Posted on April 11, 2024

O.J. Simpson, Football Star Whose Trial Riveted the Nation, Dies at 76

Robert D. McFadden, New York Times, April 11, 2024

O.J. Simpson, who ran to fame on the football field, made fortunes as an all-American in movies, television and advertising, and was acquitted of killing his former wife and her friend in a 1995 trial in Los Angeles that mesmerized the nation, died on Wednesday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 76.

The cause was cancer, his family announced on social media.

The jury in the murder trial cleared him, but the case, which had held up a cracked mirror to Black and white America, changed the trajectory of his life. In 1997, a civil suit by the victims’ families found him liable for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman, and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages. He paid little of the debt, moved to Florida and struggled to remake his life, raise his children and stay out of trouble.

In 2006, he sold a book manuscript, titled “If I Did It,” and a prospective TV interview, giving a “hypothetical” account of murders he had always denied committing. A public outcry ended both projects, but Mr. Goldman’s family secured the book rights, added material imputing guilt to Mr. Simpson and had it published.

In 2007, he was arrested after he and other men invaded a Las Vegas hotel room of some sports memorabilia dealers and took a trove of collectibles. He claimed that the items had been stolen from him, but a jury in 2008 found him guilty of 12 charges, including armed robbery and kidnapping, after a trial that drew only a smattering of reporters and spectators. He was sentenced to nine to 33 years in a Nevada state prison. He served the minimum term and was released in 2017.

Over the years, the story of O.J. Simpson generated a tide of tell-all books, movies, studies and debate over questions of justice, race relations and celebrity in a nation that adores its heroes, especially those cast in rags-to-riches stereotypes, but that has never been comfortable with its deeper contradictions.

There were many in the Simpson saga. Yellowing old newspaper clippings yield the earliest portraits of a postwar child of poverty afflicted with rickets and forced to wear steel braces on his spindly legs, of a hardscrabble life in a bleak housing project and of hanging with teenage gangs in the tough back streets of San Francisco, where he learned to run.

“Running, man, that’s what I do,” he said in 1975, when he was one of America’s best-known and highest-paid football players, the Buffalo Bills’ electrifying, swivel-hipped ball carrier, known universally as the Juice. “All my life I’ve been a runner.”


Along the way, he broke college and professional records, won the Heisman Trophy and was enshrined in pro football’s Hall of Fame. He appeared in dozens of movies and memorable commercials for Hertz and other clients; was a sports analyst for ABC and NBC; acquired homes, cars and a radiant family; and became an American idol — a handsome warrior with the gentle eyes and soft voice of a nice guy. And he played golf.

It was the good life, on the surface. But there was a deeper, more troubled reality — about an infant daughter drowning in the family pool and a divorce from his high school sweetheart; about his stormy marriage to a stunning young waitress and her frequent calls to the police when he beat her; about the jealous rages of a frustrated man.


The abuse left Nicole Simpson bruised and terrified on scores of occasions, but the police rarely took substantive action. After one call to the police on New Year’s Day, 1989, officers found her badly beaten and half-naked, hiding in the bushes outside their home. “He’s going to kill me!” she sobbed. Mr. Simpson was arrested and convicted of spousal abuse, but was let off with a fine and probation.

The couple divorced in 1992, but confrontations continued. On Oct. 25, 1993, Ms. Simpson called the police again. “He’s back,” she told a 911 operator, and officers once more intervened.

Then it happened. On June 12, 1994, Ms. Simpson, 35, and Mr. Goldman, 25, were attacked outside her condominium in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, not far from Mr. Simpson’s estate. She was nearly decapitated, and Mr. Goldman was slashed to death.

The knife was never found, but the police discovered a bloody glove at the scene and abundant hair, blood and fiber clues. Aware of Mr. Simpson’s earlier abuse and her calls for help, investigators believed from the start that Mr. Simpson, 46, was the killer. They found blood on his car and, in his home, a bloody glove that matched the one picked up near the bodies. There was never any other suspect.

Five days later, after Mr. Simpson had attended Nicole’s funeral with their two children, he was charged with the murders, but fled in his white Ford Bronco. With his old friend and teammate Al Cowlings at the wheel and the fugitive in the back holding a gun to his head and threatening suicide, the Bronco led a fleet of patrol cars and news helicopters on a slow 60-mile televised chase over the Southern California freeways.


The ensuing trial lasted nine months, from January to early October 1995, and captivated the nation with its lurid accounts of the murders and the tactics and strategy of prosecutors and of a defense that included the “dream team” of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., F. Lee Bailey, Alan M. Dershowitz, Barry Scheck and Robert L. Shapiro.

The prosecution, led by Marcia Clark and Christopher A. Darden, had what seemed to be overwhelming evidence: tests showing that blood, shoe prints, hair strands, shirt fibers, carpet threads and other items found at the murder scene had come from Mr. Simpson or his home, and DNA tests showing that the bloody glove found at Mr. Simpson’s home matched the one left at the crime scene. Prosecutors also had a list of 62 incidents of abusive behavior by Mr. Simpson against his wife.

But as the trial unfolded before Judge Lance Ito and a 12-member jury that included 10 Black people, it became apparent that the police inquiry had been flawed. Photo evidence had been lost or mislabeled; DNA had been collected and stored improperly, raising a possibility that it was tainted. And Detective Mark Fuhrman, a key witness, admitted that he had entered the Simpson home and found the matching glove and other crucial evidence — all without a search warrant.


The defense argued, but never proved, that Mr. Fuhrman planted the second glove. More damaging, however, was its attack on his history of racist remarks. Mr. Fuhrman swore that he had not used racist language for a decade. But four witnesses and a taped radio interview played for the jury contradicted him and undermined his credibility. (After the trial, Mr. Fuhrman pleaded no contest to a perjury charge. He was the only person convicted in the case.)

In what was seen as the crucial blunder of the trial, the prosecution asked Mr. Simpson, who was not called to testify, to try on the gloves. He struggled to do so. They were apparently too small.

“If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit,” Mr. Cochran told the jury later.

In the end, it was the defense that had the overwhelming case, with many grounds for reasonable doubt, the standard for acquittal. But it wanted more. It portrayed the Los Angeles police as racist, charged that a Black man was being railroaded, and urged the jury to think beyond guilt or innocence and send a message to a racist society.

On the day of the verdict, autograph hounds, T-shirt vendors, street preachers and paparazzi engulfed the courthouse steps. After what some news media outlets had called “The Trial of the Century,” producing 126 witnesses, 1,105 items of evidence and 45,000 pages of transcripts, the jury — sequestered for 266 days, longer than any in California history — deliberated for only three hours.

Much of America came to a standstill. In homes, offices, airports and malls, people paused to watch. Even President Bill Clinton left the Oval Office to join his secretaries. In court, cries of “Yes!” and “Oh, no!” were echoed across the nation as the verdict left many Black people jubilant and many white people aghast.