have done differently if they were the prosecutor.
As O.J. prosecutor Bill Hodgman told us young attorneys, quoting Theodore Roosevelt, “It is not the critic who counts.”
Bill always said being in the arena and doing the right thing is what matters. Over the years, the TV cameras and celebrities are not what I remember most about the experience.
Although I played a small part, I worked on a dedicated team of deputy district attorneys, police officers and support staff. This team was extremely hardworking and extraordinarily passionate about the mission.
Every individual on that team worked tirelessly for the cause and made countless personal sacrifices to fight for the two murder victims who could no longer fight for themselves.
The trial of the century taught me that working with a team of dedicated people for a common good is one of the greatest joys in life.
Tracy Miller is an assistant district attorney for Orange County, where she has worked for the past 19 years. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University and juris doctorate degree from Southwestern Law School. Miller also is a professional executive leadership and team-building trainer, and a motivational speaker. She provides leadership training to faith-based groups, corporations, teachers and non-profit organizations, law enforcement personnel, parents and students. Visit tracymotivates.com