Justice and weapon still missing in O.J. Simpson case?

Knife found at O.J. Simpson's former estate
Knife found at O.J. Simpson's former estate

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Knife found at O.J. Simpson's former estate 02:32

Story highlights

  • Two decades later, America's criminal justice system is still marred by issues of race, writes Paul Callan, who worked on the civil lawsuit
  • A civil jury found Simpson responsible after he was acquitted on criminal charges
  • Callan: It's unlikely that a knife found on Simpson's estate can be definitively tied to the case

Paul Callan was co-counsel to the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson in the O.J. Simpson civil case. He is a CNN legal analyst and of counsel to Edelman & Edelman, PC as well as senior trial counsel at CallanLegal in New York City, focusing on civil rights litigation. Follow him on Twitter: @paulcallan The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The discovery of a knife -- possibly buried at O.J. Simpson's Rockingham estate shortly after the brutal killings of his ex-wife, Nicole, and young Ronald Goldman -- stirred a flurry of press coverage during a week otherwise devoted to the carnage in the Republican presidential primaries.

Though testing so many years after the 1994 slayings is unlikely to confirm the blade's link to the homicides, both the knife and a current TV series about the case are grim reminders of how little America's race relations have changed since the so-called "trial of the century."
    African-Americans continue to believe that for them, the criminal justice system is neither fair nor just. The epidemic of wrongful conviction cases being explored by courts across the nation suggests that there is truth in this belief.
    The verdict of "not guilty" in the Simpson case was more of an urgent message from an angry jury that the system's disrespect for minority groups needed fixing rather than an accurate assessment of Simpson's obvious guilt. I know this because I represented the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson as part of a team of lawyers who proved Simpson responsible for the killings of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman in a civil trial approximately two years after his acquittal in a circus-like criminal trial.
    The civil trial would bring me to the abandoned but still eerie scene at 875 South Bundy Drive, where Nicole Simpson was nearly decapitated and Ron Goldman was stabbed more than 20 times by the enraged killer. As a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, I have visited many homicide scenes, but none would subject the American criminal justice system to greater ridicule than the one at Nicole Brown Simpson's condo on South Bundy in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.
    Though a large amount of physical evidence -- including a bloody print made by a size 12 Bruno Magli shoe like the ones Simpson wore, and the infamous XL Aris Light leather glove, which inspired defense attorney Johnny Cochran's "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" line -- was recovered at the scene, the weapon has remained elusive for over 20 years.
    My involvement in the O.J. Simpson civil case occurred because of a strange rule of the American court system which permits the filing of a civil case for money damages against even a person previously acquitted on criminal charges involving the same event. The reason is that the burden of proof in a criminal case, "beyond a reasonable doubt," is much higher than the "preponderance of the evidence" standard applied when the court fight is about money damages rather than punishment or jail. The double jeopardy rule only applies to criminal cases and does not bar a subsequent civil suit.
    In preparing for the Simpson civil trial, I walked the scene with a young patrolman named Robert Riske, the first officer to arrive there on the night of the killings. I always do this when I'm involved in a case as it helps the witness to remember details and it helps prepare me to be a better advocate.
    As we walked, a couple of L.A. tour buses slowed to allow occupants to view what had become one of Hollywood's more bizarre tourist attractions. I'm sure that none of the passengers realized we were getting ready for a second trial of O.J. Simpson.
    I've learned that in trying murder cases, one of the most important witnesses is often the sometimes inexperienced patrolman who first responds to the homicide scene. Though seasoned detectives arrive later and become the case's iconic figures, the first officer often proves to be far more important.
    This is particularly so in the age of blood, DNA, hair follicle and other forensic evidence, which is often the key to linking a particular criminal defendant to the crime scene. Defense attorneys with no real evidence supporting their guilty client's claim of innocence routinely assert police incompetence in the preservation of physical evidence -- or even, as in the Simpson case, deliberate evidence tampering to frame the defendant. Minority jurors, hardened by a lifetime of rough treatment by the cops, are often sympathetic to these claims.
    When I contacted Riske, advising him that his testimony would be required in yet another O.J. Simpson trial, he was astonished when I suggested that he meet me at the 875 South Bundy crime scene so that we could walk through the scene together. He told me he had not been prepped this way by the prosecutors in the original murder trial.
    Later, the civil jury in our trial would find that Simpson committed the slayings, awarding damages of $33.5 million to the Brown and Goldman families and Simpson's children.
    The failure to convict O.J. Simpson in the criminal case resulted from a combination of factors including many prosecutorial and judicial errors. Prosecutors, blinded by the intense glare of publicity surrounding the trial, faced an extraordinarily talented defense team in a televised case presided over by a judge who lost control of his courtroom.
    Sadly, the "not guilty" verdict was delivered by a largely African-American jury which had lost all faith in the fairness of the criminal justice system. The Rodney King case and the police crackdown on gang violence in Los Angeles had created an atmosphere of police distrust among many members of the minority community.
    Twenty years later, newly formed wrongful conviction units in district attorney's offices around the country have uncovered a shocking number of innocent defendants languishing in prisons for crimes they did not commit. This suggests that even if the Simpson criminal verdict was wrong, the criminal justice system needs to restore the faith of the minority community.
    When the system reforms, juries will stop "sending messages" and will return to determining guilt and innocence on an objective analysis of the evidence rather than using verdicts to teach bad cops and overzealous prosecutors a lesson.