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O.J. Simpson’s trial changed the LAPD — and our views on domestic violence

O.J. Simpson during a 2001 road rage trial.
O.J. Simpson during a 2001 road rage trial.
Pool/Getty Images

The car chase. The bloody glove. The Dancing Itos. There are countless visceral memories from the media circus that was the 1995 trial against former football star O.J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ron Goldman, as portrayed on the gripping FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson.

While Simpson’s legal team hinged its case on the institutional racial bias exhibited by the Los Angeles Police Department against people of color for decades, the revelation that Simpson and Brown had a long history of intimate partner violence also changed public views on the matter.

Prosecutor Marcia Clark made a case that, at the time, was unique: Women who have been the victims of partner abuse are very likely to be killed by their spouses. And on top of the forensic evidence pointing to Simpson's guilt, the history of violence between the couple should have been a factor in finding him guilty.

But even introducing this idea was an uphill battle. As Clark wrote for Vox earlier this year, by 1994 people still saw partner violence as a personal matter — not really as a crime.

"But since the trial," she wrote, "the Violence Against Women Act has been signed into law and reauthorized three times. As a result, victim advocates and government agencies can work together more effectively. These laws have also enacted harsher punishments for certain violent crimes and created new prevention and victim assistance programs."

How Nicole Brown became the face of domestic violence

Simpson may have been acquitted on murder charges, but millions of people, glued to their TV screens for every bit of infotainment the nine-month trial provided, were confronted with the shocking emergency phone calls placed by Brown in the midst of a fight with Simpson and photos of her with bruises that followed. They learned of moments when Brown told police and friends she feared she might die at the hands of her own husband.

Brown's worries reflected a shocking truth: When women are murdered, they're likely to be killed by men they know. According to a Violence Policy Center report, 94 percent of the 1,701 women murdered in 2011 were killed by men they knew, and 61 percent of the identified killers were intimate partners.

In the decades after the VAWA was first passed in 1993, the rate of intimate partner violence declined 67 percent, according to statistics from the White House. Furthermore, between 1993 and 2007 homicide rates from intimate partners of women have declined 35 percent. For men killed by their partners, the rate declined 46 percent.

Overall, more victims are reporting domestic and sexual violence, largely because the issue is considered a crime in the public view. Compared with 1994, there are more resources for survivors of domestic violence, police are better equipped to handle such reports, and there are more federal and local laws to prosecute abusers.

Even as early as 1995, following the trial, a Family Violence Prevention Fund survey recorded a spike in the number of women who said they had endured partner abuse. Donations to women's shelters also increased following the verdict.

"This case is to domestic violence what the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas case is to sexual harassment," Neil Jacobson, a former University of Washington psychology professor, said to the New York Times at the time.

Whether or not it was warranted, as Clark and others have said, there's no doubt that Simpson's lawyers, particularly Johnnie Cochran, used the case to shed a national spotlight on the injustices often waged against people of color from police — a problem we're still grappling with as a country. Simpson's acquittal provided a sense of closure that the Rodney King trial failed to. It even sparked federal involvement to overhaul LA's police.

And while Simpson was acquitted for Brown and Goldman's deaths, the case also provided an example for countless people who didn't understand the gravity of domestic violence, and motivated many others to get out of a potentially lethal situation.

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