OJ Simpson is an odd topic for me – a British, middle-class, white woman – to write about. Until about two months ago I’d seen his face a few times but not heard his story.
That changed when I watched the 8.5hr documentary OJ Simpson: Made In America and read OJ Simpson: The Run of His Life. (The latter was adapted into an award-winning drama series, but I’ve not seen that — yet.)
The documentary and drama come twenty years after his acquittal for murder in the ‘Trial of the Century’, but are astonishingly popular. Simpson has been in prison for nine years for armed robbery. When he got parole a couple of weeks ago, many American TV channels broke from their scheduled programmes to broadcast the hearing. Simpson’s life will be front-page news until he dies.
The reason OJ Simpson is such a compelling subject for Americans – and has become so for me – is that it has all the hallmarks of a great story. Man from disadvantaged background rises to the top through his skills and determination, only to fall tragically from grace. But that’s complete rubbish, and it gives this sickening, horrible monster far more credit than he deserves.
Let me start by explaining who OJ Simpson is and why all eyes in the US are on him.
Orenthal James Simpson was born in a poor area of LA and rose to fame in high school as an American football player. He went to USC college to play, and when he was there he broke the record of running 1,000 yards with the ball in one season. The part of the 1967 game where he did this is dubbed ‘The Run’, and that game is known as the ‘Game of the Century’ (echoing his ‘Trial of the Century’ thirty years later).
This prodigious American football ability is the original reason for Simpson’s fame — when he graduated, he joined a professional American football team and played for them for a decade. But he also became part of the Los Angeles / Hollywood establishment. He was in an astonishingly famous series of adverts for Hertz, and he began to act, such as in the film Naked Gun.
Simpson met Nicole Brown in 1977 when she was working in a restaurant he was eating in. When he saw her, he said to his companion, “I am going to marry that girl”. He was still married to his first wife, Marguerite, but divorced her in 1979. He married Nicole in 1985; they had two children; and divorced in 1992.
OJ Simpson physically abused Nicole throughout their relationship. The LAPD (many of whom were his friends) were called out dozens of times, and each time Nicole refused to press charges — aside from one time in 1989, to which OJ pleaded no contest. I refuse to write about this, but if you want to be horrified to your core, listen to Nicole’s last 911 call and tell me that she wasn’t afraid for her life.
In June 1994, Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were stabbed to death outside Nicole’s house. Simpson was arrested, tried for their murder, and acquitted.
His trial was dubbed the ‘Trial of the Century’, and it was one of the most widely publicised events in American history. (Simpson’s legal team included Robert Kardashian: Kim Kardashian’s father and the reason for her later fame).
A couple of years after the criminal trial, Simpson was tried in a civil court. This time, he was found liable for the deaths, and was fined $30million. Simpson subsequently made money from signing autographs – though most of this money went to Ron Goldman’s family, who have been trying to extricate the money from him ever since. He also wrote a book entitled ‘If I Did It’, which the Goldmans acquired the rights to and still make money from.
In 2004 Simpson was found guilty of armed robbery for breaking into a hotel and holding supposed thieves at gunpoint. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison. And now he is out.
That’s the story. That’s what happened. But you and I could have learnt that from reading Wikipedia. The reason both the documentary and book were so compelling was their forensic level of detail about this man. The documentary focused – comprehensively – on OJ’s upbringing and the social context of his crimes and trial. The book focused – with a laser beam – on the criminal trial and its machinations.
It’s impossible for me to summarise, even in brief, everything that the book and documentary cover. I probably know more about this man’s life than I do about my dad’s. I’m just going to cover one thing from each that I found most convincing. The two things that made me so certain that he is a serial killer.
The documentary: “I’m not black, I’m OJ!”
The documentary illustrates precisely how Simpson changed. When at college, he invited his entire team to the press room instead of going alone. After The Run, he bought a gold watch for each of his team members, with the season’s total yards ran on the back – not just his record-breaking number.
But ten or twenty years later, his fame and fortune had changed him. His sense of pride had turned to entitlement. His sense of solidarity had turned to selfishness. And he was so rich and famous that, at that point, it didn’t matter.
One of OJ’s most famous lines is “I’m not black. I’m OJ.” He was so adored by so many people that he didn’t see himself as being subject to black oppression. He was different. He was special.
Conflicting with this is what was happening in the real world.
Simpson rose to fame in the 60s and 70s, when the civil rights movement was in full swing. Despite this, he was utterly apathetic towards it – in contrast with other sportsmen such as Mohammed Ali. There was also enormous racial conflict in Los Angeles itself, specifically against the LAPD, who were believed to be corrupt, racist, and excessively violent. The Watts Riots. Eula Love. Rodney King.
Simpson’s acquaintance however was almost entirely white. A (white) friend tells an anecdote of them entering a restaurant, seeing an African American family eating, and OJ remarking, “What’re those niggers doing in a place like this?” And when the jury visited his home during his murder trial, the defence team changed all the photos from white friends to black acquaintances to make Simpson less “OJ” and more “black”, which was what he needed to be.
In 1994, 68% of white Americans thought OJ Simpson was probably/definitely guilty, and 60% of black Americans thought he probably/definitely wasn’t. The African American community heaped praises and support and trust on OJ Simpson, a man who didn’t deserve their solidarity, but ended up benefiting from it in the most dramatic way possible.
The book: “The glove didn’t fit: you must acquit!”
In over a year of in-depth forensic analysis, bellyaching about procedure, and squabbling about whether one of the detectives was racist (a palaver I refuse to discuss because it’s so stupid), the glove is an aspect of the trial that stands out for its simplicity.
One glove was found at Nicole’s house: the scene of the crime. Its pair was found in OJ’s house. Both were covered in blood. Evidence suggested the pair did belong to Simpson: Nicole had bought him identical gloves as a gift some months before.
When the gloves were presented during the trial, Simpson’s defence team encouraged him to try them on. And in a mistake that may well have cost them everything, the prosecution agreed.
The glove didn’t fit; you must acquit! became a rallying cry for Simpson’s supporters.
But of course it didn’t fit.
- Firstly, the blood-soaked glove had been out in Nicole’s yard, the leather cracking and drying, for days.
- Secondly, Simpson had to wear bulky latex gloves underneath the leather ones to preserve forensic evidence.
- And thirdly, when the gloves came to light and were going to be presented in court, Simpson’s legal team encouraged OJ to stop taking his arthritis medication, so his hands would swell.
In all the dreary days of forensic evidence, all the propaganda about Mark Fuhrman, and the endless media speculation, Simpson’s supporters just needed one simple sign that they were right. That’s what this was. But it was a trick.
The part of the book that hit me the hardest was very near the end. The prosecution called to the stand the man who had drilled open Nicole’s safe deposit box after her death. This is straight from the text.
There wasn’t much in there [the box]: her [Nicole’s] will; letters of apology from O.J. after his 1989 conviction; and the photographs of Nicole’s beaten face from that incident. But Darden [a prosecution lawyer] asserted that Nicole had a larger purpose for preserving those few items in the way she did. “She put those things there for a reason,” Darden said quietly. “She is leaving you a road map to let you know who it is that will eventually kill her. She knew it in 1989. She knew it. And she wants you to know it.”