Rise and shine with a class brimming with OJ

October 20, 1995

British viewers may wonder, but it appears the O. J. Simpson trial was not an entirely futile exercise. For Paul Rothstein, of Georgetown University's law school in Washington DC, it has yielded a teaching bonanza.

Rothstein set out this January to incorporate the trial into his course on evidence, which all law students must take. The aim was to spice up a dry subject with a show that promised sports, sex, drama, and the Hollywood high life. And it proved, he said, "to be successful beyond my wildest expectations".

It cost at least $10 million for a jury to find O. J. Simpson not guilty of murdering his wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman - and was not, most would say, a shining example of the American judicial system at work. But Professor Rothstein sees it differently.

"The lawyers on both sides were very good, but showed what was right to do and what was wrong," he said. "They were well-financed, so there was generally a high level of performance, and no issue was left unexplored, no stone left unturned."

Professor Rothstein kicked off his course by passing out a paperback book on the legal rules that he authored himself: Evidence in a Nutshell. There was some heavier reading too, but the class revolved around the trial, with commentaries and assignments from Professor Rothstein. He brought in edited tapes from the trial coverage, and at key moments watched the proceedings live, with his students.

On large and small issues of law, he said, the trial breathed life into abstract concepts. Many of the twists and turns focused on the desirability of US rules of evidence that are based largely on English common law, but the trial touched on almost every legal dilemma.

"There was a lot of civility and uncivility to discuss," Rothstein said, "ethical as well as evidentiary problems, and plenty of meat to talk about bigger issues: whether unanimous juries are good or bad ideas; the disparity between rich and poor defendants; police conduct. They are all things that the trial lawyer must really bear in mind."

Since this year's course ended in June, Professor Rothstein has been preparing tapes from the trial for next year's, as well as working as a trial commentator for television.

The O. J. Simpson case now earns mention in virtually any law school course, he said, and other professors have used it as a teaching aid. But Professor Rothstein thinks his is the only "wall to wall" O. J. class.

There was some disillusionment following the acquittal, and some racial divisions that mirrored the reaction of the country at large. "But by and large they saw that the legal system is a protector of the individual from being trampled by the state, as imperfect as it is."

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