Simpson, O. J.
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Simpson, O. J.
The criminal and civil trials of Orenthal James ("O. J.") Simpson, a former football star, actor, and television personality, regarding the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman, a local restaurant waiter, were two of the most controversial and highly publicized proceedings in U.S. legal history. The lengthy criminal trial, which ended in Simpson's acquittal for the two murders in October 1995, was nationally televised. In the civil trial, in which the estates of the two murder victims sued Simpson for damages for the victims' wrongful deaths, a jury in February 1997 awarded the heirs of the victims a total of $33.5 million. In both proceedings, but especially in the criminal trial, the issue of race played a dominant role. Simpson, an African American, was portrayed by his attorneys as another victim of the racist beliefs and behavior of members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
In the early hours of June 13, 1994, the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found lying in a pool of blood outside Nicole Simpson's Brentwood, California, condominium. Both victims had been brutally stabbed to death on the evening of June 12, but there were no eyewitnesses. After the slayings, Nicole Simpson's dog was found wandering around the upscale neighborhood with bloody paws.
Simpson voluntarily gave an interview to LAPD detectives the day after the murder. Five days after the murders, LAPD charged Simpson with the deaths, citing a trail of evidence they said linked the celebrity to the crime scene, including a bloody glove found outside the condominium that allegedly matched one found at Simpson's estate. On the day Simpson was to surrender to police, he and a friend, Al C. Cowlings, disappeared. Simpson left behind a note professing his love for Nicole, claiming his innocence, and implying that he would commit suicide. Police traced calls from Simpson's cellular phone, locating him in a vehicle traveling on a Los Angeles freeway. The ensuing slow-speed chase, which was nationally televised from helicopter cameras, ended back at Simpson's Brentwood home, where he was arrested.
Simpson's criminal trial began on January 25, 1995. He had assembled a team of lawyers that included robert l. shapiro, johnnie l. cochran jr., a leading Los Angeles defense attorney, f. lee bailey, a nationally known criminal defense attorney, alan m. dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, Gerald F. Uelman, the dean of Stanford University Law School, and Barry Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld, New York attorneys skilled in handling DNA Evidence. The group of prosecutors from the Los Angeles county attorney's office was led by marcia r. clark and Christopher A. Darden. Presiding at the trial was Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito.
In its opening statements the prosecution argued that Simpson's history of Domestic Violence against Nicole Brown Simpson showed a link to her murder. His pattern of abuse and his need to control his former wife culminated, according to Clark, in her murder, "the final and ultimate act of control." Goldman was murdered, continued Clark, because he got in the way, arriving at the Brentwood condominium to return a pair of misplaced eyeglasses at the same time that Simpson was attacking Nicole Brown Simpson.
The defense team, which Cochran dominated, asserted that the LAPD fabricated the physical evidence and that Simpson had been on his way to a golf outing in Chicago when the crimes were committed.
The prosecution presented the testimony of neighbors in the vicinity of the murder scene and of a limousine driver who arrived early at Simpson's home that night to establish that Simpson had time to commit the murders and return home shortly after the driver arrived. It also introduced the "bloody glove" found behind Simpson's guest house, a glove that matched one found at the crime scene. The prosecution called DNA experts to testify that blood found at the crime scene matched Simpson's blood and that blood from both of the victims was found in Simpson's vehicle and on socks found in his bedroom. In addition, a bloody shoe print found at the crime scene appeared to match an expensive brand of shoes that Simpson had owned, but which could not be found.
The defense team aggressively challenged almost every prosecution witness but leveled its harshest attacks on the credibility of the LAPD. Scheck attacked the way the blood and fiber evidence was collected and suggested that the police had used blood from a sample given by the defendant to concoct false evidence. Scheck and Neufeld also challenged the credibility of the prosecution's DNA experts, subjecting the jury to weeks of highly technical discussion of DNA analysis.
The defense also argued that the police had rushed to judgment that Simpson was the prime suspect. Cochran and Bailey cross-examined the police officers who had gone to Simpson's home early on the morning after the murders. These officers had not sought a Search Warrant but went into the residence based on the belief that Simpson himself might have been the target of the murderer. The defense challenged this justification and attempted to show that one of the officers, Mark Fuhrman, was a racist who planted the bloody glove that morning. Events in the trial confirmed that Fuhrman had lied under oath when he said he had not said the word "nigger" in the past ten years. As the prosecution case proceeded, the defense used every opportunity to demonstrate to the predominantly African American jury that the police had engaged in a conspiracy to frame Simpson.
The dramatic point of the trial was the prosecution's request that Simpson try on the bloody gloves. Simpson, wearing thin plastic gloves, strained to pull on the leather gloves and announced that they were too small and did not fit. This proved to be a damaging incident for the prosecution. In his closing argument, Cochran repeatedly stated, "If the gloves don't fit, you must acquit."
In October 1995, after 266 days of trial, the jury found Simpson not guilty of the murders. Cochran, in his closing argument, had implored the jury to acquit Simpson and send a message to the LAPD and white America that African Americans should not be the victims of a racist police and justice system. According to opinion polls, his argument sounded a strong chord in African Americans, because a majority of them believed that Simpson was innocent. Polls also showed that, in contrast, most whites believed that Simpson was guilty.
Despite the acquittal, Simpson had to defend himself in a civil lawsuit filed by the parents of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. In contrast to the criminal trial, the civil case was not televised, thereby reducing the intensity of the press coverage. In addition, the plaintiffs had the opportunity to depose many witnesses before trial, including Simpson, who did not testify at the criminal trial.
The plaintiffs' lead attorney, Daniel M. Petrocelli, fiercely examined Simpson at the deposition and again at the trial, pointing out the inconsistencies in his various accounts. Petrocelli mocked Simpson's contention that he had never beaten Nicole Brown Simpson, despite police reports, photographs, and testimony of other witnesses. The most crucial piece of evidence became the bloody shoe print at the crime scene. At his deposition Simpson said he had never owned a pair of the "ugly-assed shoes" that had made the shoe print. Simpson repeated this claim at trial, but Petrocelli produced thirty-one photographs of Simpson at public events showing that he had indeed worn the exact model of shoes prior to the murders. Finally Petrocelli argued that Simpson committed the murders because he could not control his temper: when Nicole Brown Simpson rejected him for good in the spring of 1994, he erupted in the same uncontrollable rage that had caused him to lash out at her in the past, only this time he used a knife.
In February 1997 the jury awarded the plaintiffs $8.5 million in Compensatory Damages and $25 million in Punitive Damages. The jury awarded the punitive damages based on an expert's testimony that Simpson could earn $25 million over the rest of his life by trading on his notoriety with book deals, movie contracts, speaking tours, and memorabilia sales. The jury did not want Simpson to profit from the crimes. Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki, who had conducted the trial, upheld the damages award. Simpson announced that he planned to appeal the case.
The plaintiffs obtained a court order permitting the seizure of many of Simpson's assets to pay the multimillion-dollar judgment. Simpson, who had regained custody of his two children that he had with Nicole Brown Simpson, claimed he was near financial insolvency. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs' attorneys returned to court numerous times in 1997 seeking disclosure of Simpson's assets, contending that he was attempting to hide them.
Alschuler, Albert W. 1998. "How To Win the Trial of the Century: The Ethics of Lord Brougham and the O.J. Simpson Defense Team." McGeorge Law Review 29 (spring).
Cotterill, Janet. 2003. Language and Power in Court: A Linguistic Analysis of the O.J. Simpson Trial. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Dershowitz, Alan M. 1997. Reasonable Doubts: The Criminal Justice System and the O.J. Simpson Case. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Schuetz, Janice, and Lin S. Lilley, ed. 1999. The O.J. Simpson Trials: Rhetoric, Media, and the Law. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.
Stuntz, William J. 2001. "O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton, and the Transsubstantive Fourth Amendment." Harvard Law Review 114 (January).