The femicide of Nicole Brown Simpson


Slant News | How we all let down Nicole Brown, O.J. Simpson’s dead wife
February 19, 2016

Last week the FX Network released its 10-part anthology, The People versus OJ Simpson.  Led by an all-star cast that includes John Travolta and Cuba Gooding Jr., the series recounts the “trial of the century” that titillated at the intersection of violence, race and celebrity.  Yet more than 20 years later, would the outcome – which some lauded and others abhorred – be different today?  The chances are slim and the reason is simple. We have yet to call the killing of Nicole Brown Simpson what it really was – a femicide.

The most extreme form of gender-based violence, femicide, often goes unnamed or mislabeled as simple homicide. This lack of understanding perpetuates the silent and pervasive epidemic of violence against women.  One in three women experience physical, sexual or psychological violence during her lifetime.  Recent cases as far afield as El Salvador and India have brought attention to this oft-ignored phenomenon.

But such violence doesn’t happen only in far off places. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 2,300 American women die each year as a result of intimate partner violence.  Yet the FBI documented only 25 femicides in 2013.  By these estimates only 1 percent of intimate partner violence deaths are gender-based.  The incongruence in these figures signal a lack of accurate accounting for gender-based violence, despite the fact that one in four American women experience such abuse.

Nicole Brown Simpson was among these women.  In 1989, OJ Simpson pleaded “no contest” to spousal abuse.  In the time leading up to her murder, Nicole Brown Simpson called 911 on nine occasions – a telltale sign of the increasing intensity and frequency of the abuse she endured.

Almost half of all female homicide victims are killed by intimate partners or family members.  Among those killed by an intimate partner, 70 to 80 percent were physically abused before their murder. Based on these data, if OJ Simpson did kill his former wife it would not come as a statistical surprise.

Nicole Brown Simpson was let down by the social systems designed to protect her.  The United Nations reports that only 40 percent of women who experience violence will seek help and fewer than 10 percent reach out to the police.  Nicole Brown Simpson sought help time after time but to no avail; neither friends nor family, neither the health nor criminal justice systems were capable of protecting her.

As a result of the Simpson case, awareness of domestic violence and its link to homicide was made more explicit in law.  Shortly after her death, the US passed the Violence Against Women Act and restricted batterers’ ability to purchase firearms.  As needed as they may be, these laws probably would not have prevented Nicole Brown Simpson’s murder.  Given her multiple unmet requests for intervention from law enforcement and the celebrity status that garnered OJ Simpson a pass on his prior abuse charge, it is hard to believe these laws would have made much difference in 1994 – or even today.

Only 28 states have gender-based hate crime legislation.  The US needs federal femicide legislation such as the model law proposed by UN Women.  Such a law would ensure standards for the investigation and prosecution of femicides in the US and an end to impunity.

Without a doubt some believe that OJ Simpson is innocent.  Whether innocent or not, people are right to have their doubts about the ability of the police or courts to bring justice in a case like this.  How many times have we seen abused women let down by the system designed to protect them?  Do the names Rihanna, Halle Berry, Mariah Carey or Pamela Anderson ring a bell?  All have survived abusive relationships – and their partners received little or no punishment.

Admittedly, the trial of OJ Simpson was not only about violence.  Following the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, race was front and center in the Simpson trial.  That is precisely why the acquittal of OJ Simpson struck a cord with so many.  How often have we seen black men convicted of crimes they did not commit or white men set free for things they did?  The same social and legal systems that failed Nicole Brown Simpson have also failed Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and the list goes on and on and on.

Neuropathologist Bennett Omalu recently hypothesized that OJ Simpson may be suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a degenerative brain disease resulting from multiple hits on the football field.  The effects of CTE include impulsive behavior and criminality.  Yet, a diagnosis of CTE — which can only be made after death — would only provide an alternative explanation for the cause of the crime as opposed to culpability.

Famously acquitted in the criminal case, OJ Simpson was found liable in civil court.  Because of these incongruous rulings we are left with a sense of ambiguity rather than justice.  If OJ Simpson did commit the crime, the most famous femicide in US history continues to go unnamed, unrecognized and unpunished.  If OJ Simpson is not guilty, the murderer of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman remains free and uncharged.  Like other acts of femicide, silence and impunity characterize Nicole Brown Simpson’s case which leaves us wondering, what, if anything, has changed since 1994?


Dabney P. Evans, an assistant professor of public health at Emory University, discusses the lack of understanding that perpetuates the silent and pervasive epidemic of violence against women.

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