‘I’m gonna O.J. you’: How the Simpson case changed perceptions — and the law — on domestic violence

It wasn’t long after the televised spectacle of O.J. Simpson fleeing a phalanx of police cars in a slow-moving white Ford Bronco on June 17, 1994, that batterers across Los Angeles adopted a bone-chilling new threat.

I’m gonna O.J. you.

“We all heard it working with our clients,” said Gail Pincus, executive director of the Domestic Abuse Center in Los Angeles. “I heard it directly from the abusers. It was a form of intimidation, of silencing and getting compliance from their victims.”

Abuse survivors, meanwhile, flooded rape and battery hotlines and shelters, telling advocates: I don’t want to be the next Nicole.

The phone “was almost off the hook,” said Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace over Violence, then called the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. “We were overloaded.”

“People were reaching out for help; they wanted to know, ‘Could that be me? Could that happen to me?’” she said. “It was a revelation that somebody could die.”

For the American public, the slayings of Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman were practically inescapable in those days. An estimated 95 million people watched the Bronco chase on television. Some 150 million tuned in for the verdict in 1995, when Simpson was acquitted.

The killings took place at a pivotal moment for domestic violence in California and the United States, catapulting what had long been considered a private problem into the public sphere.

“That murder captivated people. You could not escape from it,” said author and abuse survivor Myriam Gurba, whose 2023 essay collection “Creep: Accusations and Confessions” explores gender violence.

The case threw into stark reality a devastating truth — that domestic violence is uniquely deadly for women and girls. Between a third and half of all female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by a current or former male partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

That percentage that has held steady for decades, even as the overall number of killings has plunged, from about 23,000 homicides nationwide in 1994 to an estimated 18,000 in 2023.

Few victims and even fewer lawmakers knew those statistics before Simpson‘s arrest. But the case got people talking.

“That was a huge learning curve even within the movement,” said Erica Villa of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence in San José.

In the wake of Simpson’s death from cancer on Wednesday, many domestic violence survivors’ advocates recalled how much changed because of the case — and how much remains the same.

‘We need to push this now’

Giggans was among the millions who watched the Bronco chase on live TV. But unlike most, she was watching with a plan.

“I remember watching it, eating Haagen-Dazs ice cream in my living room in Mar Vista with about six other advocates for domestic violence prevention,” she said. “None of us could get enough of it at the time. But we had an ulterior motive because, for us, it was an educational opportunity. [Suddenly] the media cared what we had to say.”

By then, national news outlets had already uncovered police reports and court records detailing Simpson’s abuse, including a no-contest plea to battery charges stemming from a bloody incident in 1989.

News vans began camping around the block at the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women’s Hollywood Boulevard headquarters, queuing up for interviews. Overnight, advocates became sought-after stars on TV.

“It was an amazingly consequential period,” Giggans said.

It wasn’t merely that Simpson was a wealthy celebrity, or that he had fled police, or that he was arrested by the same law enforcement agency whose officers had been caught on camera beating Rodney King.

“To a lot of people it was a case about race and mistreatment of Black residents by the LAPD, but to us it was the first time that a huge spotlight was focusing on domestic violence,” said Pincus of the Domestic Abuse Center.

By 1994, California was beginning to enforce 1986 changes to its domestic violence laws, which required police to treat family assaults as they would public ones, and to keep records of calls where no arrests were made.

“If you arrived at a scene and there’s a battery or attempted murder, you can’t just not do anything because it’s ‘a domestic,’” as police had done previously, Pincus said. “The other part of the law change said that every police department in the state had to have mandatory domestic violence training, and those protocols had to be established and made public.”

At the same time, Democrats in Congress were working to pass the landmark Violence Against Women Act, which would bring millions of dollars for hotlines and shelters. It included the first federal law against battery, among other protections for survivors of sexual and domestic violence.

After years of laboring in the shadows, advocates found themselves in the limelight. They were determined not to let the moment pass.

“We would get on these national calls and say, ‘We need to push this now,’” Giggans said of VAWA. “We didn’t want it to be just a media moment; we wanted some benefit to come from this tragedy.”

‘People didn’t know anything’

The Violence Against Women Act was signed into law on Sept. 13, 1994, almost three months after Nicole Brown Simpson and Goldman were found.

But when Simpson’s nationally televised trial began in November, it showed just how little the public understood about domestic violence — and how far the law still had to go.

“People didn’t know anything,” Giggans said. “It gave our movement an opportunity to be persistent and consistent in providing the education that we were struggling to provide … and for people to understand that no one deserves to be battered or abused or raped and that this is a serious social ill.”

Even then, there was a gap between what the public was learning and what the jury was allowed to hear.

Six months after Simpson was acquitted, California added Section 1109 to the Evidence Code, allowing uncharged conduct and other evidence of prior abuse to be shown to jurors in similar cases.

The trial also shined a spotlight on DNA evidence, then a scientifically established but publicly suspect technology.

“It was like mumbo-jumbo to the public at that point,” Pincus said.

Today, DNA evidence is critical to many domestic violence prosecutions because it gets around the reliance upon “he-said, she-said” narratives that long hampered battery cases.

Without DNA, “it came down to who jurors believed: the hysterical victim who jumped all over the place telling her story or refused to testify out of fear, and the abuser who was calm and seen as a nice guy,” Pincus said.

With evidence handling under a microscope, advocates were able to push for reforms in how the LAPD managed rape kits, eventually leading to the creation of a new DNA crime lab.

“The case really did spearhead legislation that started expanding resources,” said Carmen McDonald, executive director of the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice.

Still, some say the changes are more surface-level than substantive.

“These wonderful changes that were supposedly wrought by the mistakes made during that trial are not anything that I’ve benefited from, and they’re not anything any woman I know has benefited from,” said Gurba, the author and survivor. “If it’s prosecuted, most domestic violence is prosecuted as a misdemeanor. So the state sees our torture as a petty nuisance.”

Now, she and other advocates fear gains made since the trial could soon be erased.

‘All that we built since O.J. can go away’

California is poised to lose tens of millions in funding for domestic violence programs this year, a 43% cut that threatens critical infrastructure including emergency shelter, medical care and legal assistance to survivors, according to the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.

Programs for at-risk populations already are stretched thin under the existing budget, survivors and advocates say.

“When I tried to enter a shelter when I was escaping domestic violence, I couldn’t get into one because they were all full,” Gurba said.

Now, those already overburdened services could disappear.

“It’s about to fall apart,” Giggans said. “All that we built since O.J. can go away.”

Advocates fear the cuts could create a cascade effect across the state.

“Domestic violence impacts every single community and population; it’s across every field,” McDonald said. “It’s immigration, it’s schools. The loss of funding impacts [other] services that are out there for folks who need help.”

For example, data show domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness. According to a survey released last summer by the Urban Institute, nearly half of all unhoused women in Los Angeles have experienced domestic violence, and about a quarter fled their last residence because of it.

For Gurba, the looming cuts are yet more evidence of how little has truly changed since the 1994 slayings.

“I don’t think there was a revolution in how domestic violence survivors are treated thanks to that murder — that’s a myth,” she said. “The rhetoric may have changed, but the treatment is still the same behind closed doors.”

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