People of California v. Orenthal James Simpson
One of the most memorable, news-making, and over-publicized murder trials in the United States in memory was People of California v. Orenthal James Simpson, also known as the “O.J. Simpson Trial.”
Like a made-for-television movie, the trial had unforeseen twists and turns that kept Americans glued to their television sets for an entire year and speculating on the outcome was part of daily conversations.
On June 12, 1994, the ex-wife of former NFL star, TV pitchman, and sports commentator O.J. Simpson was brutally murdered in the front yard of her Brentwood, California home along with a local restaurant waiter, Ron Goldman, who had stopped by to drop off an item left at dinner. The pair had been stabbed to death in gruesome fashion. Attention immediately turned to the woman’s ex-husband, Simpson, because their marriage and divorce were peppered with domestic abuse complaints including physical abuse.
When police went to Simpson’s house they found evidence that appeared to be related to the crime including blood on Simpson’s vehicle and a glove with D.N.A. on it that appeared to match a glove at the crime scene. But Simpson himself was away, having taken a flight to Chicago the night before.
Police issued an arrest warrant for Simpson. He agreed through his attorneys to turn himself in to police on June 17, but then didn’t appear. Hours later a motorist reported that Simpson was in a vehicle on a Los Angeles freeway and a low-speed chase ensued, including about nine media helicopters and 20 police vehicles. Along the way various people called Simpson on his cell phone and pleaded with him to surrender.
The case against Simpson
Witnesses who might have contributed to the prosecution and even the grand jury pool were tainted by media attention: a man who said he sold Simpson a knife like the murder weapon sold his story to a television program, eliminating his testimony from the trial, and a grand jury was dismissed after it was found that media attention of the case made them ineligible.
On June 20, Simpson pleaded not guilty to the murders.
The district attorney decided to try the case in Los Angeles rather than Santa Monica, where the murders took place, a choice that made the jury pool more racially diverse and perhaps lead to the eventual verdict of not guilty. The trial lasted more than 130 days, with much of it replayed in television highlights or live on television, attracting an audience of millions.
Prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden presented much circumstantial evidence to place Simpson at the scene of the crime and not at home in bed where he claimed to have been that night. They also took the testimony of Brown’s sister who said she’d seen Simpson throw Brown against a wall and physically throw her out of their house. Another witness testified that Brown had called a women’s shelter looking for help just days before because her ex-husband was stalking her and she feared for her life.
Defense attorneys, lead by Johnnie Cochran, tore the prosecution apart, particularly LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman, who found the second glove at Simpson’s house the night of the murder. They effectively portrayed Fuhrman as a racist without credibility who might have planted the evidence to frame Simpson. He also pushed prosecutor Darden to have Simpson try on the mystery glove, which did not fit over a latex glove he was wearing to protect the evidence. They also cast doubt on the photos produced by prosecutors that showed Simpson wearing rare Italian designer shoes that were linked to evidence found at the crime scene. The defense’s primary argument was that Brown and Goldman were victims of a drug cartel looking for a drug user who sometimes stayed with Brown.
The jury deliberated only four hours before returning a verdict of not guilty. Afterward several jurors said they thought Simpson was likely guilty but the prosecution did not prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. One of the jurors was found to be a member of the Black Panthers, a group likely supportive of Simpson.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys wrote books about the case. Media accounts detailed Los Angeles police’s history of racism and abuse of African-American residents, leading to the strong belief that the not guilty verdict by the jury of nine Black, one Hispanic, and two white individuals was payback to police.
Goldman’s family sued Simpson for wrongful death in 1997 and won a nearly $20 million verdict. They took over publication of a ghost written book by Simpson, called “If I Did It” and turned it into “If I Did It: Confession of the Killer” to capture some of the money Simpson owed the family and started a foundation to aid victims of violent crime.
Simpson evaded jail the first time but in 2007 he was tried and convicted of several felonies related to armed robbery and kidnapping in a scheme in Las Vegas to take back sports memorabilia he claimed had been stolen from him. Simpson was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison.