LOS ANGELES — O.J. Simpson spent a lifetime in the limelight — first for his athletic prowess, charm and good looks, then as part of an American tragedy that came to symbolize much of what was controversial in America.
Now entering his seventh decade, Simpson is again in the spotlight. After spending almost nine years in prison for his role in an incident in a Las Vegas hotel room on September 13, 2007, he’s up for parole.
Prosecutors say Simpson, along with some armed associates, confronted two sports collectors that night and left the room with boxes of Simpson memorabilia. Simpson says he only wanted to reclaim family mementos.
But a Nevada jury thought otherwise, and found him guilty of kidnapping, armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to 33 years, with the possibility of parole after nine.
On Thursday, a Nevada parole board will make its recommendation, potentially opening a new chapter in a life that already includes a legacy of fame, fortune and infamy.
Born on July 9, 1947, Orenthal James Simpson grew up in the housing projects of San Francisco’s tough Potrero Hill neighborhood, where he lived with his single mother, Eunice, and three siblings.
When he was 2 years old, he contracted rickets, a muscle and bone disease. The future football Hall of Famer wore leg braces for a few hours every day until he was 5.
But by high school, Simpson was a stellar football player, eventually ending up at the football juggernaut University of Southern California. As a USC Trojan running back, he set NCAA records and won the Heisman Trophy in 1968. Nicknamed “The Juice,” Simpson was the No. 1 draft pick in 1969 and spent nearly his entire 11-year career with the mediocre Buffalo Bills. Despite that, Simpson set a long list of league records on his way to the NFL Hall of Fame.
Married life and transition from football
When he was 19 years old, Simpson married his 18-year-old high school sweetheart, Marguerite Whitley, in June 1967. The couple had three children: Arnelle, Jason and Aaren.
While still playing ball, Simpson began acting, most notably playing a man framed for murder by police in the movie “The Klansman.”
Simpson divorced his wife in March 1979. Tragedy struck five months later, when Aaren drowned in the family swimming pool just before her second birthday. By then, Simpson was already dating an attractive 18-year-old blond waitress, Nicole Brown. Less than a year later they were living together.
The year 1979 was a transitional one for Simpson. Along with his divorce, the death of his daughter and moving in with Brown, Simpson also quit playing football.
Now that he was off the gridiron, Simpson found continued success on camera. With his charisma and good looks, many hailed Simpson as a personality who transcended sports, class and race.
He worked as a sportscaster for NBC, appeared in a variety of movies — including as the dimwitted Officer Nordberg in the “Naked Gun” series — and as a pitchman, most memorably in Hertz commercials where he leaps over luggage and dodges passengers in a race to get to his flight. At the time, he was one of the few African-American men who could boast such popularity.
Simpson and Brown married in 1985, and had two children, daughter Sydney and son Justin.
A troubled marriage
By all accounts, the marriage was a tumultuous one. Police showed up at the couple’s residence on several occasions, including after a New Year’s Eve party in 1989, multiple news outlets reported at the time. Police records said Simpson beat his wife so badly she needed hospital treatment. “He’s going to kill me! He’s going to kill me!” she cried while running toward officers that night.
Photographs taken from that time and later used at Simpson’s murder trial show Brown-Simpson’s badly bruised face. According to an arrest report, Simpson told responding officers, “The police have been out here eight times before, and now you’re going to arrest me for this?”
Simpson pleaded no contest to spousal battery. Simpson later wrote, “I did not plead no contest for any other reason but to protect our privacy, and was advised it would end the press hype.”
Brown’s sister Denise later testified it wasn’t the first time or the last time Nicole had been attacked by her husband.
The couple divorced in 1992 after seven years of marriage. An attempted reconciliation failed, but the two remained in contact. The relationship remained a turbulent one. In a deposition during the civil trial in 1997, Simpson acknowledged there were instances when he hurt Nicole, saying, “I take total responsibility.”
Two killings in Brentwood
A little before midnight on June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson’s dog led a neighbor to the bloodied bodies of Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman. The two had been stabbed and slashed and left on the walkway to Nicole Brown Simpson’s Brentwood condo.
Four hours later, Simpson checked into a hotel near Chicago’s airport — he’d flown there just before midnight for a promotional engagement. He flew back to LA after being contacted by local police.
Believing him to be a suspect, police handcuffed him upon his return to Los Angeles. He was questioned and then released. Five days later Simpson agreed to surrender to face murder charges, but he didn’t show up. He was declared a fugitive. His friend Robert Kardashian appeared at a news conference and read what he called a suicide letter. Not long after, Simpson was spotted being driven in his white Ford Bronco. Police said he was holding a gun to his head.
Simpson’s childhood friend and former teammate, A.C. Cowlings, was at the wheel, leading a phalanx of squad cars on a 60-mile low-speed chase across Southern California.
In car-chase obsessed Los Angeles, the spectacle was televised and hundreds of people came out to cheer as the Bronco passed. Simpson eventually surrendered to police at his home.
The trial of the century
Simpson pleaded “100% not guilty” and assembled a “dream team” of famous local and national lawyers, including civil rights attorney Johnnie Cochran, star defense attorneys F. Lee Bailey and Alan Dershowitz, and DNA expert Barry Scheck. Also on the team was Simpson’s friend Kardashian, father of the Kardashian sisters.
Lead prosecutors Marcia Clark and Chris Darden focused on the timeline, domestic abuse and the DNA evidence found on the bloody glove discovered at the crime scene and another one at O.J. Simpson’s property.
But the “dream team” raised doubts about the police handling of the evidence and accused one of the lead detectives, Mark Fuhrman, of racial bias. Although Simpson never testified, among the most riveting moments was when prosecutor Darden asked Simpson to put on the infamous gloves — one of which police said was found at the murder scene, the other at Simpson’s property.
Simpson struggled to do so in front of the jurors, making a show of how the gloves didn’t fit. In his summation, Cochran uttered the now famous line, “If it doesn’t fit you must acquit.”
The case became a cable news sensation and a nationwide obsession, as tens of millions of viewers tuned in at home and at work. In a time before social media, it was a topic of worldwide conversation. Viewers dissected every witness, every legal nuance, every sidebar conversation and every change in Clark’s hairstyle.
The trial lasted just over eight months, from opening statements to the verdict. After all that time, the jury of nine African-Americans, one Hispanic, and one Caucasian deliberated for four hours before reaching the verdict.
The verdict is in
It almost seemed like the world stood still at 10 a.m. Pacific Time on October 3, 1995. Nielsen reported that 53 million people were watching and listening to the verdict.
As the “not guilty to all counts” verdict was read, Cochran turned and yelled, “Yes!” Kardashian looked stunned. Simpson finally broke into a smile, sighed deeply and mouthed “thank you, thank you” to the jury. Goldman’s sister, Kim, bent over, loudly sobbing. Outside the courthouse, hundreds of supporters and critics of Simpson lined the sidewalk. Reaction there, like throughout much of the United States, heavily split along racial lines, with many black Americans celebrating the verdict and many white Americans in shock. In ESPN’s 2017 documentary, “O.J.: Made In America,” Clark talks about the disparate responses to the not guilty verdict, saying “it was all so much bigger than we were.”
Simpson wasn’t off the hook after the not guilty verdict; the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown filed suit for wrongful death. With no camera in the Santa Monica courtroom, a new set of lawyers and a lower threshold for guilt, Simpson was found liable for the deaths. In February 1997, Simpson was ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages, more money than he had. He moved to Florida, where state law prevented his pension and home from being seized to pay the damages. Simpson’s Heisman Trophy was ordered sold and brought in $230,000.
The incident in Vegas
Thirteen years to the day after Simpson was acquitted of double murder, a jury in Las Vegas found him guilty of armed robbery, kidnapping and 10 other charges.
He said he was simply trying to reclaim his stolen property from two sports memorabilia dealers, Bruce Fromong and Alfred Beardsley. While Simpson wasn’t armed when he confronted the men, at least two of his associates were. Another secretly recorded the planning, the raid and the police response. Simpson is heard yelling, “Don’t let nobody out of here.” The audio also caught responding officers saying that if California couldn’t “get” Simpson, Nevada would. All this was played during Simpson’s Nevada criminal trial.
Simpson’s lawyer, Yale Galanter, was concerned the jurors might be tempted to be harsher in their decision making, as a kind of payback for the not guilty verdict in Simpson’s criminal murder trial. The jury in the Nevada case deliberated for 13 hours before finding Simpson guilty on 12 charges. In sentencing Simpson, Judge Jackie Glass said it was not “retribution or any payback for anything else.” But some believe the sentence was unusually harsh.
“I think there was a large measure of payback in the Nevada case,” said Jeffrey Toobin, a senior legal analyst for CNN who wrote “The Run of His Life” and covered the Simpson trials. “It was dubiously a crime in the first place and to see the very long sentence … (it) seemed to me that he was being punished for the murder even though the judge said he wasn’t,” Toobin said.
At a parole hearing in 2013, a physically heavier Simpson shuffled into the hearing and told commissioners he regretted what he’d done. “I just wish I had never gone to that room. I wish I had just said keep it and not worry about it.” Simpson was denied parole and sent back to the Lovelock Correctional Center Facility, a medium-security prison in the remote desert town of Lovelock. He’s been there since 2008.
A four member parole panel in Carson City will decide Simpson’s fate on Thursday. Simpson will appear through a video feed from prison.
The commissioners will take into account Simpson’s conduct in prison, the severity of his crime and his age. Ron Goldman’s father, Fred, told CNN he would not be surprised if Simpson was granted parole. And if that comes true, “The Juice” could be loose in October.