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Who was OJ Simpson, football star and actor, who was acquitted of ex-wife and friend's murder?

Simpson was widely regarded as one of the best and most celebrated athletes in the 1960s, culminating in a Hollywood acting career. However, his life changed when he was charged with the murders of his ex-wife and her friend, leading to a sensational trial in 1995 where he was eventually acquitted.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Updated on: April 12, 2024 10:55 IST
OJ Simpson, OJ Simpson death
Image Source : REUTERS (FILE) OJ Simpson, former football star and actor who was acquitted in his ex-wife's murder, was released on parole in 2017.

Washington: OJ Simpson, the former football star and actor who was sensationally acquitted of his former wife and her friend in 1995, has died at the age of 76. Simpson earned fame, fortune and acclaim through football and show business till he faced a controversial trial for the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, dubbed the "trial of the century".

In a post on X, Simpson's family said he died on Wednesday after a prolonged battle with cancer. "On April 10th, our father, Orenthal James Simpson, succumbed to his battle with cancer. He was surrounded by his children and grandchildren. During this time of transition, his family asks that you please respect their wishes for privacy and grace," read the post.

Simpson was found not guilty in the 1994 stabbing deaths of his former wife and her friend, although he was found responsible for her death in a civil lawsuit. The football star 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.

The sensational 1995 trial was one of the world's most watched popular cultural events of the last century and exposed divisions on race and policing in America. Goldman’s father, Fred, and his sister, Kim, who had pursued the case against Simpson relentlessly, said "the hope for true accountability has ended".

Fame and fortune 

Orenthal James Simpson was born in San Francisco on July 9, 1947. He contracted rickets at age 2 and was forced to wear leg braces until he was 5 but recovered so thoroughly that he became one of the most celebrated football players of all time. In 1973, he became the first NFL player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. He retired in 1979.

Simpson played 11 National Football League (NFL) seasons, where he became one of the best and most popular athletes of the 1960s, nicknamed "The Juice". He became an electrifying running back at the University of Southern California and won the Heisman Trophy as college football's top player. He was also inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a successful career with two teams - Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers.

Simpson’s football rise happened simultaneously with a television career. He signed a contract with ABC Sports the night he won the Heisman Trophy in 1968 and became a sportscaster, advertising pitchman and Hollywood actor. He made his big-screen debut in 1974’s “The Klansman,” an exploitation film in which he starred alongside Lee Marvin and Richard Burton. Simpson was mostly noted for his role in the 'Naked Gun' series in the late 1980s.

Simpson married his first wife, Marguerite Whitley, on June 24, 1967, moving her to Los Angeles the next day so he could begin preparing for his first season with USC — which, in large part because of Simpson, won that year’s national championship. He had two sons, Jason and Aaren, with his first wife, but Aaren drowned as a toddler in a swimming pool mishap in 1979, the year Simpson and Whitley divorced.

Fall from grace with a controversial trial

Simpson's life changed after Nicole Brown Simpson and Goldman were found fatally slashed in a bloody scene outside her Los Angeles home on June 12, 1994. Simpson and Brown were married in 1985. They had two children, Justin and Sydney, and divorced in 1992. Simpson quickly emerged as a suspect, as Nicole had called the police after incidents where Simpson physically abused her.

He was ordered to surrender to police, but five days after the killings, he fled in his vehicle 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. Evidence found at the scene seemed overwhelmingly against Simpson, including blood drops, bloody footprints and a glove. He hired a "dream team" of expensive and charismatic lawyers without testifying.

Then began one of the most notorious trials in 20th century America that was widely featured in news channels and public forums - something to be talked about in years to come. 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.

However, the prosecution committed a massive blunder when they asked him to try on blood-stained gloves in court. He struggled to squeeze them onto his hands and spoke his only three words of the trial: "They’re too small". 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."

The jury found him not guilty of murder in 1995. Many Black Americans celebrated his acquittal, seeing Simpson as the victim of bigoted police. Many white Americans were appalled by his exoneration. "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.

"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," Simpson said after his acquittal. 

Other charges and imprisonment

However, a separate predominantly-white civil trial jury found him liable in 1997 for the deaths and ordered him to pay $33.5 million to relatives of Brown and Goldman. 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. Some of Simpson's belongings, including memorabilia from his football days, were taken and auctioned off to help pay the damages he owed.

Things further took a hit for Simpson as he was convicted by a Las Vegas jury in 2008 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.

Public fascination with Simpson never faded. Many debated whether he had been punished in Las Vegas for his acquittal in Los Angeles. His life saga was recounted in the Oscar-winning 2016 documentary "O.J.: Made in America" as well as various TV dramatisations. 

“I don’t think most of America believes I did it,” Simpson told The New York Times in 1995, a week after a jury determined he did not kill Brown and Goldman. “I’ve gotten thousands of letters and telegrams from people supporting me.”

(with inputs from agencies)


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