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O.J. Simpson, football legend acquitted of notorious killings, dies at 76

O.J. Simpson, pictured in September 2008 in Las Vegas, died Wednesday, according to a statement from his family.
Isaac Brekken
Getty Images
O.J. Simpson, pictured in September 2008 in Las Vegas, died Wednesday, according to a statement from his family.

Updated April 11, 2024 at 18:26 PM ET

The football great Orenthal James Simpson, known as O.J., who was accused and ultimately acquitted in the killings of his ex-wife and her friend, has died. Simpson was 76.

In a post on X, his family said he died on Wednesday. He "succumbed to his battle with cancer," and was surrounded by his children and grandchildren.

Simpson was a cultural icon who starred on the football field and in movies and commercials. That legacy was forever eclipsed after he made headlines in 1994 for another reason when he was accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. In 1995, jurors determined he was not guilty in the stabbing deaths. No one else was ever charged. Dubbed the "trial of the century," the nationally televised proceedings captivated the country with a verdict that reverberated across the U.S. with debates about police misconduct, race, celebrity and domestic abuse.

O.J. Simpson first found fame on the football field. Once a kid who wore leg braces until age 5 after developing rickets, Simpson went on to become one of the greatest running backs of all time. He played at the University of Southern California (USC) in the late 1960s. The powerful tailback danced, dashed and dazzled on the field, propelling the Trojans to a national championship in 1967. He won the Heisman trophy, as college football's best player, in 1968.

After graduating from USC, he played 11 seasons in the NFL; nine of them with the Buffalo Bills, and two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Known as "The Juice," he collected four rushing titles, played in five Pro Bowls and, in 1973, became the first running back to break the 2,000-yard rushing mark.

During and after his pro career ended in 1979, he starred in TV commercials, mostly notably as a pitchman for Hertz as he rushed through airports for the rental car company. He also later appeared in several shows and movies, including The Naked Gun and the TV miniseries Roots, as producers seized on his fame and likeability.

In 1994, the bodies of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, were found stabbed outside her home in Los Angeles. Not long after, Simpson was arrested and his subsequent "low-speed" white Bronco car chase on L.A. freeways was televised nationwide; some 95 million people tuned into the chase coverage. In 1995, a criminal jury determined he was not guilty of committing the killings.

The most famous moment of the months-long trial was when a prosecutor asked OJ to try on the gloves believed to belong to the killer. In a dramatic showing, Simpson struggled to pull on the snug pair.

On June 17, 1994, Los Angeles police "chased" a white Ford Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson and driven at low speed by Al Cowlings on a freeway in Los Angeles.
Joseph R. Villarin / AP
On June 17, 1994, Los Angeles police "chased" a white Ford Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson and driven at low speed by Al Cowlings on a freeway in Los Angeles.

Defense lawyer Johnnie Cochrane seized on this, delivering the most famous line of the whole spectacle in his closing arguments: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."

Prosecutors Marcia Clark, William Hodgman and Christopher Darden came to the trial with strong evidence linking Simpson to the killings, including DNA tests, the right hand of a pair of blood-stained gloves that were found at his home, and his history of spousal abuse.

Simpson's legal team of prominent criminal defense lawyers, including Johnnie Cochran and Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey and Robert Kardashian, successfully made the case to the jury that there was reasonable doubt. It cast the LAPD as racist and corrupt, arguing that it had tampered with forensic evidence at a shoddy crime scene.

When the mixed-race jury announced the not guilty verdict, public reaction seen in media coverage largely fell along racial lines, showing Black people celebrating and white people shocked by his acquittal.

Those TV clips didn't tell the full story, says Camille Charles, a professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. It wasn't that Black Americans all thought he was innocent, she says.

"Black people were more conflicted than was really ever shown in the media," Charles says. But, she says, "Black folks had had such a bad experience with the criminal justice system that they rooted for him as a Black man who actually had the resources to mount a proper defense."

The trial took place three years after the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King had inflamed the deep distrust among Black people and police.

But, as a wealthy celebrity who married a white woman, Simpson was "never seen as a staunch proponent of the African American community," says Darnell Hunt, a professor of sociology and African American studies at UCLA, and as a result, didn't engender overwhelming sympathy among African Americans during his trial.

Two years later, a different civil jury determined he was liable in the deaths and ordered him to pay $33 million to the families of Brown and Goldman.

Simpson continued to maintain his innocence in media interviews.

That wasn't his last tangle with legal trouble. In 2007, he led a group of men to a Las Vegas hotel room to confront some sports memorabilia dealers. Several people brought guns with them, and Simpson was later convicted of armed robbery. He served almost a decade in a Nevada prison and was released on parole in 2017.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Russell Lewis
Russell Lewis is a supervising editor on NPR's National Desk. He coordinates coverage of breaking news and long-range planning of domestic reporting. Lewis is the network's sports editor and he also guides NPR's reporting on aviation and human spaceflight.
Becky Sullivan
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Emma Bowman
[Copyright 2024 NPR]