The Downfall of O.J. Simpson: Why We'll Never Stop Talking About the Murder Trial That Changed Media Culture Forever

Football hero turned pitchman and actor turned into a tragic figure within hours back in 1994

By Natalie Finn Mar 04, 2016 6:35 PMTags
OJ Simpson, O.J. Simpson, Booking Photo, Mug Shot Ron Galella/WireImage; Harry Langdon/Getty Images

UPDATE: And by never we meant never. As the many have-we-traveled-back-in-time jokes making the rounds on late-night TV have indicated, we have once again been consumed with the killings of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman and the O.J. Simpson murder trial thanks to FX's The People v O.J. Simpson—but real life has once again come back to haunt us.

The LAPD is now running tests on a knife that, according to officials, was reportedly discovered buried on Simpson's former Rockingham property when it was being torn down a few years after the trial. A construction worker found it, then gave it to a traffic cop, who proceeded to keep it as a memento, per the story told to police. (For the record, when the cop supposedly decided not to turn the knife in, Simpson had already been found not guilty and, because of double jeopardy, he couldn't be tried again for the slayings. And now the statute of limitations on lesser offenses, such as assault with a deadly weapon, has run out.)

Yet another bit of irony: Back in 1995, it was revealed at trial that one of the detectives was given O.J.'s famed Bruno Magli shoes to process into evidence—but first he went home to Simi Valley, Calif. (where the Rodney King trial took place, to add insult to injury), with the shoes and he testified that he had them for six hours before turning them in.

"I don't know why [the cop didn't turn the knife in] or if that's entirely accurate or if this whole story is possibly bogus from the get go," LAPD Capt. Andrew Neiman said at a press conference this morning.

But we rest our case. Again.

Technically O.J. Simpson's life story took a turn for the irreparably tragic in the fleeting moments it took Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman to succumb to the fatal knife wounds they suffered on the evening of June 12, 1994.

But it was O.J.'s behavior over the next five days, regardless of how the "Trial of the Century" ultimately turned out, that forever cemented his legacy as a fallen hero. Though it also wasn't long before the world knew that he was never the hero his adoring fans thought he was.

As it's now re-unfolding on American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, those who were close to "Juice" were apparently divided into three camps: Those who worshiped him, those who knew about his shortcomings as a human being, and those who did the former regardless of the latter.

University of Southern California/WireImage

Simpson was a national championship-winning, Heisman Trophy-caliber football star at USC and he went No. 1 in what was then the AFL-NFL draft to the Buffalo Bills in 1969. His Hall of Fame career included racking up 2,003 yards in 1973 (he's still one of only seven NFL players to ever rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season), six Pro Bowl selections and being central to the team's "Electric Company" offense.

Because he gave them the Juice, you know?

Focus On Sport/Getty Images

He never played in a Super Bowl, though ironically a Super Bowl-size audience ultimately tuned in for his downfall, which played out in the media nearly 24/7 about 15 years after he retired.

While he was still playing football Simpson became a Hollywood star as well, appearing in the seminal 1977 TV miniseries Roots, the big-screen disaster epic The Towering Inferno and the 1974 drama The Klansman. He became a sought-after pitchman, stumping for Chevrolet and Royal Crown Cola; he was still the most famous face of Hertz rental cars until the day he was arrested for murder, having caught a red-eye flight to Chicago the night of the killings in order to play in a sponsored golf tournament the following day.

Paramount Pictures

And those who never saw the famous running back rush for one yard knew him as the hapless Nordberg from The Naked Gun trilogy, a man of few words and many pratfalls. But either way, all of the O.J. achievements and appearances combined over the years made for one very famous guy in 1994.

In 1985, meanwhile, he married his second wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, whom he had met when she was 18 and he was 30, and they had two children together, Sydney and Justin. The kids were asleep upstairs in Nicole's Brentwood condo when she and Goldman were killed inside her front gate.

Ron Galella/WireImage

When the news broke in the early hours of June 13, 1995, that Nicole had been murdered, the media ultimately sprang to life with recollections of Simpson's abusive behavior—which was strangely common knowledge and yet...forgotten.

According to Jeffrey Toobin's 1996 account of the case, The Run of His Life (the source material for The People v. O.J. Simpson), on 3:58 a.m. on New Year's Day, 1989, Nicole called 911. When police arrived, her face was battered, she had a handprint on her neck and she had been hiding in the bushes outside in a bra and sweatpants. O.J. denied beating her and, when police asked O.J. to come down to the station, he drove off in his Bentley. Ultimately, Nicole was reluctant to press charges, but she signed the police report and Simpson—who would later suggest that Nicole had often been violent with him but he continued to love her "too much"—was prosecuted for misdemeanor battery.

It wasn't that any of it was swept under the rug—rather, it was more or less ignored by the media, let alone barely prosecuted. When deciding whether to bring charges, LAPD Officer Mike Farrell asked around to see if any cops remembered other incidents at the Simpson house. Only one, Mark Fuhrman (whose career as a detective would pretty much end after the O.J. trial), would offer an account about being called out there in 1985, but the cops actually went out there eight times before New Year's 1989.

The Simpsons divorced in 1992. When police notified Nicole's parents of her death via telephone two years later, her sister Denise Brown was on the line and screamed, "He killed her! He finally killed her!"

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

After O.J. became the chief suspect in the murders due to forensic and circumstantial evidence, by all accounts he became entirely consumed with his fate and legacy, rather than being concerned with how his kids were doing or expressing any interest in finding out who really killed his ex-wife and her friend.

By the time he fled Robert Kardashian's house in a white Bronco with his friend Al Cowlings behind the wheel on June 17, 1994, and engaged police in a low-speed chase that would preempt coverage of the NBA Finals at one point, so many shocking things had already occurred. From O.J. signing a purported suicide note with a happy face in the "O" to the LAPD's only pre-arrest interview with Simpson lasting a mere 32 minutes, that the script was writing itself.

And that's why people remain obsessed to this day, more than 20 years after the trial, about the O.J. case. It had all the makings of a Hollywood thriller: a couple of young, beautiful victims; a gruesome crime; a massive ensemble cast; and a hero turned villain whom not everyone believed to be guilty and who split a city right down the middle.

Ron Galella/WireImage

Two years before O.J. was arrested, four white LAPD officers were found not guilty of assaulting Rodney King, an African-American taxi driver who was pulled over during a traffic stop in March 1991 and beaten within an inch of his life. Riots broke out in South Central Los Angeles in response to the verdict, which confirmed just how toxic the relationship had become between L.A. law enforcement and the city's black community. More than 50 people died and 2,000 were injured over six days of rioting and looting. Police Chief Daryl Gates resigned a few months later.

On the flip side of that dysfunction was O.J.'s relationship with the police. He was friendly with the LAPD, even entertaining officers at pool parties at his house on occasion. Later it would be pointed out that area law enforcement had a pattern of tiptoeing around celebrities, O.J. included.

Lee Celano/WireImage

Though O.J. himself had insisted "I'm not black, I'm O.J." (in a 1967 New York Times interview, not after the murders), his attorneys—the "Dream Team," led by charismatic civil rights activist Johnnie Cochran—ultimately made the case about race. They insisted the LAPD actually had it in for Simpson, rather than enjoyed a friendly relationship that resulted in nine visits to his house to investigate domestic disturbances and exactly one misdemeanor prosecution.

The O.J. trial wasn't Court TV's first rodeo, but it set a new precedent for just how much coverage and gory details and interviews and opinions the public would eat up with a spoon. So it turned out, the public's appetite was insatiable.

AP Photo/Myung Chun

A jury of 10 women and two men were seated in November 2014. Opening statements began Jan. 24, 1995, the prosecutors lost their grip on what they surely considered at the very beginning to be an open-and-shut case, and on Oct. 3, 1995, O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Presumably because there was no justice in the real case of The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson, the fact that O.J. is now in prison in Nevada—serving a 33-year sentence for armed robbery and other offenses for his role in a heist to get back what he claimed was stolen memorabilia—is practically a blip on the pop culture radar.

Because what happened in 1994—when millions of TV sets were tuned to the low-speed Bronco chase and then more or less stayed on for a year and a half of courtroom drama—will never happen again. Or at least not in quite the same way.

Lawrence Schiller / A+E Networks

The Kardashians weren't a thing yet (Robert Kardashian's involvement and Kris Jenner's friendship with Nicole aside). You couldn't Google stories about O.J.'s messy divorce. There was no social media and most cell phones were clipped to people's belts, next to their beepers.

All people could do was watch it play out on TV, and because the likes of CNN and Court TV knew people were watching most hungrily, they gave the masses what they wanted. More.

But there was only so much to give at the time. And because we weren't yet on information overload in the mid-90s, no matter how much cable news tried to get us there in record time, there was still more to be discovered, analyzed, shocked by and regretted for years to come as O.J. played golf and went about his life.

The equivalent of what happened then would be [insert widely admired, charming guy whose past transgressions society has turned a blind eye to] going on trial for killing his ex-wife. And then you tweeted about nothing else for a year.

We agree, it's pretty much impossible to imagine.

Watch: Cuba Gooding Jr. Talks Draw of "People v. O.J. Simpson" Role

(Originally published Feb. 10, 2016, at 6 a.m. PT)