Could O.J. Simpson Be Tried Again for Murder?

The knife that was allegedly found on the former property of O.J. Simpson raises legal questions.
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O.J. Simpson

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story has drawn the U.S. television audience back into the one of the most infamous criminal trials of our time, but that interest could pale in comparison to speculation sparked by a former LAPD officer who turned in a knife that he claims was found on Simpson's former property and could be the missing weapon in the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman.

If this knife is indeed that missing knife, what does it mean for the murder investigation? 

The Hollywood Reporter asked USC law professor and criminal defense attorney Michael Brennan to explain.

When is a criminal case officially closed?

It closes when somebody is arrested and convicted of the crime that’s been committed. In this case, that hasn’t happened. [Simpson] was charged and acquitted, so the case is still open. They just haven’t prosecuted and convicted anyone for those two homicides. I’m not sure the LAPD has spent a tremendous amount of time trying to find another suspect.

What could happen next if no DNA evidence is found on the knife?

Then it’s just another knife. If there is some forensic evidence that ties the knife to the victims, either victim, then the knife has some historical consequence but it wouldn’t have a legal consequence.

What could happen next if O.J. Simpson’s DNA is found on the knife?

He can’t be tried for the same crime twice [because of the double jeopardy clause]. Federal authorities in federal court could pursue charges of violation of the victim’s federal civil rights. I don’t know off the top of my head if that’s a possibility in the O.J. case because of the statute of limitations. Having said that, that piece of evidence alone might not be enough to cause federal prosecutors to file such charges even if they could.

What is double jeopardy and why is it necessary?

We’ve always had the concept of double jeopardy in our legal system. The prosecution has one chance to charge and prosecute someone for a crime. If you are found not guilty, then the state or the federal government cannot charge you again. It prevents people from being harassed with criminal charges that they’ve been acquitted of in the past. If you fail to convict them, you can’t try it again.

Is that absolute, or are there any loopholes?

It’s absolute in terms of the state. The state cannot charge you with that same crime again. There are no loopholes. The only exception is the one I mentioned earlier, which would be if you are acquitted in state court of a crime, there is the possibility of federal prosecutors prosecuting you in federal court for violation of a victim’s civil rights. That seldom happens, but it is a possibility. 

What could happen next if someone other than O.J. Simpson’s DNA is found on the knife?

The LAPD and the county DA’s office is going to have to determine whether they have enough evidence to prosecute someone else. DNA of the victims and DNA of a third person probably wouldn’t be sufficient for them to charge a person with the homicide because you need more than that type of evidence. I would think it would be unlikely.

What could happen next if this is discovered to be a prank of some sort?

I think it’s pretty clear that the LAPD officer who turned the knife over has had it in his possession for more than 10 years, so I don’t think it’s a prank. It was probably a mistake on his part not to turn it over when he received it. I don’t think he’s committed any kind of a crime, but I know LAPD is probably not happy with him for not turning it over earlier.

If the knife had been turned in earlier, Brennan says any forensic evidence found on it would have been stronger. But more than 20 years after the crime, this knife is likely not a smoking gun.

Says Brennan, "People would like to have some evidence that supports their conclusions about O.J. and his guilt or innocence, and that would satisfy some of those matters, but legally the knife doesn’t have much significance."