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Saturday, May 18, 2024

O.J. Simpson Dies of Cancer at 76, Family Says

  • Simpson was reported to have cancer earlier this year.
  • The former NFL running back was found not guilty in a 1995 murder trial and was a major American cultural figure for decades.
VJ Lovero-USA TODAY Sports

O.J. Simpson, the former NFL running back whose 1995 murder trial captivated the country, died Wednesday, his family announced on X.

The post from the family Thursday morning said that Simpson “succumbed to his battle with cancer” and at the time “was surrounded by his children and grandchildren.” 

Simpson had said last year that he “caught cancer” and “beat it,” but he was diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year. In a video posted Feb. 9, Simpson aggressively denied rumors that he was in hospice care, but until Thursday his account had not posted since Feb. 11.

Simpson spent more than five decades of his life in the public eye, first achieving fame as the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner for Southern Cal and then in the NFL. But he will forever be best known for the events of June 12, 1994, and the trial that followed.

That day, Nicole Brown Simpson, Simpson’s former wife, was brutally stabbed to death along with her friend Ron Goldman in Los Angeles. That was the beginning of a years-long spectacle that captivated the country, with Simpson at the center. 

Though Simpson was ultimately found not guilty, the evidence presented at the trial strongly implicated him in the deaths of Brown Simpson and Goldman, and the killings marked the end of him being known for anything else. The murder case also reminded Americans that Simpson had been convicted of spousal abuse when the couple was still married, in 1989, and the details of the killings were brutal. Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman had been stabbed repeatedly, with news accounts describing Nicole as “nearly decapitated.”

In 1997, a civil jury found Simpson liable for the two deaths in a suit filed by the Brown and Goldman families. Simpson later spent nine years in a Nevada prison after being convicted of several felony counts in a robbery case. Simpson was convicted of several counts related to the theft at gunpoint of his memorabilia in a Las Vegas hotel room.

The families of the deceased chased Simpson in courts for years, winning a $33 million judgment in civil court that Simpson never paid. In 2006, as Simpson was set to publish a hypothetical account of the killings, the Goldman family won the rights to the book in a Florida bankruptcy hearing. The Goldman family repurposed the book’s cover to appear as if the title were “I Did It: Confessions of the Killer.” David Cook, a lawyer for the Goldmans, said Thursday that the family’s hunt for Simpson’s assets would continue despite his death. “He died without penance,” Cook said of Simpson. “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.”

Mainstream reactions to Simpson’s death trickled in over the course of Thursday afternoon. Longtime ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap appeared on the network Thursday to remind viewers of Simpson’s ties to the deaths. “Anyone who has seriously looked at the evidence … would have to come to the conclusion that he was a murderer,” Schaap said. “Am I filled with sorrow today? I’m not.”

Simpson was a legendary player in college and then the NFL, where he ran for 11,000 yards from 1969 to ’79. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in ’85. In a statement Thursday, Pro Football Hall of Fame president Jim Porter alluded to but did not mention the killings.

“O.J. 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,” said Porter. “His on-field contributions will be preserved in the Hall’s archives in Canton, Ohio.”

Less than a week after the deaths of Brown Simpson and Goldman in 1994, police attempted to arrange for Simpson to turn himself in, through his soon-to-be famous lawyers, Mark Shapiro and Robert Kardashian. Instead Simpson fled in slow motion with his friend Al Cowlings, leading Los Angeles police on a bizarre freeway chase. 

Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals between the Knicks and Rockets was preempted and split-screened as tens of millions of people watched police chase Simpson and Cowlings at low speed on highways from Orange County to Brentwood, where Simpson finally surrendered.

It was only the beginning of an era-defining media sensation.

Though it was Simpson’s prowess as a running back that made him famous, it was his personality and popularity off the field that took his fame into the stratosphere. Before the 1994 killings, Simpson had acted in dramas and comedies like The Naked Gun trilogy. He was the rare Black athlete at the time to do national endorsements, like his groundbreaking Hertz ads in the ’70s, and he worked as a broadcaster for NBC Sports through the ’93 season. (NBC Sports declined to comment on Simpson’s death.) 

The clean-cut image required to be a popular actor, endorser, and broadcaster—and the relatively recent innovation of cameras in the courtroom—turned the 1995 court case into the “trial of the century.” 

Simpson was ultimately found not guilty by a jury in a trial that has had enduring cultural pull. The trial was marked by several errors on the prosecution’s side and revelations of racist behavior by the Los Angeles police. It turned nearly everyone who was even tangentially involved into enduring celebrities: Judge Lance Ito; Simpson’s friend Cowlings and “Dream Team” lawyers including F. Lee Bailey, Johnny Cochran, Alan Dershowitz and Robert Kardashian; detective Mark Furman, whom Cochran compared to Adolf Hitler at the trial; and the prosecuting attorneys Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, among many others. All have been portrayed countless times in fiction and documentaries, including in 2016, when a dramatic series ran on FX at the same time that ESPN released an eight-hour documentary on the case that went on to win the Academy Award for best documentary.

After his 2017 release from prison, Simpson had a surreal second act as a minor media figure, frequently posting his largely anodyne musings about football and politics in short-form videos on Twitter. In recent years, he regularly appeared as a football analyst on Mondays on the talk show “It Is What It Is” hosted by rappers Cam’ron and Ma$e.

A.J. Perez contributed reporting. This developing news story has been updated.

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