Last month, before voting to release O.J. Simpson from prison after nine years, the Nevada parole board discussed in detail the robbery that put him behind bars and his conduct as an inmate. But one piece of Mr. Simpson’s record escaped the notice of the board, the news media, and most of the millions of people watching on television and online.
During the hearing on July 20, members of the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners said that before his 2008 conviction for the robbery in a hotel in Las Vegas, Mr. Simpson had no history of a criminal conviction. That was incorrect.Sign up for the Morning Briefing Newsletter.
As the world knows, Mr. Simpson was acquitted in 1995 of the murders of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, in the most-watched trial in American history. But in 1989, he pleaded no contest in Los Angeles to misdemeanor battery of Ms. Simpson, who was then his wife.
The Nevada parole board did not have that information, officials with that agency said this week, so the 1989 conviction was not considered when a four-member panel voted unanimously to release him in October.When states weigh the risk posed by an inmate, they routinely look through their own records, and also check with the National Crime Information Center, a set of enormous databases of records run by the F.B.I. Mr. Simpson’s 1989 conviction “did not appear in the N.C.I.C. history” when Nevada officials prepared a pre-sentencing report after his 2008 conviction, said David M. Smith, hearings examiner for the parole board.
He said the parole commissioners relied in part on the information in that 2008 report in assessing whether Mr. Simpson should be released. Mr. Smith’s response came in a written statement in response to questions from The New York Times, which began inquiring about Mr. Simpson’s record after a reader noted the 1989 case.
To see if it had made an error, the parole board checked the N.C.I.C. again after the inquiry by The Times. “This most recent report also makes no mention of the 1989 California court record,” Mr. Smith said.The parole commissioners declined to be interviewed. Mr. Smith said it was impossible to tell whether knowledge of the misdemeanor conviction would have influenced their decision on Mr. Simpson, who is 70, and who has had no disciplinary record from his time in prison. The decision is not subject to review unless Mr. Simpson violates the terms of his release.
Though a jury in Los Angeles found Mr. Simpson not guilty of killing Mr. Goldman and Ms. Simpson, a civil jury later found him responsible for their deaths. The killings have cast an inescapable shadow over every aspect of his life since then. Because he was acquitted of the murders, the Nevada parole board legally could not take that case into account in making its decision.
It is not clear why the 1989 case failed to turn up in the federal system, and California court officials said they did not have an explanation. But the omission highlights a frequent problem: There are major gaps in the databases, which rely primarily on accurate and complete reporting by local and state agencies.
The Justice Department has reported, for example, that states fail to transmit most of their active arrest warrants from their own databases into the federal system and often neglect to update records to show whether cases resulted in convictions. Some states still rely on paper files, making it likelier that they will not end up in the federal electronic records database, and that is even more of a problem with older records.Gaps in the federal databases have often been noted in the context of background checks for gun purchasers, whose names are checked against those files, but far less attention has gone to the effect they have on other aspects of law enforcement, like sentencing and parole.
The F.B.I. said it could not comment on a specific case or the practices of individual agencies, but noted in a statement that participation “from our state and local partners is voluntary, not compulsory.”
Nevada officials noted that misdemeanor cases were sometimes expunged from the record years later, for defendants who stay out of trouble, and that records could be sealed by court order.
But the 1989 case appears, unsealed, in California’s database, where The Times was able to find it, and a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County courts confirmed that the conviction was never expunged, remaining a part of Mr. Simpson’s record. Under California law, a no-contest plea is a conviction.
Mr. Simpson’s lawyer at the parole hearing, Malcolm P. LaVergne, said he was aware of the earlier case, but did not know why California would not have submitted it to the federal database.
“I’m not a California lawyer,” he said. “There are questions here I can’t answer for you.”In 2007, Mr. Simpson and a group of other men, two of them carrying guns, went to the Las Vegas hotel room of a sports memorabilia dealer and took hundreds of items from him. Mr. Simpson said he was merely reclaiming property that had been stolen from him, but he was convicted in 2008 of robbery, kidnapping and other charges.
A judge sentenced him to nine to 33 years in prison but did not take the 1989 conviction into account because it was not in the pre-sentencing report. Mr. Simpson became eligible for parole for the first time this year.
At his parole hearing, Mr. Simpson said, “I basically have spent a conflict-free life” and “I’ve always been a guy that got along with everybody,” though Ms. Simpson and others had said he beat her multiple times.
The 1989 case was reported by news media at the time and received a fresh round of attention after Mr. Simpson became a suspect in the murders.
In that case, prosecutors charged that early on New Year’s Day, at the Simpson home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, Mr. Simpson punched, kicked and slapped his wife while yelling “I’ll kill you.” He first denied the accusations, but a few months later, he pleaded no contest to one count of spousal battery.The charge carried a maximum sentence of a year in jail, but a judge opted not to incarcerate Mr. Simpson, instead, he ordered him to perform community service and receive counseling.