In a few months, Simpson will again walk out of prison a free man. A four-person panel on Thursday granted his release about nine years into his sentence of nine to 33 years for a Las Vegas robbery. Simpson, who claimed he had been trying to recover his stolen property in the robbery, could be free by Oct. 1.
In some ways, Thursday’s 75-minute hearing mirrored Simpson’s 1995 trial, but it also marked a shift from the nation’s emotional investment in the fate of the NFL Hall of Famer, a former movie star and cultural icon.
For one, the stakes for Simpson — and society — were much lower, Columbia University journalism professor Jelani Cobb said.
“He has remained a kind of radioactive figure in American life, precisely because of him being associated with the ancient taboo of a black man accused of doing violence to a white woman,” Cobb said of Simpson. “It has everything to do with who he was and who Nicole Brown Simpson was in terms of race and celebrity.”
Nearly a generation ago, an arrogant and defiant Simpson riveted Black and White Americans in one of the country’s earliest versions of reality television, the wall-to-wall Trial of the Century, with Simpson accused of murdering his beautiful, blonde wife and another man, Ronald Goldman. His acquittal exposed racial fault lines and served as a commentary on the U.S. criminal justice system.
As Simpson’s release hung in the balance Thursday, the specter of the murder trial hung over his hearing. One parole commissioner displayed hundreds of letters in support and opposition of Simpson’s release, noting those opposed referenced the killings as a reason not to let him out of prison. Many saw Simpson’s conviction on the robbery charge as payback for the not-guilty verdict two decades earlier.
Every major television network carried Simpson’s parole hearing live, a testament to the media’s continued obsession with the must-watch former athlete. Simpson’s hearing also was a Twitter U.S. trending topic, a phenomenon that didn’t exist in 1995.
The president of the NAACP Albuquerque chapter, Harold Bailey, said many blacks in New Mexico watched Simpson’s Los Angeles trial with interest because of the issues it sparked around policing and the criminal justice system. However, Bailey said, many felt that when Simpson’s was later convicted in Nevada and given a harsh sentence it was handed down because “he was O.J.”
“I think many felt he was being punished because he got off in Los Angeles,” Bailey said. “Some still feel that way.”
On Thursday, Simpson still commanded and captivated audiences. In many ways, the stage was already set. In 2016, an average of 7.5 million people watched FX’s 10-part docuseries “The People v. O.J Simpson,” and the five-part documentary “O.J.: Made in America” from ESPN Films was seen by nearly 35 million people.
At times during Thursday’s hearing, Simpson was frustrated and incredulous, reminiscent of his attitude during his murder trial. And as the parole commission granted his release, he was again all smiles, expressing his gratitude at the decision.
A member of the Hidatsa and Arikara American Indian tribes in North Dakota, Michael Yellow Bird, said the reappearance of Simpson allows some Native Americans to bring attention to how the criminal justice system affects them.
“Indian County sees disproportionate incarceration rates and Native American men as the most likely to be shot by police,” said Yellow Bird, who directs the Indigenous Tribal Studies at North Dakota State University and followed the Simpson trial in 1995.
Simpson’s hearing came as national conversations around race and criminal justice — related to mass incarceration and the killings of unarmed black people by police — are again dominating national headlines.
On Thursday, he was another hashtag.
“I don’t think there are people who were very young in 1995 who are invested in what’s happening here now,” said Cobb, who regularly watched the 1995 trial but skipped Thursday’s hearing. “This is very much an element of 1990s American popular culture, and our interest may be back there, too.”
Errin Haines Whack and Russell Contreras are members of AP’s race and ethnicity team.