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Legendary athlete, actor and millionaire: O.J. Simpson’s murder trial lost him the American dream

Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) — For a long time, O.J. Simpson was the man who had it all.

He lived the American dream as a sports legend, movie actor, commercial pitchman and millionaire. With his wildly successful career, startling good looks and a gorgeous wife, he became an image of success for Black Americans and was embraced by people of all races. It was safe for everyone to love Simpson, who inhabited a world of glamour and privilege available to few.

“I’m not Black, I’m O.J.,” he liked to tell friends.

It all came crashing down in the summer of 1994, when Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, was found dead outside her condominium in Los Angeles. Her friend Ronald Goldman, a waiter who had come to her home to return a pair of eyeglasses left behind at a restaurant, was lying a few feet away, stabbed to death.

Simpson, who died Wednesday at 76 of prostate cancer, immediately came under suspicion amid talk of domestic abuse and jealousy.

A criminal-court jury found him not guilty of murder in 1995, but a separate civil trial jury found him liable in 1997 for the deaths and ordered him to pay $33.5 million to relatives of Brown and Goldman.

The criminal case was a media sensation. Simpson was charged with murder, but before surrendering, he led police on a slow-speed chase across the freeways of Los Angeles. The so-called Bronco Chase, named for the white vehicle he rode in, was televised in prime time and became the first of many TV moments in the bizarre saga that engrossed America.

“I’ve had a great life, great friends,” he said in what many believed was a suicide note written just before he set out in the Bronco. “Please think of the real O.J. and not this lost person.”

His monthslong televised trial, dubbed “ the trial of the century,” ended up eclipsing his dazzling record as one of the most gifted running backs in football history. The trial touched on fame and wealth, love and hate, the judicial system, the media, domestic violence and racism. It was a Greek tragedy, soap opera and circus sideshow. America couldn’t get enough.

In 2011, the suit Simpson wore when he was acquitted was donated and displayed at the Newseum in Washington, a remnant of one of the biggest American news stories of all time.

TV comedians satirized the case. Trial Judge Lance Ito was parodied by a black-robed group of “ Dancing Itos.” Prosecutor Marcia Clark was wooed by an admirer who flew a plane over the courthouse with a banner asking her to marry him.

At the trial, prosecutors painted a picture of Simpson as a jealous ex-husband and a cold-blooded killer. They pleaded with jurors not to be intimidated by his “ dream team ” of highly paid defense attorneys, his charisma as an actor or his status as a football star.

Evidence found at the murder scene seemed overwhelmingly against Simpson: Bloody footprints in his size were there, as were blood drops seeming to match his DNA and a glove identical in style to one bought by his slain ex-wife and worn by him at televised football games. Another glove, smeared with his blood and blood of the two victims, was found at his home.

But the science of DNA analysis was in its infancy, and there were mistakes by police and forensic technicians in handling evidence. When Simpson tried on the gloves in court, he couldn’t get them onto his large hands, leading to the famous line his attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. later delivered to jurors: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Simpson spoke only three words during the trial: “They’re too small.” Many felt that was enough to make his case.

Defense attorneys were unwavering in professing Simpson’s innocence. He was framed, they said, pointing to former Los Angeles police Detective Mark Fuhrman, who denied making anti-Black racial slurs but recanted after a recording was played in court. He later pleaded guilty to perjury.

It was Fuhrman who found the bloody glove at Simpson’s home — or planted it, as some claimed — and it was Fuhrman who could not be trusted, defense attorneys said. Jurors apparently agreed, saying Fuhrman’s past weighed heavily on their minds.

In his final argument, Cochran played up racism and compared Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler.

The acquittal was viewed by millions on TV and on a Jumbotron in New York’s Times Square. President Bill Clinton took a break from meetings to watch.

Simpson’s efforts to resume his old life were undermined by Ron Goldman’s family. They believed Simpson was guilty and pursued their wrongful death lawsuit relentlessly. In a civil trial, a jury found Simpson liable for the murders and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages to the Goldmans and Nicole Brown Simpson’s family.

Hundreds of valuable possessions were seized as part of the award, and Simpson was forced to auction his Heisman Trophy, fetching $230,000. He never could pay off the $33.5 million, saying he lived only on his NFL and private pensions.

“The money is not the issue, it never has been,” Goldman’s father, Fred Goldman, said. “It’s making certain that one man, the man who murdered my son and Nicole, is held responsible by a court of law.”

In a statement Thursday, Fred Goldman and his daughter Kim noted that with Simpson’s death, “the hope for true accountability has ended.”

A decade later, still shadowed by the California wrongful death judgment, Simpson led five men he barely knew into a confrontation with two sports memorabilia dealers in a cramped Las Vegas hotel room. Two men with Simpson had guns. A jury convicted Simpson of armed robbery and other felonies.

Imprisoned at age 61, he served nine years in a remote northern Nevada lockup, including a stint as a gym janitor. Many believed he was being punished for crimes he had been acquitted of, including the Goldmans.

“It’s a bittersweet moment,” Fred Goldman said. “It was satisfying seeing him in shackles like he belongs.”

Simpson was not contrite when released on parole in October 2017. The parole board heard him insist yet again that he was only trying to retrieve memorabilia and heirlooms stolen from him after his criminal trial.

“I’ve basically spent a conflict-free life, you know,” Simpson said.

Simpson lived his final years in Las Vegas, mostly out of the public eye but occasionally taking to social media to opine about sports and his country club lifestyle. He was sometimes seen attending minor league baseball games, and posing for selfies with fans.

Simpson filed a defamation lawsuit in 2017 against a Las Vegas Strip resort accusing it of telling a celebrity news site that he had been banned for being drunk and disruptive. Attorneys for The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas argued that Simpson could not be defamed because his reputation was already tarnished. The case was settled in 2021 on terms that were not disclosed,

Public fascination with Simpson never faded. In 2016, he was the subject of an FX miniseries and a five-part ESPN documentary.

“I don’t think most of America believes I did it,” Simpson told The New York Times in 1995, a week after a jury determined he did not kill Brown and Goldman. “I’ve gotten thousands of letters and telegrams from people supporting me.”

Twelve years later, after an outpouring of outrage, Rupert Murdoch canceled a planned book by the News Corp.-owned HarperCollins in which Simpson offered his hypothetical account of the killings. It was to be titled “If I Did It.”

Goldman’s family, still pursuing the multimillion-dollar wrongful death judgment, won control of the manuscript. They retitled the book “If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer.”

“It’s all blood money, and unfortunately I had to join the jackals,” Simpson told The Associated Press at the time. He collected $880,000 in advance money for the book, paid through a third party.

“It helped me get out of debt and secure my homestead,” he said.

Less than two months after losing the rights to the book, Simpson was arrested in Las Vegas.

Simpson played 11 NFL seasons, nine of them with the Buffalo Bills, where he became known as “The Juice.” He won four NFL rushing titles, rushed for 11,236 yards in his career, scored 76 touchdowns and played in five Pro Bowls. His best season was 1973, when he ran for 2,003 yards — the first running back to break the 2,000-yard rushing mark.

“I was part of the history of the game,” he said years later. “If I did nothing else in my life, I’d made my mark.”

Orenthal James Simpson was born July 9, 1947, in San Francisco, where he grew up in government-subsidized housing.

After graduating from high school, he enrolled at City College of San Francisco for a year and a half before transferring to the University of Southern California for the spring 1967 semester.

He married his first wife, Marguerite Whitley, on June 24, 1967, moving her to Los Angeles the next day so he could begin preparing for his first season with USC — which, in large part because of Simpson, won that year’s national championship.

Simpson won the Heisman Trophy in 1968. He accepted the statue the same day that his first child, Arnelle, was born.

He had two sons, Jason and Aaren, with his first wife; one of those boys, Aaren, drowned as a toddler in a swimming pool accident in 1979, the same year he and Whitley divorced.

Simpson and Brown were married in 1985. They had two children, Justin and Sydney, and divorced in 1992. Two years later, Nicole Brown Simpson was found murdered.

“We don’t need to go back and relive the worst day of our lives,” he told the AP 25 years after the double slayings. “The subject of the moment is the subject I will never revisit again. My family and I have moved on to what we call the ‘no negative zone.’ We focus on the positives.”


Linda Deutsch is a retired special correspondent for The Associated Press. She covered all of Simpson’s legal cases during her 48-year career as a Los Angeles-based trial reporter.

Article Topic Follows: AP National News

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