OJ Simpson: A significant figure in the deterioration of justice

Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson, 76 years old, died yesterday after a battle with cancer. 

His death brings to mind the awful events of 1994 that included the brutal murders of two innocent people, the self-destruction of a once beloved athlete, entertainer, and broadcaster, and the demonstration of the rancid elements of our justice system.

The Beloved Athlete

Simpson was a star collegiate football player and track athlete at the University of Southern California (USC). In 1968 he won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player. Simpson’s vote totals were the largest in 51 years of voting. He was immensely popular.

In 1969 Simpson was the first pick in the entire NFL draft, going to the Buffalo Bills. He played 11 seasons in the NFL, racking up four NFL rushing titles and six Pro-Bowls. He ended his career in 2nd place all time for rushing yards (at the time) behind the great Jim Brown. Simpson was a first ballot NFL Hall of Fame inductee in 1985.

Following his football career, Simpson starred on several TV shows and in several films, was a premier advertising star, and became a well-known sports broadcaster. In the early 1990s Simpson was beloved as any star in America.

The Crime

Then in June 1994, Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson, and an acquaintance were ambushed and brutally stabbed and cut to death on the doorstep of Brown-Simpson’s home as the acquaintance was dropping off sunglasses that Brown-Simpson had left behind at a restaurant. The murders were clearly carried out with emotion, and not the result of a robbery or other circumstance.

A mountain of physical and circumstantial evidence was collected including Simpson’s blood drops at the scene of the murder, and a glove found on Simpson’s property containing blood from the victims and Simpson. It was also learned that Simpson had a long history of abuse towards Brown-Simpson and was emotionally distraught that Brown-Simpson was “moving on” with other relationships after their divorce.

The L.A. District attorney charged Simpson with murder. Rather that turning himself in, Simpson went on the run and threatened suicide before eventually surrendering as part of the now-famous slow-speed white Ford Bronco “chase.” These were not the actions of an innocent man, and those who watched the events carried live on television know just how odd the whole event was.

The Trial

The trial that ensued became a circus during which a “Dream Team” of defense lawyers turned a clear-cut case of domestic murder into a case of “reasonable doubt.” One of the main players in this effort was Barry Scheck, who specialized in the burgeoning field of DNA evidence. 

The Dream Team realized the DNA evidence against Simpson was overwhelming, so they went about discrediting it and anyone involved in the collection or examination of the DNA evidence. They were successful largely because DNA evidence was so new at the time, and protocols for handling the evidence were not as established as they have become since. 

The accusations leveled against the prosecution were wild and expansive — suggesting that simultaneous incompetence and complex coordination, came together with racism and a rush to judgement to form the basis of a grand conspiracy to frame Simpson with murder.

Clear as mud.

The Verdict

Tragically, the jury bought into the unsupported accusations and insinuations from the defense and found Simpson not guilty of murder. 

The reaction around the country was shocking to many, as Simpson, who had been universally beloved by all, was now being cast as an oppressed black man who had been victimized by a racist criminal justice system. None of it was logical.

It is telling that on the day of the “not guilty” verdict, a Gallup poll showed just how much race had played in the opinion of the verdict at the time. Just 4 in 10 white Americans felt the verdict was correct, while 8 in 10 black Americans felt the verdict was correct. By 2016, after years of reflection on the evidence and revelations of Simpson’s true character coming out, those figures had moved to just 2 in 10 white Americans and 4 in 10 black Americans believing Simpson was innocent.

The Aftermath

It should be no surprise that Barry Scheck went on to create the Innocence Project which has led the way in overturning murder convictions around the country for the past several decades. While we all want to ensure truly innocent people never become wrongly convicted, today’s efforts are too often based, not on irrefutable DNA evidence or the like, but on revisiting and calling into question witness identification, witness statements, police procedures, etc.

I wrote about the dangers of this growing movement towards extra-judicial conviction review in our recent edition of Thinking Minnesota — read the article here. In it, I concluded,

“The emotional aspect of these “re-investigations” leaves the results vulnerable to subjective whim rather than an established process based on fact, as does the tendency to give more credibility to new information than information vetted contemporaneously with the events of the case. These tendencies make for good theater, but they make for poor public policy in determining whether justice was appropriately meted out decades earlier.”


O.J. Simpson was an influential figure on and off the field. As a fan of his football and post football achievements, it’s a sad reality that he was also in large part the start of a snowball which is now tumbling downhill in the form of out of control “social justice reform.” 

A good bet is that 20-30 years from now, after having time to reflect, the nation will look back at this period of “reform” and judge it as having been misguided and damaging to the notion of true justice.