Almost from the day she and O.J. met in 1977, friends had cautioned Nicole about his rough treatment.
She was 18, three weeks out of high school and working as a cocktail waitress at the Daisy, a Beverly Hills restaurant. He was 29, a married father of two, with a three-year $2.5 million contract as the star running back for the Buffalo Bills.
After their first date, according to Sheila Weller, author of Raging Heart, a chronicle of the Simpsons' marriage that was written with the cooperation of the Brown family, Nicole arrived at the apartment she shared with a platonic friend, David LeBon with the zipper of her jeans ripped open and the button torn off. Alarmed, LeBon asked what happened. O.J., Nicole said, had ripped her pants in his impatience to make love. "No, wait David," said Nicole, as LeBon angrily paced their apartment. "I like him."
The mistreatment escalated during their first year together. One day Nicole found a strange earring in her bed. According to a journal chronicling abuse that she gave to her divorce lawyer, when she accused O.J. of being unfaithful, he threw her against the walls of their apartment, then tossed all her clothes out the window.
"I knew about that incident," says a friend of Nicole's "That type of thing happened a number of times." Still, the friend wasn't concerned for Nicole's well-being; like others, she simply couldn't imagine the smooth-talking, gracious sports hero beating up a woman.
According to abuse expert Joan Farr (director of Metro-Dade Family and Victim Services in Miami), upscale batterers often take refuge behind their public image. "People see the image, and they don't think that these people have a mean, ugly, abusive side."
Simpson, says Nicole's friend, "had a great sense of humor and wonderful charm. It was easy to think, 'Oh, pffff, he can't be doing her any harm.'"
Today the Brown family believes that O.J. not only beat Nicole, he murdered her. But in the weeks just after O.J.'s arrest, they contended that Nicole was not a battered woman.
Richard Gelles, director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island, attributes this apparent blind spot to what he calls "the Burning Bed phenomenon" - named for a 1984 TV movie about a battered wife. "To be recognized as a battered woman at risk," he says, "you have to look the way Farrah Fawcett looked in that movie. You have to be covered with black-and-blue marks and be ferociously beaten. Nicole's family and friends very seldom - and most of them never - saw strong physical evidence, as she apparently hid it very well with makeup."
Her extraordinary physical presence may, in a tragic paradox, have been among Nicole's fatal weaknesses.
"She was very tough, very powerful," says her friend Candace Garvey, wife of former baseball star Steve Garvey. "When she walked into a room, every head would turn."
One neighbor recalls a scorching day when Nicole was wearing a heavy shawl. "The shawl slipped, and I saw faint bruises on her right arm," he says. "She said she'd been knocking around with the kids and things got a little rough." The neighbor was aware of O.J.'s jealous rages, but he immediately dismissed the notion of physical abuse. "She was a ballsy woman." he says. "You couldn't imagine that she's take that stuff."
But in September 1986, Nicole came to the attention of someone who could - and did - recognize signs of possible abuse. Nicole later wrote in her diary that after she and O.J. returned home from an evening with friends, "[O.J.] beat me up so bad... [he] tore my blue sweater and blue slacks completely off me."
Nicole's head was so badly bruised that O.J. drove her to a local hospital, where she told the physician treating her - Dr Martin Alpert - that she had had a bicycle accident.
As he told investigators, Dr. Alpert did not believe Nicole's explanation. It is not known whether he reported his suspicions; only in 1993 did it become a misdemeanor under California law to fail to report domestic abuse.
What is clear is that the state judicial system failed to protect Nicole.
At around 4 a.m. on January 1 1989, John Edwards and another police officer responded to a 911 call: "At 360 North Rockingham, woman being beaten." As Edwards recounted in his police reports and his gripping court testimony, when he arrived at the Simpsons' home, an hysterical Nicole ran to him screaming, "He's going to kill me!"
Her lip cut, her cheeks swollen, her eye blackened, "she clung onto me," Edwards continued. "She was beat up." Nicole yelled to the police, "You guys never do anything about him."
Emerging from his house in his bathrobe, O.J. spewed obscenities at the officers, and when they told him they were taking him to the police station, he shouted, "You've been out here eight times before, and you're going to arrest me for this?"
O.J. was charged with assault, but he suffered few consequences. Former police officer Ron Shipp, who'd received special training in domestic violence, testified at the trial that Nicole had called him a few days after the incident and asked him to talk to O.J. about his violent behavior. Though Shipp told Simpson that he fit the police profile of a batterer, he also listened to the pleas of his idol to help squelch the case and spoke to a police supervisor on O.J.'s behalf.
It's unlikely that Shipp wielded much influence, but the L.A. courts did seem loath to prosecute. O.J. pleaded no contest to the spousal abuse charge. Municipal court Judge Ronald R. Schoenberg did not impose a stiff punishment. Simpson was ordered to pay $470 in fines and penalty and $500 to a shelter for battered women.
Directed to receive domestic violence counseling, Simpson was allowed to choose his own therapist, and in September, when he moved to New York City to work for NBC as a football commentator, the judge permitted O.J. to continue his sessions by phone. Deputy city attorney Alana Bowman said that out of the 20,000 domestic violence cases her office handles each year, O.J. was the only defendant allowed to undergo counseling by phone.
Though Nicole repeatedly called the police for help, no other records of O.J.'s assaulting her have surfaced. There is speculation that O.J. talked the police out of filing such reports...
It would seem that after the 1989 incident, the Brown family finally had the evidence they needed to prevail upon Nicole to get out of the marriage. Denise had, at Nicole's request, taken a photograph of her bruised face, which Nicole locked away in her safe-deposit box.
Meanwhile, both O.J. and Nicole told the Browns how deeply they loved each other and that they were determined to work things out. The violence they both swore, was finished. In fact the beatings had not been a constant in their relationship. "It's hard to believe," says a friend, "but it wasn't the norm. There was a lot of good. There was a lot of fun."
The violence was real but sporadic. "There is a great myth," says domestic violence authority Gelles, "that abusive husbands are abusive 24 hours a day, 52 weeks a year. They are not."
Facing the Rage for People Magazine (February 20 1995)