Freedom for USA’s most controversial criminal
Does the story of O.J. Simpson show justice in action or a broken system? The NFL legend was found not guilty of murder in 1995, but convicted of armed robbery in 2008. Now he is a free man.
“I’ve done my time,” said O.J. Simpson at his parole hearing on July 20th 2017. “I’m sorry.”
Simpson was released from Lovelock Correctional Centre, Nevada at 00:08 yesterday night, after he was granted parole for five years at the hearing. The 70-year-old former NFL player was found guilty in 2008 of armed robbery and sentenced to a maximum of 33 years in prison.
But for the family of Ron Goldman, who was murdered along with Simpson’s ex-wife in June 1994, there is no prison sentence too long or punishment too severe for the man they refer to as “the killer”.
Despite a body of evidence pointing to Simpson, on October 3rd 1995 he was found not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, in a televised trial watched by 57% of Americans.
Simpson was a national treasure: a football star, actor and all-round American hero. He was “warm, celebrated, seductive,” according to Daniel Petrocelli, the Goldman family’s lawyer.
“We had a paradox on our hands,” recalled Petrocelli in 1998. “The more we emphasised the brutality of the murders, the more people thought it unlikely Simpson had committed them.”
Yet there was undoubtedly another side to “The Juice”. He spent a week in a juvenile correction centre for gang fighting at the age of 15. In 1989, he was ordered to undergo psychiatric counselling after beating his wife so severely that she required hospitalisation.
The 1995 “trial of the century” followed the deadly 1992 Los Angeles riots, which erupted after four policemen were acquitted of using “excessive force” to beat African-American taxi driver Rodney King.
Three years after the riots, Simpson’s case once again brought America’s deep racial divides into sharp focus. A majority black jury found the NFL star not guilty. “The jurors had every reason to doubt the LA police and the evidence they presented against a wealthy and universally loved black superstar,” wrote Thomas Ricker for The Verge last year.
Has justice been served for O.J. Simpson?
“When you’re innocent, you’re innocent,” says private investigator William Dear. We have to respect the outcomes of even the most controversial cases. As for the armed robbery, Simpson has earned his early release through good behaviour in prison. Although his story will undoubtedly continue to haunt him, O.J. now deserves to be forgiven.
For Petrocelli, the Simpson case was an American tragedy. Justice was perverted by a manipulative celebrity who exploited the sensitive debate about racism in 1990s America to get away with murder. To make matters worse: Simpson is now a free man, 24 years ahead of his supposed release. Where is the justice in that?
- Should O.J. Simpson have been released early from prison?
- Are courts always right?
- You are a BBC journalist. You have been given the opportunity to interview Simpson. Unfortunately he does not have much time, so you can only ask him five questions. What’s more, his lawyer has said that you are not allowed to ask him directly: “Did you commit murder?” Come up with five questions that will lead you closer to working out the answer to that question for yourself.
- Do some research into other “trials of the century”. Do you think Simpson’s murder trial deserves this reputation? Why (not)? Defend your opinion to the rest of the class.
Some People Say...
“Law and justice are not always the same.”Gloria Steinem, journalist and activist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Although a criminal court found Simpson not guilty of both murders, he was found guilty of the “wrongful death” of Goldman by a civil court in 1997. He was ordered to pay compensation of $33.5m to Goldman’s family. This sum has not yet been paid after Simpson declared himself bankrupt. The debt has since accrued interest. O.J. now owes $65m.
- What do we not know?
- The big question: we do not know for certain whether or not O.J. Simpson murdered his ex-wife and her friend, even though nearly everyone has their own opinion on the issue. Although evidence pointed to Simpson as the culprit, there have been allegations that evidence was tampered with by investigators. Many others believe that the accusation was an example of racial discrimination and that Simpson is innocent.
- A prisoner can be released early from their maximum sentence under certain conditions.
- Body of evidence
- Traces of Simpson’s blood, hair matching his own and bloody gloves belonging to him were found at the scene. But much of the evidence has been queried— most famously, the gloves, an extremely tight fit on his hands in the 1995 trial (pictured above).
- “The Juice”
- A reference to the fact that “O.J.” could stand for “orange juice”.
- 1992 Los Angeles riots
- Over 12,000 people were arrested and 63 were killed whilst protesting against the use of "excessive force" by police officers.
- Found not guilty of charges. Simpson was acquitted in 1995.
- Racial divides
- A poll by CBS in 1995 showed that 76% of white people thought that Simpson was guilty, compared to just 22% of black people. Now 79% of whites and 41% of blacks think that.
- Majority black jury
- In the USA, you are entitled to a jury of your peers. The Simpson jury was selected from the mainly black area of downtown LA where the trial took place; not from the wealthier, white neighbourhood where the murders were committed.