Will O.J. Simpson's Parole Spark Another National Divide?

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Few cases in modern history have generated as much drama as the saga of O.J. Simpson. The Heisman Trophy winner, NFL superstar, and popular Hollywood actor was an icon of all-American wholesomeness…until Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered on June 12, 1994. The stabbing murder of Simpson’s ex-wife and her companion generated a media frenzy as evidence mounted that implicated the former football player in the slayings. On June 17, Simpson fled in a now-infamous white Ford Bronco and engaged in a lengthy low-speed police chase after being charged with murder. Simpson eventually returned home and was arrested, but the police chase had become permanently embedded in the national consciousness.

For many Americans, the police chase cemented the belief that Simpson was guilty.

After a trial that lasted a year, Simpson was acquitted in an unexpected verdict. Public reactions revealed a racial divide: African Americans praised the verdict, concurring that the prosecution had not met the burden of proof of convincing a jury that Simpson was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but whites were upset and thought that the presented evidence had been more than sufficient to achieve the burden of proof. Simpson was later sued for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in a civil case, where he was found guilty under the lower burden of proof called preponderance of the evidence (more than 50 percent).

A decade later, Simpson was arrested for armed robbery and kidnapping after a hotel room confrontation involving sports memorabilia. Found guilty, Simpson went to prison, and many considered it delayed justice for the deaths of his ex-wife and her companion. Now, after reportedly being a model prisoner, Simpson’s parole has been approved, and he will be released from incarceration in October. The release of the former NFL star, now 70 years old, has generated mixed reactions: Proponents of his parole still consider Simpson wrongly railroaded by authorities who were angered over his ’95 acquittal, and critics of his parole still believe that Simpson was a smug celebrity, completely guilty of the heinous crime, who escaped justice due to racial politics in the wake of the Rodney King riots of 1992.

One thing you can bet on: O.J. Simpson will be under a microscope as soon as he sets foot outside of prison. Everyone will be watching to see what the aged ex-athlete does next, and their reactions will reveal lots about race relations in the post-Obama era. Their reactions will also reveal public attitudes about American concepts like “innocent until proven guilty” and prisoners being rehabilitated after “serving their time.” More than twenty years after his criminal trial acquittal, do we consider Simpson innocent of murder? Do we accept his civil trial conviction, under preponderance of the evidence, as proof of his guilt? 

Does his 2008 conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping also make him guilty of murder back in the ‘90s?

Whether the public is willing to give O.J. Simpson a fair shake after his release from prison will reveal whether we truly believe that “serving one’s time” should allow open re-integration into society. How much of a “fair shake” Simpson is given can be judged by public reactions to his post-release endeavors. Will Simpson be pilloried for attempting to re-appear in the media, either as a writer, actor, sports commentator, et cetera? Will the public only tolerate Simpson’s re-integration into society as long as he lays low? If Simpson makes some real money, the public will have expectations as to how it should be used.

Can O.J. Simpson purchase a luxury car without being condemned in the press?

While the former movie star has faded in the public eye as the face of race relations in America, it could all come roaring back quickly. The second Simpson does something that is considered unbecoming of an ex-con, social conservatives will condemn his alleged arrogance and bemoan his release. In response, liberals will respond that Simpson has served his time and that no ex-con should be forced to live as a simpering, second-class citizen. Thus opens a debate about the treatment of ex-cons, which has been a hot topic in recent years with the rise of “ban the box” initiatives.

Historically, criminal recidivism rates in the U.S. have been high due to the difficulty of ex-cons to find employment after being released.  Willingly or not, Simpson could become the face of both sides of the “ban the box” movement, with both liberals and conservatives using the complicated legacy of the former star to advocate for their side.  Liberals will capitalize on Simpson’s support among the minority community to drum up enthusiasm for “ban the box” initiatives, explaining that conservatives use no-hiring-anyone-with-any-convictions policies to disproportionately bar minority job applicants. They will portray Simpson’s post-release struggles as intentional discrimination – the same discrimination faced by millions of low-level, nonviolent offenders.

Conservatives, conversely, will highlight Simpson’s alleged crimes, violent and disturbing, as reasons why businesses should have the right to demand conviction statuses and run background checks on all applicants. After showing images of the infamous 1994 murders, a political ad could ask if businesses really trusted ex-cons to work for them. Over the next few years, any political initiatives to “ban the box” could heavily feature O.J. Simpson, either as an example of an embattled victim of racism or as a violent offender who got away with murder.

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