O.J. Simpson 20th Anniversary: A Lawyer's Never-Revealed Details of a Sister's Tears, $33M Win
Daniel Petrocelli, a partner at L.A.'s O'Melveny & Myers, recalls the day Ron Goldman's father hired him to lead a civil lawsuit, why Goldman referred to Simpson only as the "killer" and the "visible release of pain in [his] face ... when the verdict was read."
This story first appeared in the June 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It was 20 years ago, but it still seems like yesterday. I will never forget first hearing the shocking news that O.J. Simpson's ex-wife Nicole was found murdered outside her Brentwood condominium along with a young man later identified as Ronald Goldman, and that O.J. himself was a potential suspect. As a lifelong fan of Simpson, from his Heisman Trophy-winning days at USC to his record-breaking run for 2,000 yards in a season in the snow against the New York Jets to the lovable dunce in the Naked Gun movies, I could not fathom that he could murder two people, let alone the mother of his two young children as they lay asleep not far from her near-decapitated body.
I did not know then what I would soon come to learn: Nearly 80 percent of all femicides (the killing of a woman) are committed by a man in an intimate or recently estranged relationship with the victim. O.J. Simpson was recently estranged from Nicole Simpson.
Nor did I know that my own life would change forever just one year later when, on a Saturday evening in October, days after a nation watched frozen in time as Simpson's acquittal was announced by a court clerk who stumbled over his name, I rang the doorbell of a quiet house in the western San Fernando Valley and Fred Goldman invited me into his home. We talked until nearly sunrise, and the next day he invited me to be his lawyer in his fight for justice for his slain son.
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I was an unlikely choice to lead Fred Goldman's civil lawsuit against O.J. Simpson. I had never tried a murder case, a wrongful-death case or even a personal injury case, let alone anything as publicly visible as the Simpson case. Unbeknownst to me, Fred Goldman had received a call from a man he did not know who was passionate about Fred's cause and who insisted Fred meet me. That man was Paul Marciano, a client and dear friend of many years who co-founded and still heads the Guess apparel company. Fred Goldman's pursuit of justice would not have been possible without Paul Marciano, his company or my then-law firm, Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp, who zealously supported the Goldmans' case even though the firm did not expect to be paid and was not paid.
Fred Goldman told me his one and only purpose in pursuing the civil case was to confirm in a court of law what the criminal trial had failed to do and what he knew to his core to be true — that Simpson, or the "killer," as Fred would only refer to him‚ murdered his son and murdered Nicole Simpson. Fred understood such a judgment would not put Simpson behind bars and could at best deliver an award of money damages. He hoped for the highest damages possible, not because he wanted Simpson's money but because he did not want Simpson to have it.
In the early evening of Feb. 4, 1997, while President Clinton was delivering his State of the Union address, the TV networks suddenly went to split-screen coverage to report that a verdict had been reached in the Simpson civil case. After five months of trial, the jury unanimously found Simpson was the killer. The civil trial was not televised, so we have no images of the visible release of pain in Fred Goldman's face or the tears in the eyes of his daughter, Kim, when the verdict was read.
Fred Goldman's only disappointment with the civil trial was that it was not televised, only because he wanted the world to see O.J. Simpson on the stand answering the questions he'd refused to answer in his criminal trial when he exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The trial judge wanted no television in his courtroom. I do not blame him because the single, unobtrusive camera in the corner of Judge Lance Ito's criminal courtroom took control of that trial. But Fred's larger purpose might have been right, for Simpson's inability to take the Fifth in the civil trial (doing so would have meant a virtual forfeiture of his defense) was the defining difference between the two trials and outcomes. He had no answers for the evidence against him, at least none the jury believed.
The jury awarded the victims' families $8.5 million in compensatory damages and added $25 million in punitive damages, for a total of $33.5 million. Simpson has not paid any of the judgment and has openly disavowed its legitimacy, even after it was affirmed on appeal. Not long after the verdict, the victims' families attempted to execute on Simpson's assets to satisfy the judgment. No assets could be found, other than Simpson's famed Heisman Trophy and some lesser valuables, which were seized and sold together at auction for $500,000. That is all that has ever been recovered on the judgment (which has more than doubled with compounding interest).
In the end, beyond branding Simpson as a killer, the civil judgment provided Fred Goldman far more justice than even he ever could have expected — because Simpson's obsessive avoidance of the financial burdens of that judgment over the ensuing years led him to barge into a Las Vegas hotel room with gun-carrying associates to take memorabilia to sell for cash that the victims' families would never find. And for that crime, Simpson was convicted, sentenced to 33 years in prison and is now incarcerated. He was convicted on Oct. 3, 2008, exactly 13 years to the day he was acquitted of the double murders.
There are so many dimensions to the Simpson saga: murder, money, drugs, sex, race, fame, celebrity, domestic violence, police conduct, the legal process and even the media. And they all coalesced into a story that transfixed a nation and the world for nearly three years. Two of the most public trials in legal history ended in seemingly conflicting verdicts, with Simpson acquitted of double murder in the criminal trial and found liable for the killings in the civil trial. Two juries, both unanimous, separated by only one year, 12 miles and, some say, 200 years of racial divide.
Twenty years later, what is the final judgment in the Simpson case? Dozens of books (including my own) have been written on the subject, and strongly differing views persist. One broader perspective, I suggest, is that the culmination of the Simpson cases served to vindicate our justice system. Already reeling from high-profile verdicts gone awry, including the 1992 Simi Valley acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King, the Simpson criminal verdict rocked Los Angeles and the country at large and set off an epic crisis of confidence in our legal system. The civil trial and verdict helped begin a restorative healing process with the American public, redeeming some small measure of their trust in the legal process.
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For Fred Goldman and for countless others, the enduring final judgment in the Simpson case is the brutal truth that on June 12, 1994, at about 10:30 p.m., O.J. Simpson butchered and murdered Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson and left them awash in their blood. And for me, after 20 years, this case still means what it meant when Fred Goldman invited me into his personal tragedy and gave me the privilege to represent a father fighting for his son.