Lethality Assessment in the Simpson Case

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In the twenty years since the brutal murder of Nicole Brown, our society has made great progress in advocating victim’s rights. Reviewing the case from the perspective of the victim, and the decade of domestic violence she experienced at the hand of O.J. Simpson, it seems obvious to us now that the crime could have been predicted, and even prevented. Even if Simpson did not stab Brown and her acquaintance Ronald Goldman to death (which is highly unlikely), her death could have been prevented by a police presence near her home. Not to mention, his supposed innocence would have been proved by the certain incarceration that his threats, intrusions, and acts of violence against her would have required today. The evidence of Simpson’s history of violence against Brown was easily available to the police. Much of it was documented by calls Brown made to 911 before and after her divorce from Simpson. However, Simpson’s position of power as a former football star and media personality compromised Brown’s rights as a victim and kept Simpson out of jail. Also, the passage of President Clinton’s “three strikes” law earlier in the year of the murder slanted the focus of law enforcement from victimology to criminology, part of a national philosophy, described by Robert Elias (1996) as “punishment to deter offenders or to teach them lessons,” instead of preventing crime from a victim’s standpoint (p. 10).

The need for victimology is apparent in Elias’s (1996) quotation of Michael Hallet concerning the shortcomings of a strictly criminological view of a crime, which has “endorsed approaches that serve the interests of established power, not the interests of those who are continuously victimized by crime” (p. 14). He goes on to say that “the problems of crime and violence are obviously too big for criminology” (Elias, 1996, p. 14). In an exploration into the causes of intimate partner violence (IPV) Rachel Jewkes (2002) concluded that IPV is based in “the unequal position of women in a particular relationship (and in society)” and in “the normative use of violence in conflict” (p. 1426).

According to Thomas L. Jones’ (2014) account of Simpson’s relationship with Brown, Brown’s diary revealed that his pattern of domestic violence went back as far as 1977, and the Los Angeles County prosecution team had compiled a catalog of “62 separate incidents of physical and mental mistreatment, in addition to numerous threats and examples of control manipulation he had carried out” (p. 5). Simpson was 30 years old when he met 18-year-old Brown, who was working as a waitress. His age, gender, fame, and money put him in a huge position of power over her. Jewkes’ idea of the “The normative use of violence in conflict” began in 1985 and continued past the couple's divorce in 1992 (Jones, 2014, p. 5). It was not simply that Simpson came from the violent culture of football and therefore dealt with conflict physically. He was never punished for his physical outbursts against his wife, therefore normalizing the pattern. In the words of Brown’s therapist, “Nicole was battered incessantly, regularly, all the time” (Jones, 2014, p. 5). A month before her murder, Brown had told her mother that her jealous ex-husband had warned her, “If I ever see you with another man, I’ll kill you” (Jones, 2014, p. 5). Additionally, Brown called Sojourn, a Los Angeles woman’s shelter, four days before the murder, concerned that her husband would hurt her (Jones, 2014, p. 5). It is an understatement to say that the Los Angeles Police Department failed to see what is, in hindsight, so obvious. The most basic of lethality assessments would have pointed to an inevitable, if not imminent, assault on Brown.

Had laws against IPV and stalking appeared a decade earlier, and had the police investigated more fully Simpson’s abuse of Brown despite his position as a celebrity, the deaths of Brown and Goldman would easily have been avoided. However, the institutionalization of victim’s and women’s rights was only beginning, and public awareness of IPV, stalking, and violence against women in the form of television shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was still ten years off. While institutional mechanisms were progressing, an “increasing tendency for women to fight back against domestic violence issues” already existed (Elias, 1996, p. 19). In 1993, these mechanisms were highlighted by the Lorena Bobbitt case, where a battered wife allegedly cut off her husband’s penis in retaliation against the violence (Elias, 1996, p. 19). Brown felt powerless before both her husband and the justice system that was failing to protect her. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), “the rate of intimate partner violence against females declined 53% between 1993 and 2008 (BJS). At the same time, “homicide victims killed by intimate partners fell 29%... [from] 3,300 in 1993 to an estimated 2,340 in 2007” (BJS). This illustrates the incredible rate by which the institutional protections of victims has translated into real-world improvement.

There is still much more room to look to victims to prevent IPV. One tool being adopted across the country by domestic violence interventionists is a federally funded Lethality Assessment Program (LAP). An article by Jaime Adame (2014) describes an 11-question LAP officials began using in 2010 to prevent domestic violence in Washington County, Minnesota. One case in particular during 2006 inspired the more rigorous attempt to stop IPV. As in the Simpson/Brown case, a pattern of intimidation and abuse, and then stalking after the couple separated, was ignored (Adame, 2014, p. 1). The man invaded her home and lunged at her with a knife, but was allowed out on bail despite the victim’s feeling that she was unsafe. Soon after the man invaded her home again and murdered her and her boyfriend. One officer claimed, since this incident four years prior, “we’re much more aggressive with these things because of the LAP” (Adame, 2014, p. 1).

A Lethality Assessment Program certainly would have led to the protection of Nicole Brown. The signs were everywhere, and such a series of questions would have quickly proved that.

Does he/she ever threaten or attack her/him with a weapon?

Does he/she ever threaten to kill her/him?

Has she/he left him or have they been separated?

Is he/she jealous or ever controlling?

Did he/she leave threatening messages or spy on her/him?

The answer to all these questions is, “yes.” In 1995, Simpson used a baseball bat to strike Brown’s car. Though the police came to the scene and saw evidence of this attack, Simpson was not charged with a crime (Jones, 2014, p. 5). Numerous accounts show that a jealous Simpson threatened to kill Brown if she were seen with another man (Jones, 2014, p. 5). Based on one account, Brown could no longer Simpson’s simultaneous jealousy and cheating, an unfair double standard. He was jealous and would violently lash out when he was unable to control her. On another occasion, Simpson broke down the door into Brown’s house and violently shouted at her, a step beyond threats (Jones, 2014, p. 5). The answers to all these questions point to Simpson being an imminent threat, and what happened to Nicole Brown proved the lethality of that threat. As victimology moves forward such needless violence will, hopefully, be prevented.

(Figure 1 omitted for preview. Available via download)

References

Adame, Jaime (February 2014). “Are domestic violence murders preventable?” The Crime Report. Retrieved from http://www.thecrimereport.org/news/inside-criminal-justice/2014-02-are-domestic-violence-homicides-preventable

Bureau of Justice Statistics (2009). Female Victims of Violence. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvv.pdf

Elias, Robert (1996). “Paradigms and paradoxes of victimology.” Australian Institute of Criminology. Retrieved from http://www.aic.gov.au/media_library/publications/proceedings/27/elias.pdf

Jewkes, Rachel (2002). “Intimate partner violence: Causes and prevention.” The Lancet, 259, 1423-28. Retrieved from http://ethicsinhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/intimate-patner-violence-jewkes.pdf

Jones, Thomas L. (2014). “The murder trial of O.J. Simpson.” Crime Library. Retrieved from http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/famous/simpson/index_1.html

Office on Violence Against Women (2009). The history of the Violence Against Women Act. Retrieved from http://www.ovw.usdoj.gov/docs/history-vawa.pdf