O. J. Simpson Trial Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

O. J. Simpson was one of America’s most famous celebrities when he went on trial for the murder of his former wife and one of her acquaintances. The trial featured virtually uninterrupted news coverage and analysis, frequent melodrama, and strong racial undercurrents, and raised far-reaching questions about violence against women and the role of racism in the American legal system.

Summary of Event

O. J. Simpson, a former athlete who had won the Heisman Trophy as a college football player and had been a National Football League all-pro running back, had made a successful transition to film acting by the mid-1990’s. On the night of June 12, 1994, Simpson’s former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, was murdered outside her home, along with an acquaintance, Ronald Goldman. Goldman had stopped by to return a pair of glasses that Nicole Brown Simpson had left that evening at the restaurant where he worked. Two years earlier, Brown Simpson and Simpson had ended their seven-year marriage after numerous allegations of domestic violence, although they still shared custody of their two children and occasionally spent time together. Murders;Nicole Brown Simpson[Simpson] Murders;Ronald Goldman[Goldman] [kw]O. J. Simpson Trial (Jan. 24-Oct. 3, 1995) [kw]Simpson Trial, O. J. (Jan. 24-Oct. 3, 1995) [kw]Trial, O. J. Simpson (Jan. 24-Oct. 3, 1995) Murders;Nicole Brown Simpson[Simpson] Murders;Ronald Goldman[Goldman] [g]North America;Jan. 24-Oct. 3, 1995: O. J. Simpson Trial[09120] [g]United States;Jan. 24-Oct. 3, 1995: O. J. Simpson Trial[09120] [c]Crime and scandal;Jan. 24-Oct. 3, 1995: O. J. Simpson Trial[09120] Simpson, O. J. Simpson, Nicole Brown Goldman, Ronald Cochran, Johnnie Clark, Marcia Fuhrman, Mark Ito, Lance Kaelin, Kato

O. J. Simpson and attorneys discuss strategy for cross-examining a forensic scientist during Simpson’s 1995 murder trial.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Evidence discovered at the scene of the murders and later at O. J. Simpson’s home quickly implicated Simpson, and five days later, a warrant was issued for his arrest. He fled in a Ford Bronco driven by his friend Al Cowlings and led police on a slow sixty-mile chase through Los Angeles, threatening suicide before returning home and eventually surrendering.

On January 24, 1995, Simpson went on trial in Los Angeles for two counts of murder. His personal attorney, Robert Shapiro, Shapiro, Robert assembled a team of prominent attorneys from across the nation, including F. Lee Bailey, Bailey, F. Lee a personal friend of Shapiro and at the time perhaps the most famous attorney in the United States; outspoken Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz; Dershowitz, Alan Barry Scheck, Scheck, Barry DNA expert and codirector of the Innocence Project; and Johnnie Cochran, a flamboyant and highly respected personal injury lawyer whose charisma would give the trial its most memorable moments. After opening statements, prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden Darden, Christopher began building a long and complex case against Simpson based on a time line of the murders and Simpson’s movements during that period, DNA evidence left at the crime scene, and a pair of leather gloves that appeared to tie Simpson to the murders.

The time line was established largely through the testimonies of Rosa Lopez, a domestic worker for a Simpson neighbor who at one point in the trial fled the country to avoid testifying; Allan Park, a limousine driver who arrived to take Simpson to the airport at about the time of the crime and could get no answer on the home’s intercom; and Kato Kaelin, a guest in Simpson’s guesthouse who had hamburgers with Simpson early in the evening and later heard a strange noise outside his window close to where a bloody glove was found. In early March, Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman testified that he had found the glove behind Simpson’s home and that it matched another found at the crime scene, but Bailey’s cross-examination of Fuhrman focused instead on Fuhrman’s frequent use of a racial epithet. Fuhrman denied having used the word in the previous ten years. Two months later, on June 15, prosecutor Darden suddenly asked Simpson to try on the gloves, a move that backfired when Simpson struggled to pull the gloves on before finally announcing that they did not fit.

DNA evidence discovered in blood samples placed Simpson at the scene of the murders and indicated that Goldman’s blood had somehow found its way into Simpson’s car. In late July, however, a forensic toxicologist working for the defense testified to finding a preservative in the blood samples, suggesting that the samples had not actually been collected at the scene and allowing the defense to argue that police had planted Simpson’s blood at the scene and on the gloves. Earlier in the trial, Scheck had forced a prosecution witness from the Los Angeles Police Department to admit that procedural errors had indeed been made, so when, in late August and early September, the defense presented a series of witnesses testifying that Fuhrman had in fact used racial epithets several times in the previous ten years, the defense argument that police had planted evidence against Simpson seemed to become more convincing. During his closing argument, Cochran drove home the theory with the jury by repeatedly using the refrain, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Complicating the Fuhrman episode, several audiotapes Fuhrman had made with a pair of authors who had interviewed him as background for a book revealed that Fuhrman had insulted Judge Lance Ito’s wife, a police captain in the Los Angeles Police Department. The prosecution attempted unsuccessfully to remove Ito from the bench, but by that point, the trial had become so infused with petty issues—jury strikes, bickering among the attorneys, Fuhrman’s disappearance from the trial after pleading the Fifth Amendment—that the motion to remove Ito quickly passed.

The jury began deliberating on the morning of October 3 and soon called for a review of Park’s testimony. Then suddenly, less than four hours after they had begun deliberations, they announced that they had reached a verdict. The next day, with as many as 100 million people watching on television or listening on radio, Simpson was declared “not guilty.”

Significance

In the wake of the media frenzy and the trial’s frequent melodrama, the trial not only posed serious questions about justice in America but also appeared at times to be a parody of a trial. The jury went on strike when three deputies who had accompanied them on trips were reassigned, the parade of eccentric witnesses and grandstanding attorneys blurred the lines between entertainment and news, and the gavel-to-gavel television coverage made celebrities of many of the participants, several of whom made millions of dollars from books and media appearances. Throughout the trial and after, Simpson’s own celebrity status prompted accusations that he was, according to some, receiving preferential treatment or, for others, being subjected to overly aggressive prosecution.

Perceptions of Simpson’s guilt or innocence differed dramatically between white Americans and black Americans, both during the trial as well as after the verdict. Whites considered the evidence convincing and overwhelming, but blacks generally dismissed both physical evidence and witness testimony as tainted by investigative error or police misconduct. The fact that Simpson was black and his victims were white only magnified the racial overtones, and with memories still fresh of the videotaped beating of Rodney King four years earlier by Los Angeles police officers who were later exonerated, the issue of race would emerge again and again throughout the trial.

Just over a year after he was found not guilty in the criminal trial, Simpson was sued in civil court by Goldman’s family for Goldman’s wrongful death. On February 4, 1997, after only a four-month trial, the jury brought back a $33.5 million judgment against Simpson. Soon afterward, Simpson moved to Florida, where the laws protected many of his assets. For years following the judgment, he avoided paying the award. Murders;Nicole Brown Simpson[Simpson] Murders;Ronald Goldman[Goldman]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dershowitz, Alan M. Reasonable Doubts: The Criminal Justice System and the O. J. Simpson Case. New York: Touchstone, 1996. Inside perspective on the Simpson trial by one of the members of Simpson’s legal defense team, including an analysis of the jury’s decision in the context of the American legal system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fuhrman, Mark. Murder in Brentwood. New York: Zebra Books, 1997. Account of the Brown-Goldman murders, including a detailed description of the crime scene and a critique of the investigation, by the detective whose earlier use of racial epithets proved devastating for the Simpson prosecution team.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunt, Darnell M. O. J. Simpson Facts and Fictions: News Rituals in the Construction of Reality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Examination of the news coverage of the Simpson trial, including differences of perception across racial lines and the manner in which the media used these perceptions to shape its coverage of the trial.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Toobin, Jeffrey. The Run of His Life: The People Versus O. J. Simpson. New York: Random House, 1996. Examination of the social and legal strategies used by Simpson’s defense team and the reasons for their success, by a former prosecutor and writer for The New Yorker magazine.

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