A guest post by true crime writer Clarence Walker.
It has been almost 26 years since the shocking murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. The double murders happened late on a relatively quiet night on June 12, 1994, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, California. Next month will mark the 26th anniversary of the victim’s death. Although the murders have passed into the realms of real-life crime history, the world still very much remembers the story of the attractive couple, struck down in the prime of their lives by a sadistic killer.
Police investigators would arrest Nicole Brown Simpson’s ex-husband, OJ Simpson, for the slayings.
The OJ Simpson murder trial catapulted the dynamics of criminology and forensics, thrusting the science into the public eye, forever changing how jurors and forensic experts deal with DNA as evidence in criminal trials. OJ Simpson would go on to be acquitted of these murders. His acquittal and the fallout from the historical case left a thunderous effect that mesmerized the opinions of people across the world, hinged on this disturbing question: did a guilty killer walk free?
The case famously influenced the creation of multiple blockbusting CSI television crime shows and true crime dramas like CSI Miami, CSI New York, NCIS, Cold Case Files, American Justice, and Forensic Files.
The OJ Simpson case also exposed at the time the ineptitude of the LAPD crime lab and crime labs in general across America, raising keen awareness of trace evidence. This included instructions on how not to handle certain evidence and the importance it has had in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Death Scene at 875 South Bundy Drive
On the night of June 12, 1994, both victims were discovered by a neighbor, between 10:30 pm and 11 pm, walking his dog along the sidewalk outside Nicole’s Beverly Hills Condominium in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles’s County. Apparently Nicole’s two beautiful children were asleep inside the house when she was murdered.
When Homicide Detectives arrived at the scene and began their investigation, a dark cloud of suspicion hung over OJ Simpson; a famous actor, former NFL football star, and Nicole’s estranged husband. Prior to Nicole’s death, OJ had been accused of physically abusing Nicole which triggered the police to shine their lights much brighter on the former football star. Their beliefs typified the axiom among veteran investigators; that continuing domestic violence between couples easily offers police a likely motive when one partner is killed.
The savage murders of the young couple triggered one of the highest-profile and controversial criminal investigations in U.S. history when Hall of Fame football star OJ Simpson was eventually charged with the murder of his ex-wife Nicole and the murder of Ron Goldman.
The DNA evidence against Simpson was solid as a rock. His lawyers never disputed the validity of the evidence but they harped on the mishandling and contamination of the evidence. Even worse, Simpson’s blood was found at the death scene including a bloody glove found at Simpson’s Rockingham estate which matched the other bloody glove at the Bundy address where Simpson’s ex-wife and Ron Goldman were found viciously stabbed to death.
How much evidence did the police and prosecutors need to convict him?
When Simpson went on trial in L.A. Superior Court for the double murders in January 1995, the captivating drama juxtaposed with all its lurid accounts of race, murder, wealth and rumors of planted evidence by a racist, rogue cop, the engrossing case was called the ‘Trial of The Century.’
After 26 years the acquittal of Simpson has become a lightning rod stick for the court system to better assess scientific evidence as cutting-edge technology continues to evolve.
People across the nation were mesmerized by the Simpson case and the sensational trial was watched by millions. Each twist and turn of the real-life saga was a nail- biter. Millions of TV viewers watched the slow-speed police pursuit of Simpson’s White Ford Bronco, with A.C. Cowling as the driver in the hours before his arrest, while an emotional Simpson hunkered down in the vehicle threatening to kill himself.
TV viewers were glued to the image of Simpson in the courtroom when the accused football star attempted to try on the infamous killer gloves, and, as Simpson struggled to fit his big hands into the leather gloves, his face crunched into a frown, and without hesitation, the accused killer said, “They are too small.”
This stunning moment during the glove fiasco bore reminiscent of a spectacular Perry Mason moment which led Simpon’s lead attorney, Johnnie Cochran, to allege during closing arguments that, “If it don’t fit you must acquit.”
The case possessed so many compelling elements that captivated the public, particularly the image of a wealthy black man in America who hired a dream team to defend him against charges of murdering two attractive white people, including allegations, as already mentioned, that a racist police detective framed Simpson with questionable blood evidence.
Los Angeles forensic professor Don Johnson, a former criminalist with the L.A. County Sheriff Department summed up the evidence in a news article against Simpson as a slam dunk. “If we consider an average homicide case the evidence against Simpson was overwhelming to begin with.”
Recalling how blood evidence was recovered from Simpson’s shoes and socks, on the gate of the residence and the blood found in Simpson’s infamous White Ford Bronco, Johnson, said. “At the crime scene, there were drops of blood leading away from the (death) scene that were typed and matched to that of Simpson as well as blood stains on the gate.”
Johnson said the jury focused on the possibility that the evidence was planted by the police, specifically by Detective Mark Fuhrman, characterized as a purebred racist cop. Blood planting was one of the most important issues raised during the trial due to Detective Phillip Vannatter’s mistake of transporting a vial of Simpson’s blood, and subsequently, Vannatter handing the same blood vial over to criminalist Dennis Fung who was already searching for evidence at Simpson’s Rockingham Mansion.
If Buccal swabbing had been available in 1994, like it is now in 2020; all Vannatter would have had to do was take oral swabs from Simpson’s mouth by using a cotton tip. This procedure would have eliminated Vannatter from using a blood vial. Simpson attorney, Johnnie Cochran, accused the police and prosecutors of ”rushing to judgment” to convict Simpson at any cost, and that the LAPD lab that tested the forensic evidence failed to maintain the integrity of the evidence and performed testing under sloppy procedures. OJ’s defence team insisted the evidence could not be trusted.
The jury bought it, hook, line and sinker, and they acquitted Simpson on October 3, 1995, without even asking to review the DNA .
What if Simpson was tried in a court of law today with the innumerable advancements that’s been made in forensic testing of evidence?
Scientists of this era are more educated about DNA testing, thanks to the Simpson trial and a slew of crime shows to grace television networks worldwide. Jurors these days usually expect DNA to be a part of the evidence against a defendant, and often they will question why no DNA was presented.
“People think they understand forensics more than they actually do,” says Los Angeles State University Professor Lisa Graziano, in a Daily Press article. “DNA was so complex and complicated that nobody really understood it,” famed Fox anchor reporter Van Susteren said in a Washington Post article.
Race, no doubt, took center stage in Simpson’s case, according to a retired police Detective Sergeant. “Never in my life have I witnessed a case with so many twists and turns focused on skin color,” said Johnny Bonds.
Bonds is an expert in homicide investigations. He retired as a Sergeant with the Houston-TX police department where he served 20 years, spending close to ten years in the Homicide Division alone. Bonds also spent another 19 years as a Senior Criminal Investigator with the Harris County District Attorney Office in Houston. Bonds retired as a Lieutenant from the DA Office in 2008. As a Homicide Investigator Consultant Bonds has appeared in several episodes of the TV hit show Cold Justice.
Bonds added that LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman became the “Fall Guy” into the defence racist theory in the Simpson case, although the retired detective admitted Fuhrman shouldn’t have lied on the stand by saying he’d never used the N-word.
Bonds further explained that the case was overwhelmed with false reasonable doubts. “And never have I seen a case to generate so much false reasonable doubts in favor of a guilty murderer.”
Bonds success in law enforcement over the past decades has attracted the attention of Hollywood. A movie is in the works based on a highly respected book written about Bonds 1979 triple murder-suicide case, titled ‘The Cop Who Wouldn’t Quit by Rick Nelson.‘
President Harry S. Truman once said, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”
This article highlights the differences between the evidence produced during Simpson’s trial in 1995, with the advancement of forensic testing of evidence that is used in murder trials today in 2020.
So after reading the comparisons in this article of how the older methods of forensic evidence was applied in Simpson’s case over 25 years ago, try to compare the new advanced forensic evidence in Simpson’s case today, and see if you’re convinced that the advanced evidence would’ve changed the outcome of the not-guilty verdict.
So, CSI fans and Crime Traveller readers, let’s dive into it.
January 24th 1995: Jury Trial Began
Both prosecutors and OJ Simpson’s defence dream team acknowledged the importance of thoroughly educating the jury about the DNA testing of Simpson’s blood found at the scene at 870 South Bundy Drive where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found murdered on June 12, 1994. Simpson’s jury consisted of mostly layman type citizens who were generally unfamiliar with science or scientific applications and testing.
For example, defence attorneys and prosecutors slow-walked the jury through the complexities of the evidence from a scientific viewpoint, explaining how a suspect’s DNA profile is developed from a crime scene sample, and, after testing, proved the high probability it matched Simpson’s blood at the time to “one in 170 million” among men of the American population.
Advances in DNA testing today of blood samples will equal to “one in trillions” of the population worldwide, instead of “one in 170 million.” After taking over a month for prosecutor Marcia Clark to present DNA evidence linking Simpson to the double murders, numerous scientific terms mind-boggled the jury. One elderly juror later told a news reporter that she had never heard of DNA, and didn’t fully understand what it was all about.
Another uphill battle for the prosecutors was the improper handling of the blood evidence which gave the defence leeway to argue the blood evidence was either planted by homicide detectives or contaminated by shoddy lab work.
2020 Views About DNA
With advances in DNA, anyone who follows news events and watches real-life forensic crime dramas should now know that DNA is so powerful and compelling it can either have a person declared innocent of a crime or convict the guilty.
According to the New York-based Innocence Project, as of November 2019, 367 people had been exonerated by DNA throughout several states. 21 of those 367, had been sentenced to death. For jurors deciding criminal cases today, DNA evidence is readily accepted as the undisputed proof.
Back then during Simpson’s debacle even CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) hadn’t been developed for use in criminal cases. CODIS holds a massive amount of DNA samples of people nationwide.
June 12, 1994: Crime Scene Evidence At Bundy Drive
When CSU technicians recover blood from a crime scene, this evidence can identify a suspect and possibly solve the case. As any scientist knows, it is mandatory to correctly document, collect, and preserve this type of evidence. Proper chain of custody is the key to effectively processing, maintaining control and keeping the integrity of the evidence. If, in some way, handled improperly, blood evidence can critically undermine important facts in a case, particularly in a homicide investigation.
Simpson’s Bloody Cut Fingers
Once OJ Simpson became a prime suspect in the double murders the homicide detectives first questioned him about a noticeable cut on his finger. Simpson initially said the cut happened as result of throwing a golf bag or luggage around. Immediately when he sensed the detectives didn’t believe him, Simpson changed his story and said he cut his finger on a glass that he broke in a Chicago hotel after hearing his ex-wife had been murdered.
Detective Phillip Vanatter collected a vial of blood from Simpson’s arm to have a criminalist develop his DNA profile, which is called a reference sample. What happened next with Simpson’s blood triggered allegations that detectives planted Simpson’s blood at the murder scene and at Simpson’s house.
Unfortunately, Vanatter innocently broke a cardinal rule when he transported Simpson’s blood sample to a criminalist who was already collecting blood evidence at Simpson’s Rockingham estate, instead of checking the sample into the police lab.
Simpson’s attorneys also explained another critical dilemma to Judge Lance Ito; that the reference blood sample stored in the vial allegedly belonging to Simpson was missing approximately 1.5 milligrams from the time of collection to the exact time the lab finally received it. Attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Barry Scheck argued that the blood from the crime scene (which purportedly belonged to the real killer) was cross-contaminated with Simpson’s blood.
Trial testimony showed the “cotton swabs” containing blood drops recovered from the murder scene were left to dry on June 13th, and had sufficient time to dry prior to being placed in the evidence bag for storage on June 14th, the next day. Attorney Cochran went into great detail to reiterate that the original “blood-soaked swabs” belonged to the real killer and had been either switched or mixed with Simpson’s blood to convict him of the murders.
Buccal Swab Testing in 2020
With more progress made with highly sensitive DNA testing, now a reference DNA sample can be collected through Buccal swabs. Buccal swabbing involves a suspect who voluntarily agrees to have an investigator use a cotton tip to stir into his/her mouth to collect oral saliva and skin cells mixed with saliva.
The difference between Buccal swabbing and depositing a blood sample into a vial back in 1994 is that a Buccal swab collection kit is sealed and signed in the presence of a suspect or defendant. The advantage for the Buccal swab provides the following benefits: If a kit is somehow opened and the swab removed; how can a corrupt officer or criminalist extract skin cells from the Buccal swab and plant it at a crime scene?
Investigators these days often perform Buccal swabs due to its efficiency and reliability to maintain control of the evidence for subsequent DNA testing. If OJ Simpson’s reference DNA had been collected on a Buccal swab the defence team would have been unable to raise suspicion of planted evidence, switched blood samples, and blood contamination.
DNA Expert Trial Testimony in 1995
Mixed profiles of DNA confused the jury as well. The terminology used by the DNA experts on the stand such as “cannot be excluded” was used frequently by the expert to describe the difference between a reference DNA sample and a mixture of two or more DNA profiles. The words, “cannot be excluded” actually meant there is enough information present from a developed profile to possibly be the same profile as the reference sample. But any DNA expert will attest to the fact that a reference sample cannot be “one hundred percent certain” that a profile actually belongs to a particular person.
Testing Of Mixed Blood in 2020
Advanced testing today now allows the mixtures of profiles to be easier to decipher. For example, experts say, that a Standard Tandem Repeat (STR), which is the DNA typing of the Y-Chromosome, can be tested and determined if the blood sample actually belongs to a male donor. Y-Chromosomes are found in males. Once the sample is identified as a male it is then isolated with the male genetic Y-Chromosomes code.
And when the blood of the male is mixed with a female’s DNA profile, DNA experts can then retype the male’s DNA reference sample using the “Y-STR”, which can result in a goldmine of information for the prosecutor or defence because it will distinguish between a male and female DNA. Unfortunately for experts in Simpson’s case, DNA hadn’t advanced to the point to differentiate between the DNA profiles of males and females.
Experts conclude the interpretation of mixed blood can be complicated. Writing in his published book titled Advanced Topics in Forensics, John Butler, explains. “Interpretations (mixtures of blood) in Simpson’s case would’ve been simplified if the STR had been available at the time.”
June 1994: Hair Samples Recovered
Strands of hair recovered from the shirt of victim Ron Goldman and hairs found in a knit cap recovered at the homicide scene were microscopically identical to Simpson’s head hairs. Comparisons of hairs microscopically cannot conclusively match a known hair with another sample recovered from a crime scene. But today’s testing of human hair using Mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from a maternal mother, would extract the DNA from the hair and determine the identity of the person whose shredded hair was found at a crime scene or on a dead body.
Mitochondrial DNA (MTDNA)Testing of hair in 2020
If OJ Simpson was tried today, and let’s say the hair sample found on Goldman’s shirt, including if the hair samples found in the knit cap only had a single strand of root or roots attached to the hairs, the advanced Mitochondrial DNA would easily have the capability to positively identify whether the hairs belonged to Simpson or excluded him altogether, instead of providing the interpretative results of the hairs being “microscopically similar” to Simpson’s hair.
We may never know with absolute certainty that if OJ Simpson would’ve been tried today whether he’d be found guilty by a jury more educated about DNA testing and testing of forensic evidence. Yet we must admit that if a jury is more knowledgeable about evidence, and if the evidence proves guilt, the jury will convict.
Professor Lisa Graziano further said in a news article that the CSI effect has changed the public so much that if the Simpson case took place today, “The science evidence could outweigh the mistrust and perceived racism of the LAPD.”
The cold-blooded murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were a tragedy of tragedies. Is it conceivable the jury failed to convict OJ Simpson due to a lack of understanding of the value and power of DNA testing of the blood evidence that put Simpson at the scene, and the proof of blood evidence belonging to the victims that were found in Simpson’s vehicle?
Were the jury swayed by the horrible racist statements spoken by L.A. Detective Mark Fuhrman including the “N” word he spoke repeatedly during a recorded interview that was leaked publicly by a screenwriter? And that same “N” word and other questionable evidence likely tilted in Simpson’s favor and simultaneously poisoned the case against prosecutors, thus deepening the juror’s suspicion that evidence against Simpson were, in fact, planted against him.
We may never know all the answers. But the acquittal of OJ Simpson for two brutal murders became the moment that changed lives and changed forensic evidence testing altogether. Simpson’s trial has defined the way the entire criminal justice system adjudge evidence to convict or acquit accused criminals in a court of law.
- Babb, K. (June 09, 2014) How the O.J. Simpson murder trial 20 years ago changed the media landscape. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/redskins/how-the-oj-simpson-murder-trial-20-years-ago-changed-the-media-landscape/2014/06/09/a6e21df8-eccf-11e3-93d2-edd4be1f5d9e_story.html
- Brainy Quote. Harry S Truman Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/harry_s_truman_100086
- Butler, John M. Advanced Topics in Forensic DNA Typing: Interpretation. Academic Press. 2014. https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Advanced_Topics_in_Forensic_DNA_Typing_I.html?id=reBQBAAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y
- FBI Services. Biometric Analysis. Frequently Asked Questions on CODIS and NDIS. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/services/laboratory/biometric-analysis/codis/codis-and-ndis-fact-sheet
- Kayser M. (2017). Forensic use of Y-chromosome DNA: a general overview. Human genetics, 136(5), 621–635. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00439-017-1776-9
- Mitochondrial DNA. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrial_DNA
- Puritan Blog. How to Collect a Buccal Swab Sample for Forensic Analysis. Retrieved from https://blog.puritanmedproducts.com/how-to-collect-a-buccal-swab-sample-for-forensic-analysis
- Rogers, B. (June 08, 2016) Legendary detective Johnny Bonds continues crusade in famous murder case. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Legendary-detective-Johnny-Bonds-continues-7970679.php
- Temple-Raston, D. (January 28, 2008) FBI’s New Technology Revolutionizes DNA Analysis. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18435256&t=1590362146800
- The Innocence Project. Exonerate the Innocent. Retrieved from https://www.innocenceproject.org/exonerate/
Walker. C. (May 25, 2020) O.J. Simpson Trial: 26 Years Later. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2020/05/oj-simpson-trial-26-years-later/
About the author: Clarence Walker is a Texas-based journalist and Private Investigator. He works as an independent producer and commentator for TV Crime Shows. On April 13, 2020, Walker appeared as a commentator on TVOne Fatal Attraction Network Series (Episode: Evil Triangle). Walker also appeared as a commentator on the Investigation Discovery Network programme ‘The Last 24 Hours.’ Clarence can be reached at [email protected]