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OJ Simpson, football star-turned-celebrity murder defendant, dead at 76

(FILE) O.J. Simpson sits in the courtroom during his trial in Las Vegas, USA, 16 September 2008 (reissued 11 April 2024). The former American football running back, who was not found guilty of the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, has died at the age of 76 after a battle with cancer, his family confirmed on X, formerly known as Twitter on 11 April 2024. EPA-EFE/DANIEL GLUSKOTER / POOL

OJ Simpson, the American football star and actor who was acquitted in a sensational 1995 trial of murdering his former wife but was found responsible for her death in a civil lawsuit and was later imprisoned for armed robbery and kidnapping, has died at the age of 76.

OJ Simpson, cleared by a Los Angeles jury in what the US media called “the trial of the century”, died on Wednesday, 10 April, after a battle with cancer, his family posted on social media on Thursday.

Simpson avoided prison when he was found not guilty in the 1994 stabbing deaths of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman in Los Angeles.

Simpson later served nine years in a Nevada prison after being convicted in 2008 on 12 counts of armed robbery and kidnapping two sports memorabilia dealers at gunpoint in a Las Vegas hotel.

Nicknamed “The Juice”, Simpson was one of the best and most popular athletes of the late 1960s and 1970s. He overcame childhood infirmity to become an electrifying running back at the University of Southern California and won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s top player.

After a record-setting career in the National Football League (NFL) with the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Murder charges

Simpson parlayed his football stardom into a career as a sportscaster, advertising pitchman and Hollywood actor in films including the Naked Gun series.

All that changed after Nicole Brown Simpson and Goldman were found fatally slashed in a bloody scene outside her Los Angeles home on 12 June 1994.

Simpson quickly emerged as a suspect. He was ordered to surrender to police, but five days after the killings, he fled in his white Ford Bronco with a former teammate – carrying his passport and a disguise.

A slow-speed chase through the Los Angeles area ended at Simpson’s mansion and he was later charged in the murders.

What ensued was one of the most notorious trials in 20th century America and a media circus. It had everything: a rich celebrity defendant; a Black man accused of killing his white former wife out of jealousy; a woman slain after divorcing a man who had beaten her; a “dream team” of pricy and charismatic defence lawyers; and a huge gaffe by prosecutors.

Simpson, who at the outset of the case declared himself “absolutely 100% not guilty”, waved at the jurors and mouthed the words “thank you” after the predominantly Black panel of 10 women and two men acquitted him on 3 October 1995.

Prosecutors argued that Simpson killed Nicole in a jealous fury, and they presented extensive blood, hair and fibre tests linking Simpson to the murders. The defence countered that the celebrity defendant was framed by racist white police.

Transfixed

The trial transfixed America. In the White House, President Bill Clinton left the Oval Office and watched the verdict on his administrative assistant’s TV. Many Black Americans celebrated his acquittal, seeing Simpson as the victim of bigoted police. Many white Americans were appalled by his exoneration.

Simpson’s legal team included prominent criminal defence lawyers Johnnie Cochran, Alan Dershowitz and F Lee Bailey, who often out-manoeuvred the prosecution.

Prosecutors committed a memorable blunder when they directed Simpson to try on a pair of blood-stained gloves found at the murder scene, confident they would fit perfectly and show he was the killer.

In a highly theatrical demonstration, Simpson struggled to put on the gloves and indicated to the jury they did not fit.

Delivering the trial’s most famous words, Cochran referred to the gloves in closing arguments to jurors with a rhyme: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Dershowitz later called the prosecution decision to ask Simpson to try on the gloves “the greatest legal blunder of the 20th century”.

“What this verdict tells you is how fame and money can buy the best defence, can take a case of overwhelming incriminating physical evidence and transform it into a case riddled with reasonable doubt,” Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor, told The New York Times after the verdict.

“A predominantly African-American jury was more susceptible to claims of police incompetence and corruption and more willing to impose a higher burden of proof than normally required for proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Arenella said.

After his acquittal, Simpson said: “I will pursue as my primary goal in life the killer or killers who slayed Nicole and Mr Goldman… They are out there somewhere… I would not, could not and did not kill anyone.”

The Goldman and Brown families subsequently pursued a wrongful death lawsuit against Simpson in civil court. In 1997, a predominately white jury in Santa Monica, California, found Simpson liable for the two deaths and ordered him to pay $33.5-million in damages.

“We finally have justice for Ron and Nicole,” Fred Goldman, Ron Goldman’s father, said after the verdict.

Simpson’s “dream team” did not represent him in the civil trial in which the burden of proof was lower than in a criminal trial – a “preponderance of the evidence” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

New evidence also hurt Simpson, including photographs of him wearing the type of shoes that had left bloody footprints at the murder scene.

After the civil case, some of Simpson’s belongings, including memorabilia from his football days, were taken and auctioned off to help pay the damages he owed.

Jailed

On 3 October 2008, exactly 13 years after his acquittal in the murder trial, he was convicted by a Las Vegas jury on charges including kidnapping and armed robbery.

These stemmed from a 2007 incident at a casino hotel in which Simpson and five men, at least two carrying guns, stole sports memorabilia worth thousands of dollars from two dealers.

Simpson said he was just trying to recover his own property, but was sentenced to up to 33 years in prison.

“I didn’t want to hurt anybody,” Simpson, donning a blue prison jumpsuit with shackles on his legs and wrists, said at his sentencing. “I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong.”

Simpson was released on parole in 2017 and moved into a gated community in Las Vegas. He was granted early release from parole in 2021 due to good behaviour at age 74.

His life saga was recounted in the Oscar-winning 2016 documentary OJ: Made in America as well as various TV dramatisations.

Orenthal James Simpson was born in San Francisco on 9 July 1947. He contracted rickets at age two and was forced to wear leg braces until he was five, but recovered so thoroughly that he became one of the most celebrated football players of all time.

During nine seasons for the Buffalo Bills and two for the San Francisco 49ers, Simpson became one of the greatest ball carriers in NFL history.

In 1973, he became the first NFL player to rush (advance with the ball while running) for more than 2,000 yards (about 1,800 metres) in a season. He retired in 1979.

Simpson also became an advertising pitchman, best known for years of TV commercials for Hertz rental cars. As an actor, he appeared in movies including The Towering Inferno (1974), Capricorn One (1977) and the Naked Gun cop spoof films in 1988, 1991 and 1994, playing a witless police detective.

Simpson married his first wife, Marguerite, in 1967 and they had three children, including one who drowned in the family’s swimming pool at age two in 1979, the year the couple divorced.

Simpson met his future wife, Nicole Brown, when she was a 17-year-old waitress and he was still married to Marguerite. Simpson and Brown married in 1985 and had two children. She later called the police after he hit her. Simpson pleaded no contest to spousal abuse charges in 1989. Reuters/DM

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