by Clarence Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, June 12th, marks the 20th anniversary of the brutal slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. On that day in 1994, Los Angeles police found the bodies of the slaughtered victims outside Nicole’s Brentwood condominium. The savage murders of this young couple triggered one of the highest profile and most controversial criminal investigations in U.S. history when Hall of Fame football star, O.J. Simpson, was charged with the twin murders. When Simpson went on trial in L.A. Superior Court in 1995, the entire nation was mesmerized and every twist and turn of the sensational trial was watched by millions, causing it to be dubbed the “Trial of The Century.”
Who can forget the slow-speed police pursuit of Simpson’s white Ford Bronco, with his driver, A.C. Cowling, at the wheel, while an emotional Simpson hunkered down in the vehicle threatening to kill himself? Fast forward to the trial and another stunning moment when O.J. attempted to try on the “infamous killer gloves”, famously remarking, “They are too small.” O.J.’s high-powered defense attorney, Johnnie Cochran, seized on this moment during his closing statements when he argued, “If it don’t fit, you must acquit.”
The case had endless compelling elements to captivate the public including sex, race, money, power, and a wealthy black man hiring a Dream Team to defend him against the charges he murdered two attractive white people, which led to allegations that a racist police detective had attempted to frame Simpson with questionable blood evidence.
In a recent news article, Los Angeles forensics professor, Don Johnson, said the evidence against Simpson was overwhelming and conviction should have been a “slam dunk”. Johnson said, however, that the jury primarily focused on the possibility that the evidence was planted by the police, specifically Detective Mark Furman, and that Detective Phillip Vanatter had compromised the prosecution’s position when he foolishly transported a vial of Simpson’s blood to a criminalist already at the crime scene sifting through the evidence.
If Buccal swabbing had been available in 1994, like it is now 20 years later, all Vanatter would have had to do was take oral swabs from Simpson’s mouth by using a cotton tip. This procedure would have eliminated the need for Vanatter to use the blood vial. At the trial, Simpson’s attorney, Johnnie Cochran, accused the police and prosecutors of “rushing to judgment” to convict Simpson at any cost, and claimed that the LAPD lab that tested the forensic evidence was sloppy and unreliable and thus failed to maintain any reasonable degree of integrity. In short, the lab’s findings could not be trusted.
The jury bought it hook, line and sinker, and acquitted Simpson on October 3, 1995, without even asking to review the DNA evidence.
Many experts believe that Simpson’s acquittal, and the resulting frustration on the part of those who firmly believe that he was guilty, was an initial step in forever changing how forensic scientists and criminal investigators deal with DNA testing.
What if Simpson was tried today in this era of advanced forensic testing? People today are far more knowledgeable about DNA testing, thanks to the Simpson trial and the slew of forensic crime shows that later materialized. Jurors these days usually expect DNA to be a part of the evidence, and sometimes they will complain in no DNA evidence is presented.
Of course, very little is foolproof:
“People think they understand forensics more than they actually do,” says Los Angeles State University Professor Lisa Graziano.
“DNA was so complex and complicated that nobody really understood it,” famed Fox anchor reporter Van Susteren said in a Washington Post article.
The Simpson trial began on January 24, 1995. Both the prosecutors and O.J. Simpson’s Dream Team acknowledged the importance of thoroughly educating the jury about DNA testing as it related to Simpson’s blood which the prosecution claimed was found at the crime scene at 870 South Bundy Drive. Simpson’s jury consisted mostly of laymen completely unfamiliar with forensic science and the scientific testing of evidence
Therefore, both the defense and the prosecutors had to tutor the jury in order to help them understand from a scientific standpoint how a suspect’s DNA profile is developed from a crime scene sample, a sample that, after testing, proved with high probability that it matched Simpson’s blood at the time to “one in 170 millions” among men of the American population.
Advances in DNA testing today of blood samples will match to “one in trillions” of the population worldwide. It took over a month for prosecutor Marcia Clark to put on the DNA evidence linking Simpson to the double murders, and the numerous scientific terms confused 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 some of the blood evidence — which gave the defense leeway to argue the blood evidence was either planted by Homicide Detectives or contaminated by shoddy lab work.
The State of DNA Testing in 2014:
With today’s advances in DNA testing, anyone who follows news events and watches real-life forensic crime dramas is fully aware that properly applied DNA evidence is so powerful and compelling that it can either exonerate a previously convicted individual, or conversely, lead to ironclad convictions. According to New York-based Innocence Project, since 1989, 316 people have been exonerated by DNA testing in 36 states. 18 of the 316 had been on Death Row.
For most jurors in criminal cases today, DNA evidence is readily accepted as constituting undisputed proof.
June 12, 1994: Crime Scene Evidence at 870 South Bundy Drive:
When CSU technicians recover blood from a crime scene, this evidence can positively 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 and maintaining control over and maintaining the integrity of the evidence. If blood evidence is handled improperly, it can critically undermine the prosecution’s case, particularly in a homicide case.
Once O.J. Simpson became a prime suspect, the homicide detectives first questioned him about a noticeable cut on his finger. Simpson initially said the cut was the result of him carelessly handling either a golf bag or some luggage. Sensing the detectives didn’t believe him, Simpson quickly changed his story and said he’d cut his finger on a glass he’d broken in a Chicago hotel after hearing his ex-wife had been murdered. Detective Phillip Vanatter extracted a vial of blood from Simpson’s arm to have a criminalist develop his DNA profile. This is called a reference sample. What happened next with Simpson’s blood triggered allegations that Detectives planted Simpson’s blood at the murder scene. Detective Vanatter, perhaps innocently, broke a cardinal rule when — instead of checking Simpson’s blood sample into the forensic lab — he handed it off to a criminalist who was already collecting blood evidence at Simpson’s Rockingham estate.
Simpson’s attorneys also emphasized another critical problem to Judge Lance Ito. It turned out that the reference blood sample stored in the vial allegedly belonging to Simpson contained approximately 1.5 milligrams less blood when the lab finally received it compared to when it was collected. Attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Barry Scheck argued that the blood from the crime scene (which purportedly came from the “real killer”) was cross-contaminated with Simpson’s actual blood. Trial testimony showed that the “cotton swabs” containing blood drops recovered from the murder scene were left out to dry on June 13th, and sat for a day prior to being placed in the evidence bag for storage on June 14th. Attorney Cochran effectively explained in great detail how the original “blood-soaked swabs”, which belonged to the actual killer, had been either switched or mixed with Simpson’s blood in a nefarious attempt to convict him of the murders.
2014 Buccal Swab Testing:
In today’s world of more sophisticated forensic testing, reference DNA can be collected by utilizing Buccal swabs. Buccal swabbing involves a suspect who voluntarily agrees to allow an investigator to place a cotton tip into his or 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 is that a Buccal swab collection kit is sealed and signed in the presence of a suspect or defendant. Buccal swabbing provides the following key benefit: If a kit is somehow opened and the swab removed, there is still no way for a corrupt officer or criminalist to extract skin cells from the Bucccal swab and plant them at a crime scene.
Investigators these days regularly perform Buccal swabbing due to its efficiency and reliability in order to maintain control of the evidence for subsequent DNA testing. If O.J. Simpson’s reference DNA had been collected on a Buccal swab, his defense team would have been unable to raise suspicion that evidence had been planted, or that the blood samples had been switched or contaminated.
The State of DNA Expert Trial Testimony in 1995:
At the Simpson trial, mixed profiles of DNA confused the jury. Terminology used by the DNA experts on the stand such as “cannot be excluded” were used frequently 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 that there was enough information present from a developed profile to possibly be the same profile as the reference sample. But any DNA expert then would attest to the fact that one could not be “one hundred percent certain” that a profile actually belonged to a particular person.
The Testing Of Mixed Blood in 2014:
Advanced testing today now allows for the mixtures of profiles to be much easier to decipher. For example, experts say that a “YSTR” DNA typing of the Y Chromosome can be tested to determine a male donor and isolate the male genetic code on the Y Chromosome when the blood is mixed with a female’s DNA profile. A DNA expert can then re-type the male’s DNA reference sample using the “YSTR”, which can result in a gold mine of information for the prosecutor or the defense because it will distinguish between male and female DNA.
Recovered Hair Samples in June of 1994:
Strands of hair recovered off 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 hair. However, in that era, microscopic comparisons of hair could not conclusively match an identified hair with another sample recovered from a crime scene.
2014 Mitochondria DNA Testing (MTDNA):
In today’s world of advanced forensic testing, if the hair samples found on Goldman’s shirt, including the hair samples found in the knit cap, still had a root or roots attached, advanced Mitochondria DNA testing would have the capability of positively determining whether the hairs belonged to Simpson, rather than suggesting that the hairs were “microsopically similar” to Simpson’s. Mitochondria DNA testing is highly valuable for extracting DNA from bones, hair, and other biologically degraded evidence. In today’s world, Simpson’s Dream Team would have a tough time trying to convince a jury that Mitochondria DNA matching Simpson’s found on a dead body did not actually belong to Simpson.
We will never know with certainty that if O.J. Simpson went on trial today for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, that he would be found guilty by a jury more familiar with DNA testing and the general testing of forensic evidence. Yet we must admit that if a jury is more knowledgeable about evidence, and if the evidence proves guilt, then the jury is more likely to convict.
California State University Professor Lisa Graziano 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-bloodied murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were tragedies of the first order. It is conceivable that the jury failed to convict O.J. Simpson because they put little stock in the DNA evidence introduced at trial, in part because of the “primitive” nature of DNA testing in that era, particularly when compared to today’s far more sophisticated techniques. Was the jury swayed by the claims of racism skillfully introduced by Simpson’s Dream Team? It is certainly possible. But what we know for certain is that the acquittal of O.J. Simpson for the two brutal murders stands as a line of demarcation that clearly revealed the need for more sophisticated forensic techniques, particularly with respect to DNA testing.
What is ironic is that in today’s world, advanced DNA techniques serve to not only convict guilty parties, but also have proved to be an incredibly powerful tool to exonerate wrongfully convicted defendants, as the work of the Innocence Project has so conclusively demonstrated.
Clarence Walker is a veteran news writer and freelance investigative journalist for online internet news publishers and offline hard copy publishers. He has written previously for New York-based True Crime Magazines, National Law Journal, Houston Chronicle, and Houston Forward Times Weekly Community Newspaper. He has also appeared in John Walsh’s America’s Most Wanted Crime Magazine & TV Show. Mr. Walker has served as a crime historian for Houston, Texas-based Channel 11 TV’s Cold Case Murder Series, hosted by reporter Jeff Mcshan. Mr. Walker currently divides his time between Houston and Southeast Arkansas, and is working on a series of crime books and as a story research producer for cable TV true crime drama shows.
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