The world has moved on but Simpson remains an American obsession, writes Errin Haines Whack.

Gone were the tailored suits O.J. Simpson wore as a defendant two decades ago, replaced by prison blues. A contrite Simpson made the case for his rehabilitation.

When the former NFL running back was acquitted of murder on October 3, 1995, Los Angeles was still recovering from 1992 riots, President Bill Clinton was in his first term and the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan was one of the most popular athletes in the world.

Since then, Latinos have become the nation's largest minority group and the country has elected its first black president (twice) and a white billionaire who critics say played on racial anxieties among working-class whites to win the White House.

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In a few months, Simpson will again walk out of prison a free man. A four-person panel yesterday granted his release about nine years into his sentence of nine to 33 years for a Las Vegas robbery. Simpson, who claimed he had been trying to recover his stolen property in the robbery, could be free by October 1.

In some ways, yesterday's 75-minute hearing mirrored Simpson's 1995 trial, but it also marked a shift from the nation's emotional investment in the fate of the NFL Hall of Famer, a former movie star and cultural icon.

For one, the stakes for Simpson - and society - were much lower, Columbia University journalism professor Jelani Cobb said.

"He has remained a kind of radioactive figure in American life, precisely because of him being associated with the ancient taboo of a black man accused of doing violence to a white woman," Cobb said of Simpson. "It has everything to do with who he was and who Nicole Brown Simpson was in terms of race and celebrity."

Nearly a generation ago, an arrogant and defiant Simpson riveted black and white Americans in one of the country's earliest versions of reality television, the wall-to-wall Trial of the Century, with Simpson accused of murdering his beautiful, blonde wife and another man, Ronald Goldman. His acquittal exposed racial fault lines and served as a commentary on the US criminal justice system.

As Simpson's release hung in the balance yesterday, the spectre of the murder trial hung over his hearing. One parole commissioner displayed hundreds of letters in support and opposition of Simpson's release, noting those opposed referenced the killings as a reason not to let him out of prison. Many saw Simpson's conviction on the robbery charge as payback for the not-guilty verdict two decades earlier.

Every major television network carried Simpson's parole hearing live, a testament to the media's continued obsession with the must-watch former athlete. Simpson's hearing also was a Twitter US trending topic, a phenomenon that didn't exist in 1995.

The president of the NAACP Albuquerque chapter, Harold Bailey, said many blacks in New Mexico watched Simpson's Los Angeles trial with interest because of the issues it sparked around policing and the criminal justice system. However, Bailey said, many felt that when Simpson was later convicted in Nevada and given a harsh sentence it was handed down because "he was O.J". "I think many felt he was being punished because he got off in Los Angeles," Bailey said. "Some still feel that way."

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Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

In contrast to Simpson's 1995 trial, yesterday's hearing featured testimony from his longtime friend who was one of the victims in his 2008 crime. Bruce Fromong, who is white, spoke passionately about Simpson's character and insisted he meant his friend no harm that night.

Yesterday, Simpson still commanded and captivated audiences. In many ways, the stage was already set. Last year, an average of 7.5 million people watched FX's 10-part docu-series The People v. O.J Simpson, and the five-part documentary O.J.: Made in America from ESPN Films was seen by nearly 35 million people.

At times during yesterday's hearing, Simpson was frustrated and incredulous, reminiscent of his attitude during his murder trial. And as the parole commission granted his release, he was again all smiles, expressing his gratitude at the decision.

A member of the Hidatsa and Arikara American Indian tribes in North Dakota, Michael Yellow Bird, said the reappearance of Simpson allows some Native Americans to bring attention to how the criminal justice system affects them.

"Indian County sees disproportionate incarceration rates and Native American men as the most likely to be shot by police," said Yellow Bird, who directs the Indigenous Tribal Studies at North Dakota State University and followed the Simpson trial in 1995.

Simpson's hearing came as national conversations around race and criminal justice - related to mass incarceration and the killings of unarmed black people by police - are again dominating national headlines.

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Yesterday, he was another hashtag.

"I don't think there are people who were very young in 1995 who are invested in what's happening here now," said Cobb, who regularly watched the 1995 trial but skipped yesterday's hearing. "This is very much an element of 1990s American popular culture, and our interest may be back there, too."

- AP