Thursday, May 23, 2024

OJ Simpson, ex-NFL star who was acquitted of murder, dies aged 76

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OJ Simpson, the former American football star, actor and notorious suspected double murderer, has died of cancer at 76, his family said in a statement on Thursday.

His 1995 trial, and controversial acquittal, for the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, provided one of the world’s most-watched popular culture events of the last century.

Simpson’s death was announced on X, formerly Twitter, in a simple message from his family: “On April 10th, our father, Orenthal James Simpson, succumbed to his battle with cancer. He was surrounded by his children and grandchildren. During this time of transition, his family asks that you please respect their wishes for privacy and grace.”

A statement from the Pro-Football Hall of Fame said Simpson, who died in Las Vegas, had been receiving chemotherapy for prostate cancer, which it said he made public two months ago.

OJ Simpson: from sporting stardom to the murder trial of the century – video obituary

David Cook, an attorney for Goldman’s family, said on Thursday in a brief statement that Simpson “died without penance”.

One of the most successful and popular sports stars of his generation, Simpson’s career with the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills, as well as his post-retirement starring roles in Hollywood movies such as The Naked Gun, was ultimately overshadowed by the 1994 murders and their aftermath.

From a low-speed car chase across Los Angeles, broadcast live, in which Simpson attempted to flee pursuing police officers in a Ford Bronco, to the televised trial that captivated the attention of millions of viewers in the US and globally on a daily basis, the events heralded a blending of celebrity and crime that has become a staple of media ever since.

The trial, which spread over 11 months, brought to prominence colorful characters including the judge Lance Ito, the attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Robert Kardashian, and Simpson’s “house guest” Kato Kaelin. It provided perhaps the most famous “gotcha” moment in courthouse history, when Simpson struggled to put on a glove that the prosecution alleged he wore during the stabbings, and Cochran told the jury: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

The proceedings also took place amid a backdrop of violent racial turmoil in Los Angeles, which only three years earlier had seen five days of rioting and arson following the acquittal of several white police officers for severely beating a Black motorist, Rodney King.

Mistrust of the LA police department by African Americans in the city was rife, and detectives who testified in the Simpson trial were accused of racism. One, Mark Fuhrman, was infamously caught on tape, which was played to the jury, using derogatory racist language, and talking about the planting of evidence.

Detectives who took the stand spoke later about how they felt the jury was “glaring” at them, and that they believed “this case was never going to be won” following the King verdicts.

Despite the not guilty verdict, three years after Simpson’s criminal trial, he was found liable in a civil suit brought by the victims’ families and ordered to pay $33.5m. In 2008, he was sent to prison for 15 years for a botched robbery in Las Vegas in which he attempted to forcibly recover sports memorabilia he insisted had been stolen from him.

Simpson led five men he barely knew into a confrontation with two memorabilia dealers in a hotel room. Two men with Simpson had guns. A jury convicted Simpson of armed robbery and other felonies.

Imprisoned at 61, he served nine years in a remote northern Nevada prison, including a stint as a gym janitor. He was not contrite when he was released on parole in October 2017.

In later life, despite pledging to dedicate the rest of his life to the relentless pursuit of those he insisted were the real killers, he declared bankruptcy and retired to Florida, where he became a regular on the golf course. Laws in the state protected his residence from seizure to settle his civil case obligations, and he was accused of “living the high life” in a mansion near Miami.

In 2006, he also published the book If I Did It, in which he laid out how he would have killed his ex-wife and her friend, had he been responsible for the murders. Simpson described going to Brown’s house carrying a knife, arguing with her and then being shocked when Goldman appeared, in circumstances broadly similar to those outlined by the prosecution.

In his story, Simpson claimed that he then “blacked out”, and regained consciousness only to find two bloodied bodies. The book served only to compound suspicions of Simpson’s guilt.

Kim and Fred Goldman, the sister and father of Ron Goldman, spoke to the Guardian in 2017 about the frustration they experienced trying to recover monetary damages from him. They said they were accused of being racist themselves for not agreeing with the verdict.

“I get called all sorts of names – antisemitic, racist, sexual things. I ignore most of it,” Kim Goldman said, expressing frustration that Simpson maintained a high public profile in the years following his acquittal.

“There will still be people who will seek him out for pictures. He wasn’t as ostracized from society as I thought he would be.”

Her father agreed: “There was always someone who would play golf with him and there still will be,” he said.

In 2007 a court awarded the Goldman family the rights to Simpson’s book, with the proceeds to be put toward the $33.5m jury award.

On Thursday, Cook, their attorney, told the Associated Press that he had spoken with Fred Goldman about Simpson’s death, and reiterated his intention to continue to pursue the civil judgment.

“He died without penance. We don’t know what he has, where it is or who is in control. We will pick up where we are and keep going with it,” he said.

Fascination with Simpson continued for decades after the trial. In 2016, the US sports network ESPN broadcast a five-part documentary about his life, OJ: Made in America, which won an Academy award. The Guardian’s review at the time called it a “captivating and binge-worthy” account of his success and downfall.

Orenthal James Simpson was born in in San Francisco and became one of the most famous and well-liked football players of his day. He captured the Heisman Trophy while at USC, then played successfully for the 49ers and the Bills.

But his sports prowess played out alongside a burgeoning acting and media career that made him a huge celebrity – among both white and Black America.

While still at USC, he appeared on Medical Center and then appeared in films such as The Klansman, The Cassandra Crossing and The Towering Inferno, as well as the miniseries Roots, – all while still a pro football player. After retiring from his beloved sport, he starred in three Naked Gun comedies.

He also appeared in commercials, notably for the car rental company Hertz, and at the time of the murders was arguably the most in-demand former sports star who had made the switch into acting.

Simpson leaves four living children, Arnelle and Jason, both aged in their 50s, from his first marriage to Marguerite Whitley; and Sydney, 38, and Justin, 35, with Brown. Aaren Simpson, whom he shared with Whitley, drowned in the family swimming pool in 1979, weeks before her second birthday.

Simpson was elected to the Pro-Football Hall of Fame in 1985, his first year of eligibility, the organization said in its statement.

“OJ Simpson was the first player to reach a rushing mark many thought could not be attained in a 14-game season when he topped 2,000 yards,” its president, Jim Porter, said.

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