Nine years after being convicted for armed robbery and kidnapping in 2007, O.J. Simpson was granted parole on July 20, effective as early as October. During his stint in prison, Simpson has reportedly been a model inmate: He is courteous to his guards, helps lead a Baptist ministry group and has remained out of trouble.
However, the news of Simpson’s imminent release has reignited discussion about his acquittal in the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Simpson was not convicted of the double murder, but his stay in prison for the armed robbery and kidnapping charges has seemed like a form of ex post facto justice to the majority of Americans who believe that Simpson did indeed murder those people.
Simpson’s trial for murder remains pertinent today, especially in light of the recent and necessary national discussion concerning police brutality and race. The Simpson case allows us to understand race and criminal justice in America by showing us how we got here and how we can go forward.
The Simpson trial occurred in the aftermath of the 1991 riots following Rodney King’s beating by police after a high-speed car chase in Los Angeles. Racial tensions were high both in the city and across the country, and Simpson’s case was exactly the type of event that could ignite the fuse.
Simpson’s legal team, nicknamed the Dream Team, pursued a defense strategy that focused on the supposed racism of the Los Angeles Police Department. Because the case was widely televised and was covered by a rabid media, it introduced the issue of police racism in the criminal justice system to many Americans who were not previously familiar with this complex issue.
During Simpson’s trial, public opinion on his innocence or guilt was starkly divided down racial lines. The large majority African-Americans, for many of whom Simpson was a hero, believed in his innocence and agreed with the Dream Team’s argument of racism in the LAPD. However, for many white Americans, who up until that point had never conceived of racial bias in law enforcement, Simpson’s guilt seemed predetermined. The fault lines established by the Simpson case began the conversation about race in law enforcement, and in the American criminal justice system at large.
In the years since Simpson was imprisoned, this country has had to face uncomfortable but extremely necessary truths about racial injustices in law enforcement. The names Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland, among too many others, have been held in Americans’ collective mind as representative of law enforcement run amok, seemingly unable or unwilling to treat all Americans fairly. Yet, though Americans have become more aware in the last few years of the systemic racism in law enforcement, and quite possibly the criminal justice system as a whole, the world that Simpson will re-enter this fall has made little progress in resolving these injustices.
The issues of racial bias in law enforcement raised in the initial Simpson case — along with the multitude of appalling, often fatal, cases of police bias that have followed — show that race remains a significant factor in the law enforcement system; moreover, the frequent exonerations of police defendants criminally charged in those cases point to the likelihood that these problems of racial bias extend to the broader the criminal justice system.
Though the Black Lives Matter movement and the acquittals in these trials have forced our nation to confront the problems within our law enforcement system — and to recognize that racism apparent in police law enforcement more generally pervades the criminal justice system — this increased awareness has led to little actual reform. For example, African-Americans are still being sentenced at a much higher rate and with much stricter sentences than their white counterparts for the same crimes.
This summer, I have had the opportunity to work as a law clerk intern for a federal judge, where I have been exposed to the criminal justice system up close. This experience has reaffirmed my belief in the importance of an impartial and fair judiciary. To truly eradicate the stain that racism casts upon our criminal justice system, all of us — citizens, students, lawmakers, lawyers and judges — must commit ourselves to holding the system accountable and demanding true justice, whether it is through jury duty, potential future careers as lawyers and judges or by simply calling out injustices in the criminal justice system when we see them.
Looking back more than two decades after Simpson’s murder trial, it can seem like the issues we faced back in those days are long gone. However, Simpson’s impending release on parole reminds people of the biases in law enforcement that were brought to the forefront during his murder trial, and it reiterates the fact that we have failed to eradicate racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system at large.
Grant Olson is a junior in the College. Past as Prologue appears every other Wednesday.