Witness to History
Investigating O.J. Simpson: The Case for DNA
Investigating O.J. Simpson: The Case for DNA was the 14th installment in the National Law Enforcement Museum’s Witness to History panel discussion series generously funded by Target®.
Held at the U.S. Navy Memorial’s Burke Theatre, guests enjoyed a fascinating discussion featuring retired US Park Police Pilot Don Usher, retired Metropolitan (DC) Police Department Detective Eric Witzig, and cameraman Chester Panzer, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for capturing the rescue of the survivors of Air Florida Flight 90.
On June 13, 1994, Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson were found brutally murdered at her home. Soon after Los Angeles (CA) Police Department Detective Tom Lange’s connection to the investigation began when his phone rang at 3 a.m. and he was told to report to the Brentwood murder scene. On the evening of October 4, 2016, he described to a rapt audience at the Burke Theater, his actions during the first hours of the investigation and the methodical processing of the crime scenes. He noted the type of professional demeanor required to process such a horrific scene. Lange said, “It may sound cold, but you have to look at these bodies as evidence…they are protected like everything else at the scene.”
Dr. Jenifer Smith, a thirty-two veteran of the FBI and the director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Forensic Science, talked about the significance of DNA evidence and the status of forensic science in the early 1990s. She explained, “Some of you may think that DNA was young or wasn’t informative. That is a misimpression. The DNA [from the case] was actually very compelling information.” She also described the importance of being able to explain that evidence to a jury. Dr. Smith said, “Pre-O.J. [Simpson] we actually walked a jury through how the process works because in the RFLP process we would put the results up in front of the jury…I guess we had this hope in our heads that the jury would have this aha moment and see it the way we saw it.” After the O.J. Simpson trial, forensic scientists changed the ways they presented information to juries. They used more relatable language and practiced presenting their testimonies in easily understood terms.
Rock Harmon, a former Senior Deputy District Attorney in Alameda County, California, and a member of the O.J. Simpson prosecution team, talked about the dynamics in the courtroom and the bizarre nature of the trial. Both Harmon and Lange talked about how having cameras in the courtroom and the overall length of the trial was unusual and did not work in the prosecution’s favor. When asked about the glove found at the crime scene, Harmon replied that it was presented by the defense attorneys as though it was planted by the LAPD. The defense was able to build and present a compelling narrative that was not based on evidence. Harmon explained, “The theory that the jury heard was that evidence with the real killer’s blood was collected, it was a hot day, it sat in the van and the heat caused the true killer’s blood to disappear.” Harmon and Lange both denied any possibility of blood contamination by Lange’s partner, Phil Vannatter, or the Los Angeles crime scene investigators.
One highlight of the evening came during the question and answer portion when Lange was asked about his role in getting O.J. Simpson to safety during the infamous chase in the white Bronco. A suspect at this point, Simpson had a gun and was threatening to kill himself. The chase went live on TV and Lange thought it was wrong that no one was seriously attempting to stop Simpson. He said, “Then I realized, wait a minute, I’ve got his phone number…so I called it, and we talked for about 25 minutes.” Lange explained how important it was to just keep Simpson’s mind occupied on the phone in order to get him home safely.