The O.J. Simpson Trial 25 Years Later: How Nicole Brown's Death Changed the Domestic Abuse Conversation
Although it ended in acquittal, the double murder trial, which revealed years of violence in the Simpson marriage, was "pivotal" says an expert
Twenty-five years ago this month, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were killed in a knife attack outside her Brentwood home. From the start, the only suspect in the case was her ex-husband, O.J. Simpson. Although his criminal trial ended in a not guilty verdict on all counts, it did force the public to reconsider what it understood about domestic abuse. In a new special edition, True Crime Stories: The Trial of O.J. Simpson, PEOPLE looks at the impact the “trial of the century” still has today.
With the country watching largely unfiltered trial footage on television, prosecutors came in with what they described as “a mountain of evidence,” including some from Nicole Brown herself. Over the course of her relationship with Simpson, she had documented—both in pictures and in accounts to friends—the injuries she suffered at the hands of the 6’1″ former football star. Jurors, as well as TV viewers, saw her bruises and heard her frantic voice in several recorded calls to police. They heard testimony from friends and from her sister Denise Brown who said on the stand that in once instance, Simpson had “grabbed Nicole… threw her against a wall.”
The decision to open their case with Nicole’s proof of spousal abuse, said co-prosecutor William Hodgman, was “an effort to knock Simpson off the iconic pedestal on which he stood.” Even a string of visits by police responding to emergency calls had done little to tarnish his image. One of those incidents took place on New Year’s Eve, 1989, following a party at the couple’s Rockingham home. Nicole had called 911 and then hid in the bushes outside the house. An LAPD officer who responded, John Edwards, recalled in the ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America that Nicole had told him, “You guys have been up here eight times before, all you do is talk to him, you never do anything. He’s gonna kill me.”
Edwards placed Simpson under arrest, but Simpson avoided jail by leaving the scene in his Rolls Royce. Later LAPD officer Ron Shipp, who had been a friend of Simpson’s, said in the same documentary, “O.J. Simpson that night definitely got preferential treatment. Had that have been anybody else — you or me — they’ve had gone to jail.” In a separate incident, Nicole told a friend that she was curled up in a ball because O.J. beat her so hard she thought she was going to die.
Simpson pled “no contest” to charges of spousal abuse and underwent court-ordered counseling. But although the arrest was now public, Simpson continued to be regarded more as a celebrity athlete than as man with a history of beating his wife. When asking about the incident in a 1992 interview, ESPN host Roy Firestone framed the question as an opportunity for Simpson to clear up a story that may have been “distorted.” When that footage resurfaced in O.J.: Made in America, Firestone told The Washington Post, “the Simpson interview is one of the most tragic examples of how the media (including me) and the public trusted and accommodated their heroes, believing their mythology and perpetuating their deification.”
Tragically, that changed only after Brown and Goldman’s deaths. “The O.J. trial was pivotal,” says Katie Ray-Jones, who was in high school back in 1994. Watching it on TV, she heard the words “domestic violence” for the first time. She recalls the images of Nicole Brown’s injuries. Today she is the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which provides women and men resources to find safety from abusive situations. “For a lot of people, domestic violence was still very much something that happened behind closed doors,” Ray-Jones tells PEOPLE. The Simpson case, “was exposure into this world of abuse, specifically physical abuse and emotional abuse, and that controlling behavior that we all started hearing about as the trial unfolded.”
Months after Nicole’s murder, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act, which helped create that helpline and improved law-enforcement responses. In April this year, the House voted to reauthorize the VAWA, but the bill faces an unlikely future in the Senate, which is working on its own version. (Currently VAWA programs are still being funded.)
While strides have been made, recent statistics remain shocking: According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), 1 in 4 women in America will be the victim of “intimate partner violence.” In 2017 the national hotline saw a 74 percent increase in reports in which firearms played a role in the abuse an 11 percent increase in which the situation reported involved children. Making Nicole’s case public “brought light to domestic violence,” notes head of NCADV Ruth M. Glenn. But even with that spotlight and the progress since 1994, she says we should ask, “Are we still not outraged enough to make a difference for those being harmed every day?”
To get help or information: 1-800-799-SAFE or go to the thehotline.org.
PEOPLE’s special issue True Crime Stories: The Trial of O.J. Simpson is available now on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold