Last month, two seemingly disparate news stories emerged on the same day: the first was O.J. Simpson’s parole hearing for a 2007 conviction on charges of kidnapping, assault, and armed robbery. The second was the publication of a report on female homicides in the United States by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After spending nine out of 33 years in jail, Simpson has been granted parole and could be released as early as October. He will be a free man, once again. Not because he served his time, but because of the outcome of a far more serious crime involving the American football legend and the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her companion Ron Goldman.
That case would become the most publicized criminal trial in history. The year was 1994, and I was a teenager who had just immigrated with my family to Canada. Huddled in our hotel rooms on the night of our arrival, we turned on the small television and sat in silence, too tired from our journey to speak, and listened to a breaking news story. The bodies of a beautiful young woman and a young man were discovered in gruesome circumstances in Los Angeles.
As a kid, I remember Simpson from television advertisements for orange juice. Nicknamed “The Juice,” he was a bonafide, bankable celebrity, oozing personality and charm. At the time, few outside the Los Angeles Police Department knew of his violent rage or the bruises he would repeatedly imprint on his wife’s face and body. Violence administered with the same force used against men his own size and bigger on the football field.
I was transfixed, like millions of viewers in America, and did not miss a day of the televised court proceedings. A second, unidentified pair of bloody footprints at the crime scene; a detective who was an avowed racist; the infamous glove that just didn’t fit. Cable news delivered wall-to-wall coverage of twist after twist. In a quip heard around the world, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran’s “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” lodged itself nicely in our analysis, betraying an ignorance of legal machinations. But it was defense attorney Alan Dershowitz’s misguided, devastating, and perhaps deliberately misleading theory that resonated the most: only a small percentage of women who are abused by their partners are murdered. I believed it. So many — far too many — did, too.
Years later as a graduate student in Boston, I enrolled in a course on women, violence, and the law. My professor was an expert on the subject and practicing lawyer with multiple years of experience under her belt. As she presented case after case, a pattern began to emerge: an escalating cycle of jealousy and control, punctured by frequent episodes of violence and unimaginable brutality against women by their partners. Frequently dismissed by police as private affairs of the home, many of these women ended up dead. In other words, women who were assaulted in intimate relationships were also likely to be killed by these same men.
The recent report on female homicides in the United States by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backs this up with harrowing statistics. It analyzed homicide data of women in 18 states from 2003 to 2014 and found a total of 10,018 deaths. More than 55 percent of the deaths were related to intimate partner violence across all racial/ethnic groups of women, with over 90% of these women being killed by their current or former male partner. In at least 10 percent of those cases, violence shortly before the killing might have provided an opportunity for intervention. Worldwide, the World Health Organization says a partner or spouse is the killer in 38 percent of women’s homicides.
I remember the day I sat in Professor Rosenberg’s class and went over the details of the trial in my head. In an instant, I knew. All those 9-1-1 calls. Her cries for help. The multiple investigations conducted by the LAPD into domestic violence charges against Simpson. The persistent, predatory behavior of Simpson after their divorce. Showing up at her home unannounced, peaking through her windows, checking on who she was with. He would walk around her house at all hours and keep tabs on her.
Nicole suffered multiple stab wounds to her head and neck so severe she had a gaping hole in her slit throat and a sliced vertebra. This was no random act committed by a stranger. This was personal. This was someone Nicole knew well. Someone, clearly, who wanted her dead. I knew in that moment that Orenthal James Simpson had killed his ex-wife and her friend, and had gotten away with it.
Photos of a bruised and battered Nicole presented at trial were critical context and key evidence for the prosecution. It was key evidence for us all. Had the jury known what I had learned about intimate partner violence, this case had the ability and influence to push for greater protection of victims and help change the laws failing them. Had the general public been aware, they might have questioned why those subject to a domestic violence protective order can still buy a gun. The CDC found that firearms were used in 54 percent of all female homicides.
Yet 23 years after that fatal day in 1994, the leading threat to a young woman’s life remains her partner. Not enough people know or understand how this comes about. Not enough judges, lawyers, police officers, social workers, and families have been trained to read and connect the signs. Certainly, there are not enough policies in place to prevent intimate partner violence, still. We must do better. In the face of the public health crisis this has now become, we have no choice.