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O.J. Simpson, football great whose trial for murder became a phenomenon, dies at 76

O.J. Simpson, football great whose trial for murder became a phenomenon, dies at 76

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

correction

A previous version of this story incorrectly recounted that defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. asked O.J. Simpson to try on gloves during his1995 trial. The request came from prosecutor Christopher Darden. The story has been updated.

O.J. Simpson, the football superstar who became a symbol of domestic violence and racial division after he was found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife and her friend in a trial that riveted the nation and had legal and cultural repercussions for years afterward, died April 10. He was 76.

The cause was cancer, according to a post from his family on the social media platform X. Additional details were not immediately available.

Mr. Simpson had served nine years of a 33-year sentence for kidnapping and armed robbery unconnected to the death of his ex-wife before he was released in October 2017 from the Lovelock Correctional Center outside Reno.

It was a stunning downfall for a man who had risen from a poor neighborhood in San Francisco to become one of the greatest running backs in football history, an actor in more than 20 Hollywood movies, a corporate pitchman — sprinting through airports for Hertz Rent-a-Car in his most memorable television commercials — and a TV sports commentator. He had good looks, a warm smile and a poised manner that made him a popular sports media personality long after his playing days had ended.

The double-murder charges shattered his reputation as a high-achieving, amiable star.

He was accused of killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in a brutal knife attack on the walkway outside her townhouse in the fashionable Brentwood section of Los Angeles in June 1994. Combining issues of race, sex and celebrity, the murders and their aftermath quickly became what Time magazine called “the Godzilla of tabloid stories.”

Appearing at a parole hearing in July 2017 for his 2007 armed-robbery conviction, O.J. Simpson pleaded his case for early release. (Video: Reuters)

Bloodstains and other physical evidence linked him to the crime, but in 1995 a mostly Black jury accepted the defense team’s claim that Mr. Simpson had been framed by racist Los Angeles police. Members of the jury took less than three hours to acquit him following a marathon eight-month trial that was nationally televised and pervaded by a circus atmosphere.

The verdict triggered a public outpouring of emotion and reflected the deep gap in perceptions and experience between many Blacks and Whites when it came to racism and police conduct. Those gaps were still painfully evident decades later during protests and riots over the police killings of unarmed Black males in Missouri, New York, Minnesota and elsewhere, which led to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Simpson case “showed that when it came to law enforcement and belief in the police and the judicial system, Black people and White people in 1995 lived in different countries, and that was something that the country really didn’t want to be reminded of,” author and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin told “Frontline,” the PBS documentary program. “This case sure brought it home.”

Toobin, who commented on television about the trial and later became a high-profile author and journalist, was one of many figures in law and the media who came to public attention during the Simpson trial. Others included legal analysts Harvey Levin, who later launched the celebrity news website TMZ.com, and Greta Van Susteren, who became a cable-news host.

Hollywood hanger-on Brian “Kato” Kaelin, who lived in a bungalow on Mr. Simpson’s property, became a short-lived sensation and offered four days of rambling, colorful testimony before he was declared a hostile witness. When prosecutor Marcia Clark suggested he had moved into Mr. Simpson’s guesthouse to further his acting career, Kaelin replied, “I don’t think we were going for the same parts.”

Mr. Simpson’s legal defense team included his primary attorney, the colorful and persuasive Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., and Robert Kardashian, whose family went on to become media gossip fodder for decades.

Although Mr. Simpson was found not guilty in the criminal trial, the Goldman and Brown families in 1997 won a $33.5 million civil judgment against him from a jury that ruled he was liable for the murders.

Shunned by corporate sponsors and pursued by creditors, Mr. Simpson sought to maintain his affluent lifestyle with a series of increasingly desperate moneymaking schemes. The last was an organized raid at gunpoint in 2007 to rob two memorabilia dealers in a Las Vegas hotel room; Mr. Simpson claimed the two were seeking to sell stolen personal items from his sports and movie careers. It led to his arrest, trial, conviction and a sentence of 33 years for kidnapping and armed robbery.

Orenthal James Simpson was born in San Francisco on July 9, 1947, and raised in the tough Potrero Hill section. He suffered from rickets when he was 2 and wore leg braces made by his mother until he was 5, but he grew into a strapping and unruly teenager with a penchant for violence.

He joined the Persian Warriors gang and was suspended from school several times. “I was in a lot of street fights,” he recalled later. “Maybe because I usually won.”

Thanks in large part to the determination of his mother, who worked the graveyard shift as a hospital orderly while raising four children, Mr. Simpson graduated from high school in 1965. His raw athletic ability made him a football standout, but his teams were too mediocre and his grades too poor to attract the interest of big-time college sports programs.

Instead, he entered City College of San Francisco, where he broke records for junior college football. He was accepted to the University of Southern California in 1967. He grew to 6-feet-1 and more than 200 pounds, and his combination of speed and power impressed coach John McKay.

Mr. Simpson reportedly ran the 100-yard dash in 9.3 seconds — the world record was 9.1 — and as a member of USC’s track team, he was part of a 440-yard relay team that set a world record of 38.6 seconds in 1967.

On the gridiron, Mr. Simpson immediately drew attention as one of the finest running backs in the country. In 1967, his 64-yard run in the fourth quarter gave his team a 21-20 victory over UCLA in one of the most dramatic college games of all time. USC went on to a 14-3 Rose Bowl victory over Indiana and finished the season with the country’s No. 1 ranking.

The following year, Mr. Simpson won the Maxwell Award and Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best college player. He led the country in rushing both seasons, with 1,543 yards in 1967 and 1,880 yards in 1968. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry during the two years and scored 36 touchdowns in 22 games.

“Most experts,” Sport magazine declared, “are rating O.J. Simpson as the greatest running back in the history of college football.”

Along the way, he married Marguerite Whitney, his high school girlfriend, and had three children. He bought his mother her first house when he was in his early 20s.

Mr. Simpson, nicknamed “The Juice,” was the first selection in the 1969 draft and signed with the lowly Buffalo Bills. He spent three losing seasons in Buffalo until coach Lou Saban arrived and built the offense around his speedy running back. Under Saban, Mr. Simpson ran for more than 1,000 yards for five straight years and won four NFL rushing titles.

“O.J. has great speed, darting quickness,” Saban told Time magazine in 1973. “He is not a slashing runner; he has an elusiveness that is all his own. He is simply O.J. and lives in his own world when he has the ball.”

In 1973, Mr. Simpson set a single-game NFL record by gaining 250 yards against the New England Patriots in the season’s opening game. In the next-to-last game of the season, also against the Patriots, Mr. Simpson rushed for 219 yards on a snow-covered field.

In the season finale, against the New York Jets, he gained 200 yards to finish with a total of 2,003, breaking Jim Brown’s record of 1,863 yards, set in 1963. He was the first player in pro football history to run for more than 2,000 yards in a season. (Today, an NFL regular season consists of 17 games; in Mr. Simpson’s time, it was 14.)

He finished his NFL career in 1979 after two seasons with his hometown San Francisco 49ers, retiring with 11,236 rushing yards, second-most in history at the time. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame six years later.

Mr. Simpson was more than just an outstanding football player. His genial public manner made him one of the country’s best-known and best-liked media personalities. His 20 films included comic roles in “The Naked Gun” and two sequels, plus supporting roles in “The Towering Inferno,” “The Cassandra Crossing” and “Capricorn One.” He had a cameo appearance as an African man in the 1977 TV miniseries “Roots.”

In 1983, Mr. Simpson joined ABC’s “Monday Night Football” crew, working alongside broadcaster Howard Cosell and two former football stars, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith.

But the affable public persona concealed a turbulent and at times brutal private life. Mr. Simpson met a blond 18-year-old waitress named Nicole Brown in 1977 when she was just out of high school, and they started living together the following year while he was still married.

Mr. Simpson and Marguerite divorced in 1979, and he and Nicole were married in 1985.

It was a tempestuous relationship. Mr. Simpson was reputedly a serial womanizer who couldn’t resist boasting of his many sexual conquests, but there was evidence that he descended into jealous rages regarding his wife. Nicole Simpson made at least eight 911 calls to police for protection. In 1985, she called for help, saying Mr. Simpson had smashed her car windshield with a baseball bat.

A more severe incident came on New Year’s Day 1989. Nicole Simpson called 911 at about 3 a.m., and when a police car arrived she jumped from the bushes outside their house wearing only a bra and sweatpants. Police reported that she had a black eye, cut lip and purple bruises on her face and neck.

“He’s going to kill me, he’s going to kill me!” she cried.

A furious O.J. Simpson emerged from the house dressed in a bathrobe. The police officers told him he was under arrest but allowed him to go inside to change his clothes. He stormed out again a few minutes later, hopped in his Bentley and sped off. Police did not pursue him, nor did they charge him with resisting arrest.

Mr. Simpson was fined and placed on probation after pleading guilty to spousal battery. Three months later, NBC Sports signed him to a new broadcast contract.

Nicole Simpson left her husband in January 1992 and obtained a divorce in October. But within months, they were dating again. In October 1993, she called 911 once more, this time pleading for police help because she said Mr. Simpson had broken down her back door.

Early in 1994, she told friends she had left him for good. On June 12, Mr. Simpson attended a school music recital but did not speak to Nicole or join her and her family for a celebratory dinner afterward at Mezzaluna, a local restaurant. Nicole left her glasses there, and after work Ronald Goldman, a waiter who knew her casually, offered to bring them to her home about 9:45 p.m.

Their slashed and bloody bodies were found three hours later. She lay in a pool of blood, with deep wounds to her head and neck, while Goldman’s body was found nearby with 22 stab wounds. Investigators concluded that she was attacked first, and he was killed when he interrupted the assailant.

From the beginning, Mr. Simpson was the only serious suspect, although he insisted he was innocent. His lawyers arranged for him to present himself for arrest on June 17, but he fled in a white Ford Bronco, with lifelong friend Al Cowlings at the wheel and police cruisers in pursuit. A tearful Mr. Simpson sat in the back seat holding a gun to his head with one hand and pictures of his children in the other.

After a low-speed car chase broadcast live by news helicopters and witnessed by millions nationwide, the Bronco finally pulled up to Mr. Simpson’s Brentwood home, where he surrendered. The media circus had begun.

O.J. Simpson led police on an infamous car chase throughout Los Angeles highways on June 17, 1994 — the day he was supposed to present himself for arrest. (Video: Getty Images)

Investigators found blood samples from the victims in Mr. Simpson’s home and car. They also found blood from Mr. Simpson at the murder scene; human hairs on a dark knit cap and Goldman’s clothing that matched those of Mr. Simpson; and a pair of bloody leather gloves — one at the crime scene and the other behind Mr. Simpson’s guesthouse.

Mr. Simpson had no verifiable alibi for the time of the killings. But the prosecution had no eyewitnesses, no murder weapon and the burden of relying on a police department with a long history of racism.

Mr. Simpson’s high-priced legal team, led by Cochran, a skilled defense attorney known for his showmanship, sought to turn the proceedings into a trial of the Los Angeles police. The defense accused two White police detectives of manipulating and manufacturing evidence and mocked the testing methods and competence of the lab technicians.

In one of the pivotal moments in the trial, prosecutor Christopher Darden asked Mr. Simpson try on the bloody gloves in front of the jury. The former football star struggled to pull on the gloves, which appeared to be too small.

“If it doesn’t fit,” Cochran told jurors in his closing arguments, summarizing the case in general, “you must acquit.”

The legal drama inside the courthouse was often drowned out by the media noise outside. The supermarket tabloid Star and the syndicated television show “Hard Copy” reported the contents of Mr. Simpson’s lengthy statement to police within days of the murders.

The National Enquirer reported on the New Year’s Day 1989 fight in which Nicole Simpson was found bruised and battered. Louis Brown, Nicole’s father, eventually sold his daughter’s diary to the National Enquirer, and her sister Dominique sold topless photos of Nicole.

“When a tabloid tornado begins to spin … even the best among us tend to get caught up in it,” CBS anchor Dan Rather told the Los Angeles Times. “Before you know it … your standards have just broken open and you’re not applying the same rules that you do to other stories.”

Every moment of the trial was broadcast live after an early ruling by the presiding judge, Lance Ito. As a result, Ito became a household name, as did many lawyers, investigators and witnesses connected to the case. Ito was widely criticized for failing to keep a tighter rein on the courtroom antics of Cochran and other defense attorneys — among them celebrity lawyers Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey, Peter Neufeld, Barry Scheck and Kardashian — known collectively as the “Dream Team.”

The defense frequently outmaneuvered prosecutors Clark and Darden, who failed to anticipate the damage that the defense team’s aggressive and at times outlandish methods wreaked on the credibility of prosecution witnesses.

Mr. Simpson’s attorneys attacked the handling of DNA evidence by the police, which led to far-reaching changes in police practices, including more rigorous ways of collecting evidence and the establishment of crime labs to study DNA samples.

“We did not challenge the underlying reliability of DNA testing methods,” Scheck told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “We attacked the way that evidence was gathered and processed. We had a 21st-century technology and 19th-century evidence collection methods.”

During the trial, defense lawyers undermined the testimony of veteran police detective Mark Fuhrman, who said he had found two bloody gloves, one at the murder scene and the other at Mr. Simpson’s home, and had observed bloodstains at the house and inside Mr. Simpson’s Bronco.

Under a withering cross-examination by Bailey, Fuhrman denied ever using racial slurs, but the defense then called a screenwriter who had tape-recorded the detective using such language during an interview.

In his closing argument, Cochran compared Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and accused him and other investigators of seeking to frame Mr. Simpson. After the trial, Fuhrman resigned from the police force and pleaded no contest to perjury charges.

Because of the media frenzy, the jury was sequestered for 266 days. Eight of the original jurors were eventually dismissed for various forms of misconduct. The final jury consisted of nine Blacks, two Whites and one Hispanic.

After the verdict acquitting Mr. Simpson on Oct. 3, 1995, several jurors emerged to say they had never believed the prosecution’s case. There was cheering among sections of the Black community.

Still seeking justice, Goldman’s family and the Browns filed a wrongful-death civil suit. The trial that ensued in 1997 was less fettered by rules of evidence, and Mr. Simpson’s new attorney was far less savvy than Cochran and his team.

The plaintiffs introduced a photograph of Mr. Simpson wearing distinctive Bruno Magli loafers — the same kind that left bloody size-12 footprints at the murder scene. Mr. Simpson had denied ever owning such shoes, but now had to concede that he did.

Mr. Simpson’s defense team characterized Nicole Simpson as a woman who drank too much, opted for an abortion after becoming pregnant by one of her many boyfriends and allowed prostitutes and drug dealers into her home. The portrait was designed to offer alternative possibilities for murder suspects, but instead it was seen by legal critics and trial observers as desperate and demeaning.

Mr. Simpson’s defense team had not allowed him to take the stand at the murder trial. This time he spoke. Testifying in front of an enormous photo of Nicole’s face with cuts and purple bruises after the 1989 incident, Mr. Simpson at first denied ever having struck her but eventually conceded, “I physically tried to impose my will on Nicole, and I shouldn’t have done it.”

In February 1997, the jury awarded $12.5 million to the heirs of each victim and another $8.5 million to Goldman’s parents. “We came to the conclusion that Mr. Simpson should not profit from these murders,” one juror declared afterward.

The authorities seized Mr. Simpson’s Brentwood house and many of his possessions, including his Heisman Trophy, but only a small portion of the judgment was paid. He was living off an NFL pension reported to be $25,000 per month, and he eventually moved with his two younger children to Pinecrest, Fla., outside Miami, amid charges that he was concealing his assets.

He engaged in a series of abortive get-rich schemes, including a ghostwritten book, “If I Did It,” that was pulled from bookstores after a public outcry. The Goldmans later won the right to release the book to collect some of the settlement they were owed.

In September 2007, Mr. Simpson was arrested for leading a group of men into a room at a Las Vegas hotel, where they held at gunpoint and robbed two men of memorabilia that Mr. Simpson claimed belonged to him.

On Oct 3, 2008 — 13 years to the day after Mr. Simpson’s acquittal in the double-murder case — a jury convicted him of 10 counts of armed robbery, kidnapping and conspiracy. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison. Appeals of the verdict failed.

Before his prison sentence, Mr. Simpson shared custody of his and Nicole Brown Simpson’s two children, Sydney Simpson and Justin Simpson, with members of his slain wife’s family. The children attended college but remained out of the public eye during their father’s legal troubles.

Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Arnelle Simpson and Jason Simpson; and the two children from his second marriage. A 23-month-old daughter from his first marriage, Aaren Simpson, drowned in the family’s swimming pool in 1979.

Mr. Simpson’s trial and the lurid events surrounding it remained in the public imagination for decades. The verdict was continually debated, and in 2016 two television series about Mr. Simpson captivated the imagination of a generation too young to have seen him as a football star or even during the 1995 trial.

ESPN’s multipart series, “O.J.: Made in America,” won the 2017 Academy Award for best documentary; the FX network’s dramatic series about the celebrated trial, “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” won several Emmy Awards.

After his acquittal, the once unstoppable football star and celebrity struggled to find his way in the world. In 2001, Mr. Simpson was charged with assault during a road-rage incident but was acquitted. Other violent episodes followed before Mr. Simpson went to prison in 2008.

Days after his 70th birthday in 2017, in his first year of eligibility, he was granted parole. In his pleas before the Nevada parole board that ultimately set him free, Mr. Simpson said, “I basically have spent a conflict-free life.”

He settled in Las Vegas, where he told the Associated Press in 2019 that he played golf every day, obligingly took selfies with the curious who saw him at restaurants or athletic events, and was not inclined to reflect on the past. “We don’t need to go back and relive the worst day of our lives,” he said. “My family and I have moved on to what we call the ‘no negative zone.’ We focus on the positives.”



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