What the O.J. Trial Taught America About Domestic Violence

For years now, I’ve had advocates who work with survivors of domestic violence tell me that two events in 1994 changed entirely the landscape for victims’ services in their field: the passage of the Violence Against Women Act and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.

In fact, many advocates cite her death in June of that year as instrumental in Congress’s prioritizing the passage of the Violence Against Women Act that September, which in turn authorized the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Indeed, hotlines sprang up in the wake of her murder, and some local newspapers ran columns with nearby resources for victims alongside their coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. It was the first time many Americans were even made aware of the domestic violence services offered in their own backyards.

The Simpson trial, and the man at its center, have come to stand for many things in the decades since his acquittal: He was a symbol of the privileges of rich and famous men, a living embodiment of the unevenness of justice, a walking measure of America’s racial divide. Yet it’s worth taking a moment to remember the ways his case, even in light of the outcome, had profound and lasting consequences for domestic violence victims, for their advocates and for court systems.

Ms. Brown Simpson’s murder thrust onto the national stage the idea that even beauty, wealth and whiteness could not offer protection from an enraged and estranged spouse. Her murder, along with Ron Goldman’s — for a time, at least — shook an entire nation into some kind of recognition that domestic abuse crosses all bounds of race, class, sexual identity, ethnicity, age.

But if the murders brought a sudden shock of awareness of the problem, the trial also illustrated how hard it is for victims to obtain justice, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

To many of us, the murders seemed an open-and-shut case of intimate partner homicide. There was Mr. Simpson’s past conviction for spousal abuse, the phone calls to the police, photographs of injuries, diary entries and years of him stalking her. There was DNA at the crime scene that matched his. She called a shelter in Santa Monica, Calif., just five days before her death.

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