Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

All about the DNA Revolution

DNA & O.J.

A barking dog alerted a neighbor to the crime scene. Sukru Boztepe followed the dog back to the Brentwood condominium, saw the horrendous bloodshed, and urged his wife to phone 911. That set into motion the initial events in a convoluted series that made up what many called "the Crime of the Century." It also brought DNA testing in criminal cases to public awareness.

Ronald Goldman & Nicole Simpson (AP)
Ronald Goldman & Nicole Simpson (AP)

Nicole Brown Simpson, former wife of former football celebrity O. J. Simpson, went outside her home late in the evening of June 12, 1994, and was met by an assailant who slashed her to death. The killer also slaughtered the man who was with her, Ronald Goldman, age 25. He had brought Nicole the eyeglasses that her mother had left behind at the restaurant where he was a waiter. They were both found dead, covered in blood, just inside the front gate.

Although Nicole was no longer married to Simpson, the police contacted him right away. Going to his home, detectives noted a bloodstain on the door of his white Ford Bronco. A trail of blood also led up to the house, but Simpson appeared to be gone. It turned out that he had just flown to Chicago.

He returned to Los Angeles and agreed to answer questions. Investigators then noticed a cut on a finger of his left hand that would prove to be problematic for him when they eventually charged him with the crimes. First, he told several conflicting stories about how he had gotten the cut, and second, the crime scene indicated that the killer had been cut on his left hand and had trailed blood outside the gates. That hardly seemed coincidental. Nevertheless, another narrative eventually overshadowed these problems.

Several droplets of blood at the scene failed to show a match with either of the victim's blood types. Then Simpson's blood was drawn for testing (after the droplets had already been collected) and comparison between Simpson's DNA and that of the blood at the scene showed strong similarities. Contrary to what Simpson's defense team was to say after his arrest, this blood could not have been planted after Simpson's blood was drawn.

O.J. Simpson booking photo (AP)
O.J. Simpson booking photo (AP)

The tests indicated that the drops had three factors in common with Simpson's blood and only one person in 57 billion could produce an equivalent match. In addition, the blood was found near footprints made by a rare and expensive type of shoe—shoes that O. J. wore and that proved to be his size.

Next to the bodies was a bloodstained black leather glove that bore traces of fiber from Goldman's jeans. The glove's mate, stained with Simpson's blood, was found on his property. There were also traces of the blood of both victims lifted from inside Simpson's car and house, along with blood that contained his own DNA. In fact, his blood and Goldman's were found together on the car's console.

Forensic serologists at the California Department of Justice, along with a private contractor, did the sophisticated DNA testing. Then other evidence emerged, such as the testimony of the limousine driver who came to pick Simpson up for the ride to the airport: He saw a black man cross the driveway and go into the house. Then Simpson claimed that the driver had been unable to get him on the intercom because he had "overslept." There were also photos of Nicole and diary entries that attested to Simpson's abusive and stalking behavior. In addition, when Simpson was notified that he would be arrested for murder, he fled with his friend, Al Cowlings, and hinted in a note that he might kill himself. With him were a passport, fake beard, and thousands of dollars in cash. Nevertheless, he pleaded Not Guilty, offered a huge reward for information about the crime, and hired a defense team of celebrity lawyers. Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, from New York, were the DNA experts, renowned for their work on the Innocence Project, which used DNA analysis to defend the falsely accused.

The defense team was going to call for a pretrial hearing on DNA evidence, to challenge it from every angle, but decided instead to drop it. In part, they knew that whatever happened could set a dangerous precedent and in part they realized that prolonging the trial process could antagonize the jury. They wanted the jury on their side. So they waived the proceeding, which many defense strategists felt was a radical decision, and went on with the trial. Barry Scheck felt confident that they could produce challenges in court before the jury that would accomplish all they wanted and also educate and persuade the jury.

The reliability of this evidence came to be called the "DNA Wars," and three different crime labs performed the analysis. All three determined that the DNA in the drops of blood at the scene matched Simpson's. It was a 1 in 170 million match, using one type of analysis known as RFLP, and 1 in 240 million match using the PCR test.

Nevertheless, criminologist Dr. Henry Lee testified that there appeared to be something wrong with the way the blood was packaged, leading the defense to propose that the multiple samples had been switched. They also claimed that the blood had been severely degraded by being stored in a lab truck, but the prosecution's DNA expert, Harlan Levy, said that the degradation would not have been sufficient to prevent accurate DNA analysis. He also pointed out that control samples were used that would have shown any such contamination, but Scheck suggested that the control samples had been mishandled by the lab—all five of them.

What hurt the prosecution's case more than anything else were the endless explanations of the complex procedures involved in DNA analysis. The defense kept it simple and thereby befriended the jury. They then intimated that Detective Mark Fuhrman, who had been at O. J.'s home the night of the murder, was a racist and had planted evidence. They offered no proof of the latter statement, but allowed it to flow from the former, which they did manage to prove.

The evidence was damning, but the defense team managed to refocus the jury's attention on the corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department. Then Simpson made a clear statement of his innocence, though he was not on the stand, and the defense attorneys disputed the good reputation of the forensics labs, proving that the evidence had been carelessly handled. Deliberating less than four hours, the jury bought all of this and freed Simpson with a Not Guilty verdict. They defended themselves in interviews after the fact by simply stating that the prosecution had not made its case. It may be that those attorneys made some serious errors, but the doubt by the defense about DNA was ludicrous and did some damage with the public to the credibility of this type of evidence.

However, when it was first used in England as a way to determine the guilt of an offender, it proved to be quite impressive.

 

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