May 2, 2003

Library Hosts O.J. Simpson Collection

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The juice is loose in Kroch Library.

About 13 boxes reside in the University’s own rare and manuscript collection archives which contain O.J. Simpson trial items ranging from 235 Court TV videotapes to O.J. trial humor.

Why does Cornell have thirteen O.J. boxes located in the same facility as James Joyce manuscripts and the Gettysburg Address?

That is the question which fueled my passionate pursuit of O.J.

My first stop was the rare book and manuscript collections located deep underground in Kroch Library. There I spoke with University archivist Elaine Engst.

“The project was really designed to document the use of DNA as evidence in trials. Now, of course, what happened in the O.J. Simpson trial was the verdict did not rest on those grounds,” she said.

So it’s not really an “O.J. archive” after all. Instead, it’s a collection of materials related to DNA evidence in the courtroom which is centered on the Simpson trial. Kato is not loose in the Kroch after all.

Engst also informed me that the person to speak to about all this would be Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, science and technology studies.

So I made my way to Kennedy Hall, armed with an index of Cornell’s O.J. Simpson collection items, a tape recorder and a dream of breaking the Simpson story.

Upon meeting Lewenstein, I asked, “Why do we have an O.J. Simpson collection?”

Lewenstein told me that in the early ’90s, the founding chair of the Science and Technology Studies Program, Sheila Jessup, was doing a study on the use of DNA evidence in the courtroom. Jessup was interested in looking at instances of “what scientists consider to be evidence running up against what the law considers to be evidence.”

“When the O.J. case broke, without even knowing how the case would end, they thought this would be an interesting case to follow,” Lewenstein said.

Lewenstein had previous experience with creating such an extensive collection with the 1989 Utah cold fusion controversy, so Jessup asked Lewenstein if he would join the project.

The O.J. DNA group then received a grant from the National Science Foundation for $16,998.

The objective of the project was to create “an archive of the use of science in the O.J. Simpson trial, not an archive of the O.J. Simpson trial. I really don’t care about Kato,” Lewenstein explained.

Again, Kato is not loose in the Kroch.

“In the end, what the jury decided was they didn’t trust the chain-of-evidence question. To a lawyer, what matters is ‘What is the chain of evidence?'” Lewenstein said. “If you can break the chain of evidence, then the evidence is meaningless.”

“One of the things [about] looking at this intersection of science and law is that there are different ways of deciding on what counts as truth,” he added. “That’s not to say there is no truth.”

The O.J. collection as it stands concerns only the criminal trial, excluding the subsequent civil trial.

“Even that points to the fact that there have been two decisions concerning [whether] O.J. is responsible for those deaths. Both of them are legal realities. It’s not just science that is in conflict with the law, but law is in conflict with the law,” Lewenstein said.

Other collections in the Science and Technology Studies Program include one on the millennium bug scare and one on the role of technology in the 2000 presidential election.

The archivists at the Kroch Library could not tell me if anyone had ever come to use the collection, although they supposed that it would likely be for a very specialized project.

So my journey had reached an end, and Lewenstein had all the answers. Verdict: not guilty.

Archived article by Brian Kaviar