Lessons from a legal spectacle: The enduring impact of the O.J. Simpson trial on police investigations (2024)


From a compromised crime scene to controversial police conduct, the O.J. Simpson case offers a study on the pitfalls that can derail justice

April 16, 2024 07:58 AM•


“If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” — Johnnie Cochran

Prosecutors had a mountain of evidence including blood at multiple crime scenes, a missing alibi, a bloody shoe print and the now infamous bloody gloves. All evidence pointed toward one suspect: O.J. Simpson. Yet, the jury in Simpson’s 1995 murder trial delivered a quick not-guilty verdict that shocked the nation.

With the recent passing of O.J. Simpson and almost three decades after Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman’s murder, Police1 delves back into the case to examine the missteps that may have led the jury to acquit the former Heisman Trophy winner.

Overview of the O.J. Simpson murder case

In the pre-dawn hours of June 13, 1994, a horrific discovery shattered the quiet Brentwood neighborhood in Los Angeles. Outside Nicole Brown’s condominium, a gruesome scene unfolded. Nicole, found lying on the walkway, and her friend Ron Goldman, just outside a side gate, were both brutally murdered.

The savagery of the attack was evident. Both Nicole and Ron had suffered numerous stab wounds. Adding to the horror, their throats had also been slashed in a chilling display of violence.

Investigators had lots of evidence to process at the crime scene, including a bloody cap, one bloody glove, a size 12 bloody footprint and many blood drops suspecting of coming from the suspect’s left hand. These droplets, along with the blood found on other evidence, held the key — DNA — that could potentially unlock the identity of the perpetrator and raise the chilling possibility that the attacker may have sustained injuries to their left hand during the brutal assault.

At O.J. Simpson’s mansion, investigators found his white Ford Bronco with lots of blood transfer, a second bloody glove and bloody socks.

O.J. Simpson was arrested after leading police officers on a two-hour, slow-speed pursuit. On Simpson’s left finger, a cut.

Faced with overwhelming evidence against O.J. Simpson, his defense team adopted a strategic three-pronged approach. Rather than attempting to directly refute the prosecution’s case, they aimed to raise doubt in the jury’s mind. Their strategy focused on crime scene management, proving that the scene was contaminated, and discrediting the investigators.

Prong 1: Compromised from the beginning

The initial investigation of the crime scene at Nicole Brown’s condominium was riddled with errors, in which Simpson’s “Dream Team” seemed to find every little one with their first stop, to prove the crime scene was compromised.

Media pressure

In any high-profile crime scene, police agencies must be cognizant of how the media can indirectly disturb the crime scene. The media flooded the area of Nicole’s residence making it hard for investigators to focus and maintain a secure crime scene. Investigators admitted being distracted by the media, which directly affected how the scene was processed.

Many agencies today use crime scene barriers, which are nylon screens attached to metal pipes making a temporary wall. Investigators can block the view of onlookers by using a designated crime scene barrier or by quickly making a temporary barrier out of cloth and cord. Once set, the investigators can process the scene without the extra pressure of the media and onlookers.

Crime scene management

The defense relentlessly hammered the Los Angeles Police Department for lack of control at the crime scene. Unattended investigators and free access for command staff allowed the defense to claim the evidence was planted. Furthermore, the glaring absence of coordination between first responders, detectives, crime scene technicians and the lab fueled even more suspicion of a haphazard investigation.

In policing today, agencies use a Major Incident Command System where investigators and command staff plan before processing the scene. Processing a crime scene today is very methodical and includes a final walk-through, which investigators in the Simpsons failed to do.

As the crime scene manager, it is especially important to ensure everyone who enters a crime scene has a legitimate reason to be there. Yes, that also means keeping curious staff out of the scene while it is being processed. If anyone enters the scene, they should write a supplemental report indicating the reason.

Prong 2: Cross-contamination

After proving the crime scene was compromised, the defense attacked the contamination of evidence. Crime scene technicians were seen commingling evidence, collecting evidence without gloves, placing evidence inside hot vehicles for hours and sticking evidence into their pants pockets. Tyvek coverall suits, which we use today, weren’t widely adopted in crime scene processing until the late 1990s so investigators were in skirts, dress pants and plain clothes.

There will always be cross-contamination, but you have to show the courts that you did the best you could to mitigate it. Remember, all the small things matter in these cases. Removal, collection, handling and processing of evidence will all come into question.

Prong 3: Corruption and officer conduct

After successfully proving the police failed to maintain a proper crime scene and there was a potential for cross-contamination, the defense turned their attack to their lead investigator: Mark Fuhrman. The defense raised allegations of racism and prior biased investigations. Recorded interviews revealed Fuhrman using racist and offensive language, casting a negative light on the entire investigation. Today, such behavior would not be tolerated, and stricter protocols for officer conduct are in place to minimize the risk of bias impacting investigations.

As I reviewed cases throughout the years, I was surprised to see an uptick in officer conduct probes. Investigating crimes today can be easier simply because of the vast amount of digital data tied to the suspect. Home video surveillance, traffic cameras, cell phone extraction data, computer and DNA evidence are making our evidence stronger. So instead of focusing on attacking the evidence, defense attorneys are trying to discredit the investigators.

Be cognizant of what you post online, how you interact with the public, and how you act within and outside the police department. You never know when a 10-year-old Facebook post will come into question in a criminal case.

Lesson learned from the O.J. Simpson investigation

In conclusion, here are some of the main lessons learned in the Simpson investigation that we can apply to investigations today:

  1. Secure the crime scene and limit viewers by using crime scene barriers or blankets.
  2. Use an incident command system to manage the entire crime scene.
  3. Avoid cross-contamination by using protective clothing and restricting crime scene access.
  4. Handle each piece of evidence carefully. Properly label and package it. Don’t put evidence in your pocket.
  5. Be aware of how you act on and off duty.
  6. Review your social media often and think before you post.

Even though the evidence in the Simpson case seemed to be air-tight, the defense only had to raise reasonable doubt to avoid a conviction. The O.J. Simpson case serves as a stark reminder of the importance of meticulous investigation techniques. The mishandling of evidence and lack of proper crime scene management can impact your case.

Two sides to trial

The O.J. Simpson murder case is one of my favorite cases to analyze. Even though the case is almost 30 years old, we can still learn valuable lessons. One of those lessons is that all evidence is not created equally in the eyes of the law and that all evidence can be scrutinized.

This case was interesting because the prosecution and defense had two completely different approaches in court.

The prosecution believed they had a damning amout of evidence — which they did. All roads led to only one suspect: O.J. Simpson. However, the focus of the prosecution was only on the amount of evidence, not the quality of evidence. The prosecution was so confident they did not introduce other forms of evidence like the pair of Bruno Magli size 12 shoes that matched the bloody footsteps found at the scene.

The defense attacked the evidence collection process and undermined the entire set of DNA evidence. Their approach worked. The limitations of DNA technology in 1995 played a significant role in the O.J. Simpson case. Jury members were unfamiliar with the significance of DNA matching, leading to difficulties in comprehending the strength of the evidence. Since this case, DNA analysis has become far more sophisticated and reliable. Today’s techniques can extract significantly smaller samples and differentiate between multiple individuals present in a mixed DNA profile.

The prosecution believed they had enough quality evidence, but they were wrong. Careless handling and collection techniques robbed the evidence of its power.

Call to action

Here are some questions to consider after reading this article:

  1. Review your agency’s evidence-collection process. Are you following the policy perfectly?
  2. Is your agency’s evidence-collection process outdated?
  3. Think about your last crime scene. Did you secure it correctly and what can you do better?
  4. Review your agency’s policy on large crime scene management and do you have an incident command protocol.
  5. Are you documenting your evidence correctly in your police report?

Remember, the more serious the crime, the more the small things matter. Start now on improving your crime scene management skills.

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Lessons from a legal spectacle: The enduring impact of the O.J. Simpson trial on police investigations (2024)
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