OJ Simpson: What impact did the ‘trial of the century’ have on domestic violence awareness?


O. J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Credit: Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch /IPX

O. J. Simpson and Nicole Brown (Credit: Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch /IPX)

On the heels of the recently announced death of O.J. Simpson, the legendary football player who garnered his sports fame to a post-retirement lucrative career as an actor, businessperson, and sports commentator, many people across the U.S. have been opining about his infamous life — but others are also speaking about the various issues that stemmed from his 1994 trial.

After being tried and found ultimately not guilty for the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman in a criminal trial — although he was found liable for their deaths in the 1997 civil trial — Simpson retreated to a more reclusive life, unable to return to the prior glory he lived in before the murders, and later served nine years in a Nevada prison for a 2007 robbery.

The 1994 murder trial, which arguably is what Simpson became most known and widely ostracized for, was nothing short of groundbreaking – it was the first judicial proceeding of its kind to be filmed gavel to gavel, at a time when there were only a handful of cable news stations available and no options for viewing via the Internet, social media, or streaming. It also marked the beginning of showcasing live trials and detailed legal analysis on television, paving the way for channels such as Law&Crime.

The trial was an amalgamation of many issues and areas that had been prevalent in America then and even now, including race, celebrity, wealth, power, and, most importantly, domestic violence. To quote Law&Crime’s own founder, Dan Abrams:

There will never be another case that has the perfect storm that the O.J. Simpson case had. One of the most famous people in America before the case started, being charged with murder … put in race, domestic violence, up and coming cable news at that time, and the fact that it was in Los Angeles at that time. There will never be another O.J. Simpson case.

At the trial, it was ultimately revealed that before she was tragically killed on June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown suffered violence at the hands of O.J. Simpson throughout their 15-plus year relationship. During the trial, photos, 911 calls, and testimony were provided that showed numerous times Brown was beaten by Simpson, who had even pled no contest to spousal abuse charges in 1989 after Brown accused him of striking her.

Despite all of this the jury appeared to ignore the evidence and spent just a few hours deliberating before acquitting Simpson, who walked away a free man on October 3, 1995.

Perceptions of domestic violence, then and now

Many questions abound even in the immediate aftermath of Simpson’s death. Yet one of the most important ones of all is undoubtedly this: Now, nearly 30 years after Brown’s tragic murder, what did this monumental trial do to advance the nation’s understanding and handling of domestic violence?

Up until the trial, while many people were aware of domestic violence generally, the Simpson case was the first time the issue was brought to the public forefront, with many previously deeming it a private matter. As strange as it may sound, many did not know the full scope of what domestic violence even meant, with Brown’s own sister stating in 2016: “Twenty years ago we didn’t have this conversation. We didn’t know what domestic violence was.”

Countless people also did not realize that a spouse could be prosecuted for domestic violence, as the common understanding back then was that if abuse occurred within the home between husband and wife, not much could be done about it. Shockingly, marital rape did not become a crime in all 50 states in the U.S. until July 5, 1993, less than a year before the murders were committed, so the fact that trial viewers were stunned by the intricacies of what domestic violence is and how it unfolds is no surprise.

It is undeniable that having the issue of domestic violence displayed in such a public forum and trial sent the message to many suffering from it that discussing it openly is critical to achieving justice. In fact, as the trial proceeded, calls to domestic violence hotlines, shelters, and police departments increased considerably with reports of domestic abuse and the rates of intimate partner murders against women falling 35% from 1993 to 2007. Even though the criminal trial ended in an acquittal, prosecutors’ tactic of showing how the abuse committed against Brown culminated in murder stuck – up until that point, very few people were able to make the nexus between domestic violence and eventual murder.

Another thing the Simpson trial achieved was dismantling the idea that domestic violence only occurred to certain types of people in certain types of cases. Again, because the issue was not publicly discussed, the narrative that many people had until that time was that only specific factors are involved when it comes to domestic violence, including race, poverty, or socioeconomic status. In actuality, what the trial showed was that domestic violence can happen to anyone.

On the surface, Nicole Brown and O.J. Simpson seemed to have it all: wealth, beauty, healthy children, fame, and more – yet the trial and the details revealed regarding the abuse Nicole Brown suffered showed domestic violence can affect anyone, no matter how privileged.

From tragedy to progress: Changes in domestic violence awareness and policy

Finally, even though the 11-month trial of the century resulted in an acquittal of the defendant in less than four hours of jury deliberation, what followed shortly after were changes in the legal system made to protect women from violence.

Firstly, bringing cases against perpetrators of domestic violence has increased, with many states implementing mandatory arrest laws — meaning that if the police are called for a potential domestic violence incident and probable cause exists, officers are required to arrest the perpetrator — as well as pushing for charges and prosecutions. Secondly, rates of arrests and convictions for abusers has grown, with now more than half of all prosecutions for intimate partner violence resulting in a criminal conviction.

Finally, one of the changes seen by many after Simpson’s case was police officers’ evolving responses to reports of domestic violence. During the trial, Brown had called the police multiple times to report Simpson’s abuse, culminating in only one arrest in 1989. In the 1990s, oftentimes if officers were called to respond to a domestic violence call, they would refrain from getting procedurally involved, instructing the perpetrator to “walk it off,” take “some space,” and that the matter would improve the next day. After the trial, however, police officers were given detailed training and new tools to better handle abuse cases, and are now able to make arrests more swiftly after realizing solving the issue is not as simple as people may think.

And ultimately, one of the major shifts to happen after the Simpson verdict was a change in the law itself. Within that, the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton in September 1994, just three months after the murders, and is still existing federal law today. Lawmakers across the nation also began to realize they needed more uniform overhauling in order to address issues of intimate partner abuse, and now, all 50 states have laws to address domestic violence, when that was not the case just a few decades prior. And finally, states across the country have increased their civil remedies for survivors of domestic violence, making measures such as protective orders, the ability to file a civil suit, and other options available.

Of course, while the problems surrounding domestic violence have no doubt improved over the course of the past thirty years, it is clear the country still has major work to do, as 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men will experience some form of intimate partner violence in the U.S. The work to advocate for victims of domestic violence and abuse continues, and if anything good can be said regarding Simpson’s legacy or trial outcome, it would be that it sparked a nationwide conversation and set of changes regarding this critical issue.

It is crucial that this work continues, because many people believe we cannot rely on another major trial to shed a spotlight on this hugely important topic.

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