O.J. Simpson Image Credit: REUTERS

O.J. Simpson, the football legend and movie star whose acquittal for the murder of his White ex-wife exposed a racial chasm in the US in the 1990s, has died. He was 76.

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The cause was cancer, according to a post by his family on his account on X, formerly Twitter. It said he died on April 10 “surrounded by his children and grandchildren.” He had been a free man since 2017, when he finished serving a nine-year prison sentence for kidnapping and armed robbery in a case that developed after his acquittal for murder.

Simpson was widely known and admired before his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, were found in 1994 with their throats slashed. Police famously pursued Simpson down a California freeway in a televised car chase.

His arrest triggered a worldwide mania about the case, which resulted in an almost year-long trial that made the judge and lawyers on both sides household names “- and racial discrimination a leading topic of conversation.

Despite what seemed like overwhelming evidence of his and the victims’ blood and DNA, a mostly Black jury acquitted him in 1995, a verdict watched by more than 100 million people.

Carrie Bess, a member of the jury, said in a 2016 ESPN documentary that the verdict was payback for the 1991 brutal police beating of Rodney King, a Black man, that was recorded by a bystander and televised nationally. Another juror had raised his fist in a Black-power salute right after it was read.

Prosecution Problems

Apart from racial issues, there were practical ones. In the view of many, prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden erred in forcing Simpson to try on bloody leather gloves found at the crime scene and at Simpson’s nearby home and having the police officer who found the gloves testify.

After Simpson struggled to put the gloves on, his lead lawyer Johnnie Cochran told the jury in his closing argument “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” The police officer, Mark Fuhrman, was shown to have used racial slurs toward Black people and declined to say if he had planted the gloves, citing his right not to incriminate himself.

Simpson’s so-called dream team of defence lawyers included famed trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey and former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. They focused on race in their cross-examination of Fuhrman.

Reaction to the verdict split along racial lines with Black people across the country celebrating in the streets and White people stunned.

A jubilant Simpson vowed to search for the real killers, but he was quickly back in court after the families of the victims sued him for wrongful death. With a lesser standard of proof to satisfy and a mostly White jury this time, the families won a $33.5 million judgement and seized some of Simpson’s possessions, including the Heisman trophy he had won for being the best college football player in 1968.

Book Rights

The items netted only about $300,000 at auction. Simpson moved to Florida, where his home and National Football League pension were shielded from creditors. The Goldman family acquired rights to a book that was a hypothetical confession written by Simpson. Called ‘If I Did It’, the book was published with the “If” in tiny letters so the title seemed to say “I Did It.”

His agent Mike Gilbert said that Simpson had confessed to killing his ex-wife, telling him after drinking beer and smoking a contraband: “If she wouldn’t have opened the door with a knife she’d probably still be alive.” ‘

In 2007, Simpson was arrested with some friends for detaining at gunpoint a seller of sports memorabilia, including some relating to Simpson’s NFL career. Thirteen years to the day of his 1995 acquittal, he was sentenced to 33 years in prison on kidnapping, robbery and weapons charges. He was paroled in 2017.

Orenthal James Simpson was born on July 9, 1947, in San Francisco. His father Jimmy was a chef and bank custodian. His mother Eunice was a hospital administrator.

He grew up in a San Francisco housing project and attended City College in San Francisco. He transferred to the University of Southern California and became a star running back.

Simpson played the same position for the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers, and became the first player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. Later, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and became a television commentator for NFL games.

While still playing football, he began acting on TV and then in movies that included ‘The Towering Inferno’, ‘Capricorn One’ and the trilogy of ‘Naked Gun’ police comedies.

He became widely known as a pitchman, most notably for Hertz, sprinting through airports in commercials to show how quickly the rental-car company served customers.

He married his first wife Marguerite in 1967. They had three children “- Arnelle, Jason and Aaren” — before their divorce in 1979. He married Nicole Brown in 1985. They divorced in 1992 after she had accused him numerous times of assaulting her. They had two children, Sydney and Justin.