Simpson, O. J. (1947–)

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O. J. Simpson (1947–)

O. J. Simpson—football star, media personality, and murder suspect—has been both revered and reviled by the public. In the 1960s and 1970s, Simpson won fame as a record-breaking college and professional football player. After his retirement from sports, he enjoyed a career as a movie and television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) actor, sportscaster, and star of TV commercials. Then, in the mid-1990s, he became the focal point of one of the twentieth-century's most notorious, controversial, and media-hyped murder cases.

Orenthal James Simpson grew up in San Francisco, California, and had a troublesome childhood. At age two, he suffered from rickets, a disease caused by a deficiency of sunlight or vitamin D. Rickets can cause soft and deformed bones in growing children, and Simpson wore leg braces for the next three years. When he was thirteen, he joined the Persian Warriors, a street gang (see entry under 1980s—The Way We Lived in volume 5). Eventually, his life became consumed by athletics. He starred at the University of Southern California, rushing for 3,187 yards during the 1967 and 1968 seasons while scoring 34 touchdowns. In 1968, he set an National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) record of 334 carries in a season and 1,654 yards gained. He was an All-American during both years and won the Heisman Trophy as the most outstanding college football player in 1968.

The Buffalo Bills of the National Football League (NFL; see entry under 1920s—Sports and Games in volume 2) selected Simpson as its number-one draft pick in 1969. During his tenure with the Bills from 1969 through 1977, he scored 70 touchdowns and rushed for 10,183 yards on 2,123 carries. In 1972, he was the American Football Conference (AFC) Player-of-the-Year. The following year, he became the first NFL player to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season, finishing with 2,003 yards, and was named the league's Most Valuable Player. Then in 1975, he rushed for 1,817 yards, scored 23 touchdowns—yet another NFL record—and was again named league MVP. Simpson retired after playing briefly for the San Francisco 49ers, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and was named to the NFL's Seventy-fifth Anniversary Team.

After his NFL retirement, Simpson remained in the public eye. He was handsome and had a friendly smile and an amiable public personality, which made him a natural for movies and television. He began acting professionally well before leaving football. While in college, he appeared on episodes of several TV series. He made his screen debut in The Klansman (1974) and The Towering Inferno (1974) and also appeared in Killer Force (1975), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Capricorn One (1978), Firepower (1979), three Naked Gun films (released in 1988, 1991, and 1994), and a number of TV series and made-for-TV movies. He became a football broadcaster, working for ABC and NBC, and starred in a number of commercials for Hertz rental cars. It would be no exaggeration to describe Simpson as one of America's more likable, higher-profile celebrities.

Then in 1994, Simpson was accused of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson (1959–1994), his ex-wife, and Ronald Goldman (1968–1994), her friend. The killings took place on the night of June 12, on the front steps of Nicole's condominium in Brentwood, a well-to-do Southern California community. The world watched as the slayings first were reported. In subsequent days, Simpson was questioned by the authorities. Then he was notified that he was to be arrested and charged with the killings. Instead of surrendering to the police, Simpson penned a note for the media and fled in a white Ford Bronco. Television cameras followed the car as it traversed the Los Angeles–area freeways with the police on its tail, a real-life drama unfolding before the eyes of millions. The chase ended at Simpson's Rockingham estate, where he was placed under arrest and led off to the L.A. County Jail.

Simpson was arraigned and eventually entered an "absolutely 100 percent not guilty" plea. The six-day preliminary hearing and nine-month trial became an American obsession, consuming hours upon hours of television airtime. The major networks televised them in whole or in part, and the cable news stations boosted their rating with wall-to-wall coverage followed by detailed analysis of the unfolding events and heated pro- and anti-Simpson debate. Additionally, various prosecuting and defense attorneys, homicide detectives, witnesses, journalists, and legal analysts emerged as celebrities, coming away with book deals and, in some cases, their own TV shows.

Just after Simpson's arraignment, the district attorney's office leaked to the media a tape of a 911 telephone call that a frantic and fearful Nicole Brown Simpson had made in October 1993. On the tape, she tearfully pleads for assistance as an angry Simpson yells and swears in the background. This was the first hint that Simpson's easygoing public personality was a sham. Two earlier instances of domestic violence between the Simpsons eventually were revealed. However, did the fact that the Simpsons' relationship was often volatile mean that O. J. was capable of killing Nicole? Was there any hard evidence proving his guilt?

In the end, the case's notoriety derived as much from the defendant's race as from the nature of the crimes and his celebrity status. As the trial ran its course, many were pro- or anti-Simpson based solely on the fact that he was an African American. After the closing arguments, the jury—which consisted mostly of African Americans—deliberated for only four hours before rendering a not-guilty verdict. The announcement was made on October 3, 1995. Simpson was freed because of his attorneys' ability to convince the jury that a combination of crime-lab ineptitude and police impropriety—including possible evidence planting and tampering—resulted in making an innocent man appear guilty. Simpson's lawyers, who came to be known as the "Dream Team," successfully played what came to be known as the "race card," implying that Mark Fuhrman (c. 1952–), one of the case's original investigating detectives, was a racist. They believed that Fuhrman had both the motive and the opportunity to remove a bloody glove from the crime scene and plant it in Simpson's house. Ultimately, those who were pro-Simpson believed that justice won out with his acquittal, yet many who felt he was guilty were convinced that the jury voted him free in an act of racial solidarity.

Simpson's time in court was not yet over. The family of Ronald Goldman had filed a wrongful death lawsuit against him, which resulted in a civil trial. In this trial, unlike during the murder trial, Simpson was called to the witness stand. On February 4, 1997, a predominantly white jury found him liable for the wrongful deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and assessed him millions of dollars in damages.

To this day, Simpson's guilt or innocence in the murders of his estranged wife and Goldman remains unclear to many.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Baker, Jim. O. J. Simpson's Most Memorable Games. New York: Putnam, 1974.

Bosco, Joseph. A Problem of Evidence: How the Prosecution Freed O. J. Simpson. New York: William Morrow, 1996.

Bugliosi, Vincent. Outrage. New York: W. W. Norton., 1996.

Clark, Marcia, and Teresa Carpenter. Without a Doubt. New York: Viking, 1997.

Cochran, Johnnie L., and Tim Rutten. Journey to Justice. New York: Ballantine, 1996.

Darden, Christopher, with Jess Walter. In Contempt. New York: Regan Books, 1996.

Dershowitz, Alan. Reasonable Doubts. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Devaney, John. O. J. Simpson: Football's Greatest Runner. New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1974.

Elias, Tom, and Dennis Schatzman. The Simpson Trial in Black and White. Los Angeles: General Publishing Group, 1996.

Fox, Larry. The O. J. Simpson Story: Born to Run. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1974.

Fuhrman, Mark. Murder in Brentwood. New York: Regnery Publishing, 1997.

Gibbs, Jewelle Taylor. Race and Justice: Rodney King and O. J. Simpson in a House Divided. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Goldberg, Hank. The Prosecution Responds. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1996.

Gutman, Bill. O. J. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1974.

Kennedy, Tracy, Judith Kennedy, and Alan Abrahamson. Mistrial of the Century. Beverly Hills, CA: Dove Books, 1995.

Knox, Michael, with Mike Walker. The Private Diary of an OJ Juror. Beverly Hills: Dove Books, 1995.

Lange, Tom, and Philip Vanatter, as told to Dan E. Moldea. Evidence Dismissed. New York: Pocket Books, 1997.

Morrison, Toni, and Claudia Brodsky Lacour, eds. Birth of a Nation 'Hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case. New York: Pantheon, 1997.

"O. J. Simpson Main Page." (accessed April 4, 2002).

Petrocelli, Daniel. Triumph of Justice: Closing the Book on the Simpson Saga. New York: Crown, 1998.

Roberts, Peter. OJ: 101 Theories, Conspiracies, & Alibis. Diamond Bar, CA: Goldtree Press, 1995.

Schiller, Lawrence, and James Willwerth. American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense. New York: Avon, 1997.

Shapiro, Robert, with Larkin Warren. The Search for Justice. New York: Warner, 1996.

Simpson, O. J. I Want to Tell You. Boston: Little Brown, 1995.

Singular, Stephen. Legacy of Deception. Beverly Hills, CA: Dove Books, 1995.

Toobin, Jeffrey. The Run of His Life: The People vs. O. J. Simpson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Uelmen, Gerald F. Lessons from the Trial: The People vs. O. J. Simpson. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel, 1996.

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Simpson, O. J. (1947–)

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