Better public understanding of domestic violence was the one silver lining from O.J. Simpson’s fall, by Clarence Page

4/18/2024, 6 p.m.
Has the search for Nicole Simpson’s “real killer” officially ended? Not that I expected to find out more than we ...

Has the search for Nicole Simpson’s “real killer” officially ended?

Not that I expected to find out more than we already know. The leading suspect in the slaying of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman continued to be nobody else but O.J., up to his dying day.

Mr. Simpson died Wednesday at age 76, according to his family. Following his career as a cheerful and skillful record-breaking NFL running back for the Buffalo Bills, he became a popular crossover star in movies such as the slapstick “Naked Gun” while also racing through airports in classic television commercials for Hertz, jumping over luggage and spreading goodwill.

After Mr. Simpson’s ex-wife and Mr. Goldman were found brutally murdered on June 12, 1994, O.J.’s fall was precipitous.

The former football star’s flight from justice and later televised murder trial injected new memorable images into our culture. It began with the “slow-speed chase” in the white Ford Bronco, tailed by a parade of Los Angeles police, sirens blaring, as they tried to persuade him to surrender. And, of course, there was the bizarre courtroom poetry of defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, who told jurors, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” in reference to the bloody glove found on the property after the murders.

But the most memorable moment in my view came with the reading of Mr. Simpson’s “not guilty” verdict by a mostly Black jury. Cameras in remote locations picked up starkly different reactions: Black crowds erupted with cheers and applause. White crowds on camera expressed shock, anger and dismay.

Like the slow-speed chase, the contrasting live shots became one of the defining images of the ‘90s — and stirred a new conversation about race relations, including a lot of frustrated shouting.

We’ve become accustomed to countless political discussions about our divided nation, especially along racial lines, but polls over the years offer a glimmer of hope. Views of Simpson’s guilt have moved closer together over the years, although undeniable gaps remain.

Twenty years after the acquittal, three-quarters of Americans, including a majority of Blacks, concluded Mr. Simpson probably was guilty, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll. In polls closer in time to the verdict, only about a fifth of Black respondents thought Mr. Simpson did it.

Since most of the change in opinions occurred with Blacks who were polled, I can only respond as an African-American that I am relieved. Most Black folks I know seem to have swung in the same direction.

My own attitudes also swung against Mr. Simpson’s credibility, as evidence surfaced of his lying and dozens of reported episodes of domestic brutality, allegedly played down by police officers responding to Nicole Simpson’s multiple calls for help.

In October 1993, a year after the Simpsons divorced, she called 911 when her ex showed up at her home “ranting and raving,” we learned in court.

“He’s in a white Bronco, but first of all, he broke the back door down to get in,” she said. “He’s O.J. Simpson. I think you know his record.”

Eight months later, she and Mr. Goldman—who had stopped by to return eyeglasses left at a restaurant that night—were fatally stabbed outside her Brentwood home. Her two young children she had with Mr. Simpson were inside.

If there is anything positive to be taken from the tragedy of Nicole Simpson, it is the long-overdue attention it gave to the plague of domestic violence.

“You won’t ever know the worst that happened to Nicole Brown Simpson in her marriage,” wrote self-described radical feminist Andrea Dworkin in a tribute to Nicole Simpson “because she is dead and cannot tell you. And if she were alive, remember, you wouldn’t believe her.”

Ms. Dworkin, who died in 2005, sometimes could be a bit too radical for my tastes. But that time I think she nailed it.

Although race quickly crowded other issues in our national conversation about the O.J. Simpson case, we can’t overlook the importance of how it helped change the national conversation around domestic violence.

As much as O.J. absurdly talked about finding “the real killer,” a truly real killer is our own failure to take the complaints of domestic violence victims seriously—an issue on which we’ve made progress, but not enough.

The writer is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.