Simpson (O. J.) Murder Trial (World of Forensic Science)
The role of forensic scientists is paramount in gathering evidence for criminal court cases. In the end, however, the verdict rests with the jury. One of the most publicized and controversial court cases involved the double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and Ronald Goldman, 25, at approximately 10 P.M. on June 12, 1994. Both were stabbed to death outside Nicole Simpson's Los Angeles condominium. The investigation was complicated by the fact that there were no eyewitnesses and no murder weapon was found. However, crime scene investigators did recover important evidence that linked Nicole's former husband, Orenthal James (O. J.) Simpson, the former football star, to the murders. This evidence was analyzed by forensic scientists and it was used to prosecute Simpson in an internationally watched and discussed court case.
The evidence that was retrieved at the scene of the crime was substantial. It wasn't immediately clear who committed the murdersven though Simpson was an early suspectntil five days after the murders. In front of a televised audience of millions of viewers, police cars, and helicopters, Simpson's white Ford Bronco drove in a 60-mile (97-km) chase across Route 405 in southern California. The car was driven by A. C. Cowlings, a friend and an ex-football player teammate, while Simpson sat in the back seat with a gun. Simpson had failed to show up for his arraignment on the charges of the double murder before the famous car chase. At the end of the car chase, with the Bronco pulling into his Rockingham Avenue estate, Simpson was arrested.
Deputy District Attorney Marcia Clark revealed the evidence to the court. There were hair samples that were found on Goldman's body after his murder. Forensic geneticists matched the DNA from the hair samples to DNA retrieved from O. J. Simpson. There was also a trail of bloody shoeprints near the murder scene that were estimated by the crime lab to be made by a man's shoe, size 12he same size that Simpson wears. There was a pair of socks with bloodstains on it that was found in O. J. Simpson's bedroom. Geneticists extracted DNA from the socks and matched it to Nicole's DNA. Blood was also found on Simpson's Ford Bronco. After the DNA was extracted and tested, it was found to positively match DNA from both victims. Even blood found at the crime scene was found to have DNA that matched that of O. J. Simpson.
During the police interrogation of Simpson, it was discovered that he had a cut on his left hand. A leather glove that was found near both of the victims had blood on it. DNA samples from the blood matched that of both Simpsons as well as Goldman. A matching glove, with bloodstains on it, was also recovered on Simpson's own estate. Cumulatively, this striking evidence led the prosecution to believe that Simpson was guilty. His trial began the following January.
Simpson employed a group of competent, high profile lawyers that became known as "the dream team." They engineered a formidable defense (despite the overwhelming evidence against Simpson) that was focused on discrediting the Los Angeles police department. They claimed that the police failed to conduct a well-constructed, proper investigation. The prosecution launched its attack using O. J. Simpson's prior history of severe domestic violence and a platform for demonstrating both his motive and his capability of violence. There were other women, at one time involved with Simpson, who claimed to have been abused by him. The prosecution asserted that Ronald Goldman was murdered when he went to Nicole's condominium to return her eyeglasses and, in doing so, stumbled upon the murder. He was then allegedly murdered by O. J. Simpson.
For the defense, the strategy was targeted at police detective Mark Fuhrman, who arrived at Simpson's estate and first discovered the matching bloodstained glove on his property. The defense's case was strengthened by a variety of conversations that depicted Fuhrman as a racist based on previous racial remarks he had made. Attorney Johnnie Cochran proved to be a key player on Simpson's defense team. Jurors heard tape recordings of phone calls that Nicole made to 911 in 1989 and 1993 during altercations between her and Simpson. However, Cochran managed to refocus the court proceedings on Fuhrman, who he ultimately accused of planting the matching bloodstained glove on Simpson's property in order to frame the ex-football star for the double murders. It was implied that Fuhrman was motivated to frame Simpson because he was black.
Near the end of the trial, Cochran produced one of the gloves and requested that Simpson put it on his hand. It appeared to the jury that the glove did not fit Simpson appropriately, lending credence to Cochran's defense that the glove might have been planted. On October 2, 1995, a jury of Simpson's peers deliberated for only about three hours before reaching a verdict. On October 3, 1995, the jury acquitted Simpson of the double murder charges. The trial lasted nine months and the state of California rendered him not guilty. Many people throughout the country were shocked by the decision.
This case exemplifies the importance of the police department's handling of evidence and how police officers should conduct a criminal investigation. It also demonstrates that even with the most formidable evidence produced by the forensics scientists, it may not be enough to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that an accused individual is guilty. Following this case, it became clear that top-notch forensic science, particularly the DNA analysis and the footwear impression examination determined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, must be accompanied by top-notch crime scene investigative collection of evidence. Detailed guidelines for the investigations of homicides, crime scene processing, and arson investigation have since been drafted by the National Institute for Justice. This includes the development of certification programs that specifically train police officers and crime scene technicians in the appropriate approaches to handle the evidence in a crime scene investigation.
The O. J. Simpson trial was controversial. The lack of agreement among experts on the reliability of any evidence in a criminal investigation can be crippling for the prosecution. This case also raised controversy regarding DNA evidence and the methods used for linking suspects to biological evidence found at the scene of the crime. An expert witness for the prosecution, Dr. Bruce S. Weir, testified regarding the methods used for the DNA analysis and how the evidence was examined for the case. Unlike a fingerprinting examination, where the methodology has not been demonstrated to be scientifically proven, DNA analysis is scientifically well tested and the methodologies are considered to be solid by most critics. However, how the evidence is obtained and handled can discredit the findings in a forensics DNA laboratory.
Also important in the O. J. Simpson murder case is the length of time that the evidence was collected. Some DNA from blood droplets that were found at the crime scene was determined not to be from the victims. O. J. Simpson's blood was drawn after this was determined (after the blood was collected during the crime scene investigation). The DNA from the blood droplets was compared to O. J. Simpson's DNA and found to match. By the order of events in this case and the fact that the DNA was already being analyzed by the forensics laboratory suggests that this blood could not have been "planted" by police officers after his arrest. In fact, the DNA analysis revealed that O. J. Simpson's blood DNA had matched the blood DNA found at the crime scene with the probability that only approximately one in 57 billion people could have the same type of match. Three different crime labs performed the same analysis and all three found a positive match.
When Dr. Henry Lee, a criminologist, testified that the blood may have been packaged inappropriately, the defense suggested that a sample switching occurred. The defense also claimed that the blood was degraded due to its storage in the lab truck. This was argued by the prosecution's DNA expert, Harlan Levy, who testified that the degraded DNA was not substantial enough to thwart proper DNA analysis and should not mitigate confidence in the results. If the DNA was mishandled due to the storage procedure, then the quality of the controls would also have been abrogated. Regardless of these credible points, the defense managed to convince the jury that the evidence was mishandled. This weakened the credibility of the genetics laboratory results. Moreover, the complicated and confusing testimony from the DNA experts may have confused and worn out the jury, who may not have had an appropriate understanding of the methodologies and scientific merit of these forensic tests.
The O. J. Simpson double murder trial brought forensic sciences and DNA fingerprinting techniques to the media spotlight. In the end, despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of the prosecution, the key to this case was that the jurors were not convinced that the blood samples were handled appropriately. This court case provided a framework for forensics experts to use to develop new ways to properly handle evidence and maintain a high level of quality control.
Civil lawsuits may be filed regardless of the outcome of an associated criminal prosecution or lack of prosecution. A victim can sue in a civil court even if the alleged perpetrator was found "not guilty" in a criminal court. In a civil trial that followed the criminal case, Simpson was found liable for the deaths of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman (in civil court defendants are found liable rather than guilty). Much of the same forensic evidence that was used at the criminal trial was used in the civil trial. In a civil trial, there is a lower threshold for proof of liability. Moreover, Simpson was required to take the witness stand and offer testimony (something he was not required to do at his trial in criminal court). In the O. J. Simpson civil case, the verdict of liability was unanimous, and Simpson was ordered to pay penalties of roughly $8.5 million.
SEE ALSO Bloodstain evidence; Crime scene investigation; DNA databanks; DNA evidence, social issues; DNA fingerprint; DNA sequences, unique; DNA typing systems; Physical evidence; Quality control of forensic evidence.