Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: How the Standard Differed Between the Trials of OJ Simpson and Michael Peterson
By Josh Valentine
Over the past century, there have been thousands of murder trials in the United States, yet few have garnered the amount of public recognition as those of OJ Simpson and Michael Peterson. While the defendants in these two cases had very different backgrounds, the factual circumstances surrounding the murders, as well as the subsequent investigations and trials, constitute two of the most riveting twists of events to occur absent a fiction novel. It has been long held that the standard of proof in criminal trials requires that the fact finder must determine that the defendant is guilty of the alleged crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Yet how this standard has been applied is an entirely different story. This blog will contrast the Simpson and Peterson trials, placing specific emphasis on the manner in which the juries in each case interpreted this standard.
Take, for example, when OJ Simpson was put on trial for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her boyfriend, Ronald Goldman, who were found stabbed to death at Nicole’s home. In that case, the incriminating evidence against OJ that was admissible at trial appeared overwhelming, or at least sufficient to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. To begin, OJ’s hairs were found on a cap at the location of the murders and on the shirt of Ronald Goldman. Second, blood found at the murder scene matched OJ’s blood and there were fresh cuts on OJ’s hand the day after the murders. There was also blood found in OJ’s car, driveway, foyer, and bedroom. Third, blood found on OJ’s socks in his bedroom was determined to be Nicole’s blood. Fourth, a left Aris Light leather glove size XL was found at the murder scene, while a right Aris Light leather glove size XL was found at OJ’s home. Nicole had bought OJ a pair of Aris Light leather gloves size XL a few years prior, which OJ had worn ever since. Fifth, shoe prints at the murder scene were from a size 12 Bruno Magli shoe, the shoe size that OJ wore. OJ’s car had a bloody shoe impression consistent with a Bruno Magli shoe. Sixth, OJ’s vehicle was seen speeding away from the crime scene within minutes of the time of the murders. In addition, aside from the substantial incriminating evidence, OJ had a history of domestic violence, especially against his wife Nicole.
Similar to OJ Simpson, Michael Peterson was put on trial for the murder of his wife, Kathleen Peterson, who was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of their home. However, unlike the OJ case, the incriminating evidence against Michael was scant and inconclusive at best. Michael was the one who called 911 and in a desperate voice pleaded for the police to help save his wife. The autopsy report concluded that Kathleen had died of blood loss from lacerations she received on her head. There was no murder weapon, no eyewitnesses, and no obvious motive for the murders. Unlike OJ, Michael had absolutely no prior history of violence of any sort, and there was no one who had ever seen Michael become upset. Rather, everyone who knew him said that his and Kathleen’s relationship was loving, caring, and compassionate.
Ultimately, OJ Simpson was found not guilty on both murder charges while Michael Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. So what was the difference between the two verdicts? While we may never know the true answer to that question, there are a number of factors that we can take note of. First, prior to OJ’s murder trial, he was a very well known, prominent celebrity-type person. A former Heisman trophy winner, OJ had been hailed an American sports hero and was the spokesperson for Hertz Rental. In contrast, Michael Peterson was a hardly-known writer who had a very little following, if any. Second, OJ had the means and clout to hire an entire fleet of America’s best attorneys including Johnny Cochran, Robert Schenck, F. Lee Bailey, and Alan Dershowich. Michael Peterson, who was in financial trouble at the time of Kathleen’s trial, did not have the same means to hire several attorneys. He was, however, fortunate to garner the representation of one of the most reputable attorneys in North Carolina—David Rudolf. And while Mr. Rudolf threw his heart and strength into zealously defending Michael, his time and resources were not without limit.
Another important factor that significantly played into the outcome of both cases was the testimony of the detectives. For OJ’s trial, Detective Mark Furman was a key witness to the prosecution because he was the man that found the bloody glove at OJ’s house. However, during the course of the trial, evidence of Furman using the n-word was introduced, completely discrediting his earlier assertion that he had never used that word. In Michael’s trial, State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) Agent Duane Deaver was a crucial, if not the most important, witness to the prosecution because he was the only witness that claimed to know what happened to Kathleen inside Michael’s home on the night she died. He testified that he could tell that Michael had stood over Kathleen and beat her with a pointed object. Agent Deaver also claimed that blood had been wiped from the steps. However, unlike in OJ’s case, where it became evident that the star witness Furman committed perjury right before the jury’s eyes, Agent Deaver’s testimony went unchecked . . . at least until it was proven false nearly a decade later. In 2011, Michael Peterson conviction was overturned due to the false testimony of Deaver, and Peterson is currently awaiting a new trial.
While in the classroom, “beyond a reasonable doubt” sounds relatively straightforward, these two cases exemplify how uncertain the “reasonable doubt” standard can be in actual practice. Even though the judge gives the jury a long-winded explanation of what that standard means, there are so many other factors that play into a jury’s decision, some more prejudicial than others. This is what makes the practice of criminal law so exciting.