The most recent episode of American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson profiles the moment the American people were introduced to one of the most revolutionary advancements in criminal investigations: DNA testing. This forensic tool was so new when the trial began in 1994 that the prosecution found it necessary to explain to the jury what DNA testing even was. The American viewing public, eager to hear earth-shattering testimony, was subjected instead to some scientific education. Very briefly, the trial of the century became a tool for pushing forward the cultural discussion of biology. TV procedurals would never be the same.
DNA testing is considered by most to be the reason for Simpson’s acquittal. The Los Angeles County prosecutors had an arsenal of DNA evidence during the Simpson trial: bloody shoe prints, socks containing Simpson’s genetic markers, hairs found in a knit cap. But, while DNA analysis revealed a match with Simpson, his defense was able to effectively discredit the samples. Tampering could not be ruled out and the gross mismanagement of the testing process compromised the evidence.
A few months after Simpson’s acquittal, The New York Times said that “if ever there was a criminal case in which scientific evidence should have taken center stage, it was the O.J. Simpson case.” But, to the delight of the prosecution, the Los Angeles Police Department made serious mistakes in the handling of the DNA samples collected. They collected blood evidence weeks after the crimes had been committed, placed the blood samples in plastic instead of paper containers, took hours to deliver fresh blood samples to the laboratory, and even spilt Simpson’s blood in the lab where they later tested other samples. These missteps convinced the jury to discredit the DNA evidence.
It’s important to note that while Simpson’s defense team sought to discredit the DNA evidence presented, they never critiqued the validity of DNA technology itself. One member of Simpson’s team was Barry Scheck, who co-founded The Innocence Project before the trial and continues to advocate for the use of DNA evidence to free innocent people from prison today.
“It is significant that the same lawyers who made their name by challenging DNA evidence during the first years of its use were the ones to establish the first innocence project in the USA, which still continues to promote DNA as a powerful weapon for the exoneration of those wrongly convicted,” writes foresnic scientist Oriola Sallavaci in The Impact of Scientific Evidence on the Criminal Trial. “The Simpson case is specifically significant for highlight the fact that no matter how advanced and credible the technology is per se, as long as there is human input, errors may happen.”
DNA testing was invented in 1985, was first involved in a criminal case in 1985, and was first successfully used to convict someone of a crime in 1987. By 1995 there was a “rapid proliferation of this technology,” but only one-third of the 60 DNA laboratories in the United States were accredited as legitimate testing centers. The L.A. Police Department’s lab, which was ground zero of the Simpson trial, was not one of them.
The impact of the inclusion of DNA evidence in the Simpson trial affected both the forensic community and the American people. Americans learned that complex science could solve crimes and this knowledge ignited an interest that would transcend the grainy courtroom footage the Simpson trial provided. This infatuation would spur the introduction of “countless TV programs, movies, and novels dedicated to crime scene investigation.” Essentially, the Simpson trial is why in 2016 we have programs like CSI: Miami, Bones, and Criminal Minds.
And what went down in the trial made forensic scientists realize they needed to shape up. In 1997 — the same year that Simpson was ordered by the court in 1997 to pay $25 million in punitive damages to the families of the slain Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman — the National Institute of Justice, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors held a conference to assess the state of DNA testing in the United States. The Simpson trial revealed that capacity lagged behind technology. Training was a major issue.
The result of all this? The proliferation of modern DNA labs. Today the American Society of Crime Laboratory has accredited 186 state laboratories, 129 local agencies, and 32 federal laboratories — including, yes, the labs used by the L.A. Police Department.