The trial of the century - 20 years on

Last updated 05:00 09/06/2014
OJ Simpson
THEN: OJ Simpson during his trial for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. He was acquitted.
OJ Simpson
Reuters
NOW: OJ Simpson during 2013 hearing seeking a new trial after being sentenced to nine to 33-years in jail for his 2008 conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping charges.

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OJ Simpson stood up from the counsel table at his murder trial and approached the jury box with the famous leather gloves.

As he struggled to get them past his knuckles, he held his hands up to jurors and stated the obvious: "They're too small."

Next to me in the front row of the courtroom 20 years ago sat writer Dominick Dunne, who came to the trial believing the US football hero was guilty of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. But in that moment the playing field had changed.

"Did you see that?" Dunne whispered. "He took those gloves and he ran with them as if he was running down a football field. This case is over."

That moment from Simpson's "Trial of the Century" lives on in my memory.

I called prosecutor Chris Darden at the day's end, asking why he had Simpson try on the gloves.

"What did it look like to you?" he asked me.

"It looked like they didn't fit," I said.

"Well," Darden said, "I looked at his hands and I looked at the gloves and I thought they would fit."

Darden had violated a cardinal rule of courtroom law: Don't demonstrate something in front of a jury unless you know the outcome.

That day, Simpson's charismatic lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, coined a phrase that would become an enduring motto in pop culture: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."

There would be months more testimony, but that was a turning point. It was June 15, 1995, a year and two days after the slashed bodies of Nicole Simpson and Goldman had been found outside her home.

Police said they found a bloody glove at the scene and many hours later a lone police detective, Mark Fuhrman, scaled a wall outside OJ Simpson's house and said he found a match.

Now, the gloves appeared not to fit the suspect, and the credibility of Fuhrman would be irrevocably damaged when tapes revealed him making disparaging remarks about black people.

Were the gloves planted? Was it a setup? Those questions would haunt the case forever.

No knife was located, and there were no bloody clothes at Simpson's home. DNA evidence was compromised by shoddy police work.

Lead prosecutor Marcia Clark, who was watching her case fall apart, came to my courthouse office one morning and asked, "Do you think we even have a chance?"

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In the intervening year, the sports and movie star had been transformed in the public mind from national treasure to murder defendant.

He was acquitted. But from hindsight of 20 years, it is clear there were few winners in the case, least of all Simpson.

Contacted through his lawyer, Simpson, who had spoken to me many times over the years, declined to be interviewed for this story.

He sent word that anything he said would just result in media attacks and would be detrimental to his children.

In two decades, he has never wavered in his claim of innocence.

A civil jury, however, awarded the Brown and Goldman families $33.5 million in wrongful death damages, which the Goldmans are still trying to collect.

Simpson moved to Florida where laws benefit retirees and he could pursue his passion for golf. His private life provided tabloid fodder as he acquired a girlfriend and frequented Miami clubs. A road rage incident sent him back to court, but he was acquitted.

In 2007, while in Las Vegas for a friend's wedding, Simpson staged a casino hotel heist of dealers trying to sell his memorabilia. The raiding party included a man with a gun, and the entire episode was secretly tape recorded.

Some saw the case as payback when Simpson was sentenced to 9 to 33 years in prison for armed robbery and kidnapping. Others got sentences as light as probation.

Two Las Vegas police detectives were overheard on tape saying: "They didn't get him in LA, but we'll get him here."

At an unsuccessful hearing seeking a new trial last year, Simpson was unrecognizable as the once trim and fit celebrity.

He was bloated and graying, his arms and legs shackled to a courtroom chair. His defense continues to appeal as he is held in a Nevada prison cell.

KEY PLAYERS

As if trying to escape a recurring nightmare, most of the survivors of OJ Simpson's "Trial of the Century" refuse to talk about it on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.

And that includes Simpson who sent word from prison that he has nothing to say. Two members of the famous defense "dream team" are dead, and only one, F. Lee Bailey, continues a campaign to prove to the public that the acquitted defendant truly was not guilty of the murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

Here is a look at what became of the key players:

Judge Lance Ito, still on the Los Angeles Superior Court bench, has presided over some 500 trials since the Simpson case made him famous.

He long ago took his name plate off his courtroom door because it kept getting stolen. He is not standing for re-election this year and will retire in 2015 with few plans other than to learn to play guitar.

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Gil Garcetti, Los Angeles district attorney during the Simpson trial, was re-elected to another term in spite of criticism of his handling of the case.

He later changed careers, focusing on photography, and traveled the world taking pictures that were published in six books to raise awareness of social needs such as water wells in Africa.

He has been consulting director of TV crime dramas, "The Closer" and "Major Crimes." His son, Eric, is mayor of Los Angeles.

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Marcia Clark, who prosecuted Simpson unsuccessfully, was paid $4 million for her memoir of the case and wrote a series of mystery novels.

She never tried another case and stopped practicing law, though she has appeared as a TV commentator on high-profile trials.

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Chris Darden, the co-prosecutor criticized for having Simpson try on the so-called murder gloves, left the district attorney's office following the trial and became a defense attorney. He wrote a memoir of the trial and has published several mystery novels.

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Robert Shapiro, the first member of Simpson's defense team, launched a foundation to help drug addicted youngsters after his son, Brent, fatally overdosed in 2005.

He was one of the founders of LegalZoom.com, a do-it-yourself document service for people bringing lawsuits.

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Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., Simpson's lead attorney who coined the phrase, "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit," wrote a memoir revealing his rift with Shapiro over control of the defense case.

He expanded his law firm to 15 states and was the success story of the team until he was stricken with brain cancer and died in 2005 at 68.

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Barry Scheck, the lawyer who introduced the science of DNA to jurors and to the public watching on TV, attacked police methods of evidence collection and demolished the prosecution's forensic evidence case.

He and co-counsel on the Simpson case, Peter Neufeld, founded The Innocence Project that uses DNA evidence to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners. They have helped overturn hundreds of cases.

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F. Lee Bailey, famed for his role in the trials of Dr. Sam Shepard and heiress Patty Hearst, was a part-time member of the "Dream Team" who exposed detective Mark Fuhrman's racist statements.

Bailey later was disbarred in Massachusetts and Florida for misconduct in handling a client's case. He continues to seek readmission to the bar and has written a lengthy treatise on why he believes in Simpson's innocence.

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Robert Kardashian, a close friend of Simpson, renewed his lapsed law license to participate in the trial. Simpson stayed at his home after the killings were discovered and Kardashian read to the public a rambling message from Simpson as he was fleeing from police in a white Ford Bronco.

Kardashian died at the age of 59 in 2003 from esophageal cancer. His ex-wife, Kris, and his children, Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and Rob, became famous after his death with their reality show, "Keeping Up With the Kardashians."

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Kato Kaelin, known as America's most famous house guest, was living on Simpson's property when he claimed to hear a bump in the night that prosecutors suggested was Simpson returning from the murders.

Kaelin tried to extend his moment in the spotlight to show business after the trial and is now involved in promoting a clothing line called, "Kato's Potatoes."

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Kim Goldman, Ron Goldman's younger sister, was 22 when she burst into hysterical sobs when the not guilty verdict was read.

She counsels troubled teens as executive director of the Southern California-based nonprofit The Youth Project and is a frequent speaker to victims' rights group. She is the author of two books. Her latest, "Can't Forgive: My Twenty-Year Battle With OJ Simpson," was published last month.

Goldman, 42, is divorced and lives in a Southern California suburb with her 10-year-old son.

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Fred Goldman, Ron Goldman's father, relentlessly pursued OJ Simpson through civil courts for more than a decade. Goldman's family seized Simpson's Heisman Trophy, the rights to his movies, a book he wrote about the killings and other items to satisfy part of a $33.5 million judgment by a civil court jury that held Simpson liable for the killings.

Goldman, a 73-year-old former architect, lives with his wife, Patti, in Arizona, where he works in retail sales. "Can't afford to retire," says Goldman, who adds he has put what share of the judgment he's recovered into the Ron Goldman Foundation for Justice that he founded with his wife and daughter.


THE ORIGINAL STORY

The first week of the OJ Simpson case in mid-June 1994 moved quickly, with reporters racing to reach the news. The only thing that was slow was The Chase.

The US football great had been accused of killing his ex-wife and her friend, and there he was on live television, in the back of his friend's white Ford Bronco with a gun to his head.

The freeway was like a parade - with the police, media and fans following. There were crowds on the overpasses, signs, cheers and fists punching the air as the pursuit unfolded.

In The Associated Press newsroom, editors and writers were riveted to small televisions. And that's where many would stay for the next 17 months - glued to a TV as the so-called "Trial of the Century" unfolded.

Twenty years after its original publication, the AP is making available the story wrapping up all the developments from The Chase:

OJ ARRESTED IN SLAYINGS OF EX-WIFE AND HER FRIEND

OJ Simpson was hunted down and captured in his driveway Friday night after running from charges of murdering his ex-wife and her male friend and leading police along 60 miles of freeways and city streets.

"I can't express the fear I had that this matter would not end the way it did," said Simpson's attorney, Robert Shapiro, who had worried earlier that the former football great would kill himself.

Outside the walls of Simpson's estate, members of Simpson's family hugged each other and cried after word of the arrest came out.

A cheer came up from the crowd of 300 spectators.

The arrest shortly before 9 p.m. culminated an incredible drama that unfolded on live national TV in which police first announced charges against the former football great, then said he had disappeared and finally followed him along the highways for more than an hour.

After the white Ford Bronco came to a halt at Simpson's estate, a man believed to be his lifelong friend and teammate, Al Cowlings, got out. Simpson's lawyer arrived at the mansion nearly an hour later and the arrest came minutes later.

Before fleeing as he was about to be arrested, the former football great left a handwritten letter proclaiming his innocence, saying goodbye to friends and making "a last wish" to "leave my children in peace."

Shapiro earlier said he feared Simpson was suicidal and pleaded with him to give up. At the same news conference, a friend read Simpson's letter.

"I've had a great life, great friends," the football Hall of Famer's letter said. "Please think of the real OJ and not this lost person."

The district attorney called it "the fall of an American hero," and Los Angeles police, angered that he reneged on a promise to surrender earlier in the day, mounted a manhunt for him and a former teammate.

In the letter, Simpson wrote that he tried to do "most of the right things" in life and asked: "Why do I end up like this?"

"First, everyone understand, I had nothing to do with Nicole's murder," Simpson's letter begins. "If we had a problem, it's because I loved her so much."

"I don't want to belabor knocking the press, but I can't believe what is being said. Most of it is totally made up. I know you have a job to do, but as a last wish, please, please, please, leave my children in peace," he wrote.

Shapiro said Simpson has been "exceedingly depressed," but he didn't know if Simpson had committed suicide.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed and praying that we will be able to bring him into a court," Shapiro said.

"Wherever you are, for the sake of your family, for the sake of your children, please surrender immediately."

Police immediately mounted a manhunt when Simpson fled, and said he may be armed.

"Mr. Simpson is out there somewhere and we will find him," Police Cmdr. David Gascon told reporters.

If convicted of killing Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman, Simpson - among the most prominent celebrities ever charged with murder - could face the death penalty.

"We saw, perhaps, the fall of an American hero," District Attorney Gil Garcetti said.

Simpson, 46, was scheduled to surrender at 11 a.m. but failed to honor the agreement made with Shapiro, Gascon said.

Shapiro said he was with Simpson, Cowlings and two doctors in a house in the San Fernando Valley on Friday morning when police called to say they were coming to arrest him. He said Simpson and Cowlings, who grew up with Simpson in a San Francisco housing project and was his teammate in high school, at the University of Southern California and the Buffalo Bills, vanished before police arrived.

"The Los Angeles Police Department is actively searching for Mr. Simpson," Gascon said. "The Los Angeles Police Department is also very unhappy with the activities surrounding his failure to surrender."

Authorities also were looking for Cowlings, Garcetti said, warning, "If you assist him in any way you are committing a felony."

The investigation was anchored by a grisly array of evidence, from media reports of a blood-stained ski mask to a bloody glove.

Gascon declined to say how the police lost Simpson, who was handcuffed and questioned by police Monday but let go. He had been seen at his house earlier in the week and attended his ex-wife's funeral Thursday. Someone resembling Simpson was seen driving away from his house an hour before his expected surrender.

Mike Botula, a spokesman for Garcetti, said the charges included the special capital punishment circumstance of multiple killings. There is no bail in such cases, Botula added.

"A final decision on whether we would seek the death penalty will be made at a later time," Botula said.

Fans and colleagues of the sports legend who had insisted on his innocence were forced by Friday's arrest warrant to confront an ominous possibility - that Simpson could have killed the mother of their two children, daughter Sydney, 9, and son Justin, 6.

"There's nothing to say except that the law must take its course," said Howard Cosell, who worked with Simpson on ABC's "Monday Night Football."

The bodies of Mrs. Simpson, the football star's strikingly beautiful ex-wife, and Goldman, a 25-year-old aspiring model and waiter at a trendy restaurant, were found outside Mrs. Simpson's posh condominium.

Mortally wounded by multiple stab wounds, the bodies were discovered in a pool of blood by a passerby.

The couple divorced in 1992 following a seven-year marriage. While still married, Mrs. Simpson called police in 1989 saying she feared he was going to kill her. She had been punched, slapped and kicked by Simpson, who pleaded no contest in the case, authorities said.

Some reports suggested the two were attempting to reconcile at the time of the slayings. They had recently been seen together, but a family friend said those attempts failed and Simpson had turned vengeful.

"He was telling her girlfriends and her that if he ever caught her with anyone he would kill her," the friend told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity. "She totally broke it off with him three weeks ago."

Through his attorneys, Simpson maintained his innocence, claiming he was at home at the time of the slayings, waiting for a limousine to take him to the airport for a flight to Chicago. He attended his wife's funeral Thursday and hired forensic experts to assist in his defense.

Simpson flew to Chicago the night of the killings and was summoned home by police the next morning.

In filing the charges, authorities painted a grim picture in stark contrast to Simpson's graceful moves on the football field. Simpson was accused of using a knife to kill Mrs. Simpson and Goldman. The knife hasn't been found, Garcetti said.

Goldman, his family said, wasn't romantically involved with Mrs. Simpson. Reports indicated he fought valiantly for his life.

Orenthal James Simpson is known to many as the nimble and powerful running back for the Buffalo Bills, for whom he set a single-season NFL rushing record with 2,003 yards in 1973. He helped make USC a national champion in 1967 and won the Heisman Trophy in 1968.

He also was widely seen as a television sports commentator and in advertisements for Hertz rental cars. He also produced several television movies and had featured roles in such productions as "Roots" and "The Naked Gun" comedies.

After the warrant was announced, Hertz dropped Simpson.

- AP

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