OJ Simpson, NFL star known for ‘trial of the century’, dies aged 76


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OJ Simpson, the American football superstar and Hollywood actor whose acquittal in a 1995 murder trial sparked a rancorous debate about race and justice in the US, has died of cancer aged 76.

Orenthal James Simpson’s grace on the football field, good looks and charisma led to a successful career as a pitchman for Hertz rental cars and as an actor in films such as The Towering Inferno and The Naked Gun. But it was his 1995 trial over the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, that would leave an indelible mark on American society.

The Simpson case was a made-for-television affair from the beginning. The wall-to-wall coverage started with a bizarre slow-speed chase on the highways of Los Angeles on June 17, 1994. Nearly 100mn Americans tuned in to watch Los Angeles police pursuing Simpson’s white Ford Bronco, which was being driven by his friend and fellow ex-NFL player Al Cowlings.

The following year people were glued to their TV sets for “the trial of the century”. The trial of one of America’s most famous Black citizens in a Los Angeles courtroom unfolded four years after the brutal beating of Rodney King, a Black man, by LA police, and racial tensions in the city were still high.

As the case progressed on TV, Simpson’s legal team of Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro tapped into the theme of race and the LA police department. They portrayed the evidence presented by the prosecutors as phoney, planted by corrupt, racist police.

Simpson’s lawyers charged that a crucial piece of evidence presented by the prosecution — a glove found outside Simpson’s Brentwood mansion that matched another at the crime scene — had been planted by a racist police officer.

When asked by the prosecutors to try on the gloves, Simpson appeared to struggle to put them on and declared that they were “too small”. It was a point of high drama in the courtroom, and one that would produce the most memorable line from the case. In his closing arguments, Cochran told the jury: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

After a 10-month trial, a predominately Black jury found Simpson not guilty of murder, a decision made after just four hours of deliberations.

National opinion polls had shown a deep racial divide on the question of Simpson’s guilt or innocence, and the response to the verdict reflected that split. The lengthy case had dominated the national discussion, and the jury’s decision produced intense debate on TV and in offices across the US. The events of the murder trial were later dramatised in a 2016 FX television series, The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.

A white Ford Bronco driven by Al Cowlings, with OJ Simpson inside, is pursued down a Los Angeles highway by police cars
A white Ford Bronco driven by Al Cowlings, with OJ Simpson inside, is pursued down a Los Angeles highway by police cars © AP

A mostly white jury in a separate civil trial found him liable in 1997 for the deaths, and he was ordered to pay $33.5mn to the families of Brown and Goldman. Simpson sold his Brentwood mansion and moved to Florida — a move widely seen as an effort to escape paying.

The judgment would hang over Simpson for years as Goldman’s family pursued him to pay the claim.

In 2006, Simpson wrote a “fictional memoir” that gave a hypothetical account of the murders that he planned to title If I Did It. But Goldman’s family won control of the manuscript, retitling it If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer.

Less than two months after losing control of the book, Simpson and five ex-convicts confronted two sports memorabilia dealers in a Las Vegas hotel room. He was arrested a few days later and charged with armed robbery and kidnapping. He was convicted, and served nine years in a Nevada prison.

Simpson’s scandals, trials and imprisonment would have seemed unimaginable when he was a young football star at the University of Southern California with incredible speed and a brilliant smile. He would play American football for 11 seasons, setting records and being hailed by his fans as “The Juice”.

Many of those fans stood behind him after the murders. “I don’t think most of America believes I did it,” Simpson told The New York Times in 1995. “I’ve gotten thousands of letters and telegrams from people supporting me.”

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