In late 1995, scientist Joseph Bonuso unveiled Solomon, a powerful computer program that could try cases, infallibly, without the need for juries. It ran testimony through polygraph analysis; it crunched legal algorithms on a team of supercomputers. Media from the San Francisco Chronicle to CNN covered Solomon, which had just done what a much criticized jury of humans had not. It had found O.J. Simpson guilty of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
The catch? Solomon was a hoax, perpetrated by serial prankster Joey Skaggs. It's not hard to see the story's appeal. After a socially and racially divisive trial, many Americans--especially non-African Americans--believed that 12 Angelenos had rejected irrefutable DNA evidence to set a murderer free. Solomon played to a machine-age civic fantasy: a bloodless robot, immune to gambits and race cards, that would dispense justice like a candy machine. (Nor is it only a conservative wish; the anti-death penalty crowd has embraced DNA evidence to reopen capital cases.)
Given the John Henry-vs.-the steam-drill conflict in modern justice, the surprise hit of the new TV season is not such a surprise. CSI (CBS, Fridays, 9 p.m. E.T.), a slick, formulaic crime drama set in Las Vegas, is a cop show with a twist: the heroes are crime-scene investigators (CSIs), forensic scientists who use high-tech tools to nab crooks. The show has a certain Vegas-y rock-'n'-roll sleaze appeal, but underneath it all, CSI is the geek Quincy, in which the true stars are the nail clippings, computer records, carpet fibers and above all DNA, performing like clockwork the same magic that they didn't on Simpson.
Where Dragnet satisfied a yearning for incorruptible cops, CSI evinces a longing for incorruptible machines, "Just the facts, ma'am" taken to its logical extreme. The CSIS (led by William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger) are bland, undistinguished types, as if to indicate how secondary the human factor is in this fantasy world of justice by the numbers. When you're guilty on CSI, you're guilty all the way; the computer says so. There is no relativism, no my truth and your truth. It's science. It's nothing personal. And we never have to see the cases go through the messiness of a trial.
It is that human messiness that is captured in CBS's excellent and disturbing Simpson mini-series American Tragedy (CBS, Nov. 12 and 15, 9 p.m. E.T.). Based on a book by Lawrence Schiller and former TIME correspondent James Willwerth, with a script by Norman Mailer--and contested in court by O.J., who tried to prevent its airing--it delves into the nest of brilliance, ego and sheer weirdness that was the high-priced Simpson defense. For the dream team portrayed here, justice is no science but rather a mix of fact-finding, gamesmanship, theater and politics--including the jockeying among Johnnie Cochran (Ving Rhames), canny, blustery and beset by late doubts about the client; Robert Shapiro (Ron Silver), shrewd and preening; and F. Lee Bailey (Christopher Plummer), bloviating but deeply loyal to the Juice.