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A 14-year-old girl has made history by becoming the first African American to win the 96-year-old US Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Zaila Avant-garde, a sporting prodigy with several Guinness World Records to her name for dribbling multiple basketballs at a time, won the event by correctly spelling Murraya – a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees.

The confident teenager from New Orleans appeared relaxed, peppering pronouncer Jacques Bailly with questions about Greek and Latin roots, and bantering with the judges and moderators before jumping and twirling for joy on stage as she was told she was right and was declared the champion to claim the $50,000 (£36,308) top prize.

Zaila Avant-garde
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Zaila routinely practiced spelling for seven hours a day

“I was pretty relaxed on the subject of Murraya and pretty much any other word I got,” she said afterwards.

It wasn’t all plain-sailing, though. She had struggled with another botanical word.

Pausing at the unstressed sound in the middle of Nepeta, a word for another plant genus, she collected herself, started again, and nailed it.

Zaila, who hopes to one day play in the WNBA or even coach in the NBA, described spelling as a side hobby, even though she routinely practiced for seven hours a day.

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She is the first black contestant to win since Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998, also the only international winner.

Zaila Avant-garde
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Zaila won the event by correctly spelling Murraya – a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees

Ahead of the final, she told the Associated Press that she hoped to inspire other African Americans, who she said might not have the money to pay for the tutorials needed to be competitive.

She even thought of MacNolia Cox, who in 1936 became the first black finalist at the bee and wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the contestants.

Zaila Avant-garde
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Zaila jumped up and down on stage after winning the competition

Many top Scripps spellers start competing when they are of nursery age. Zaila only started a few years ago, after her father, Jawara Spacetime, watched the competition on TV and realised his daughter’s affinity for doing complicated maths in her head could translate well to spelling.

She began working with a private coach, Cole Shafer-Ray, a 20-year-old Yale student and the 2015 Scripps runner-up.

Zaila Avant-garde
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The 14-year-old only started competing in spelling competitions a few years ago

He said: “Usually to be as good as Zaila, you have to be well-connected in the spelling community. You have to have been doing it for many years. It was like a mystery, like, ‘Is this person even real?’

“She really just had a much different approach than any speller I’ve ever seen. She basically knew the definition of every word that we did, like pretty much verbatim. She knew, not just the word but the story behind the word, why every letter had to be that letter and couldn’t be anything else.”

Zaila Avant-garde
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Zaila is the first black contestant to win the event since Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998

Zaila’s win also breaks a streak of at least one Indian-American champion every year since 2008, with children of South Asian descent dominating the competition.

Chaitra Thummala, 12, of San Francisco, came in second after misspelling neroli oil, but still took home $25,000 (£18,156).

Bhavana Madini, 13, of New York finished third with the $15,000 (£10,893) prize, after being eliminated while trying to spell athanor – a type of furnace.

The competition finals returned before a live audience at the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando after being cancelled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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OJ Simpson murder trial: How the dramatic court case unfolded

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OJ Simpson murder trial: How the dramatic court case unfolded

Former American footballer and actor OJ Simpson, who has died of cancer, will be remembered most for his role at the centre of the “trial of the century”.

Accused of double murder, his case captured the attention of the US until it came to a dramatic end in late 1995.

Here’s a look back at how that trial unfolded.

12 June 1994

Simpson‘s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson was found dead in front of her home in Los Angeles with her friend Ronald Goldman, who was a waiter at a restaurant where she had just dined.

The pair had been stabbed to death outside her home in the neighbourhood of Brentwood.

Read more:
OJ Simpson has died at the age of 76, his family says

OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown
Pic:MediaPunch/AP
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OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown. Pic:MediaPunch/AP

17 June 1994

After the bodies were found, suspicion quickly fell on Simpson, who had been married to Nicole for seven years until their divorce became final on 15 October 1992, little more than 18 months before her death.

Simpson had been ordered by prosecutors to surrender, but on this day, carrying a passport and a disguise, he instead fled, with friend and former team-mate Al Cowlings in a white Ford Bronco.

A white Ford Bronco, driven by Al Cowlings and carrying OJ Simpson, being trailed by Los Angeles police on 17 June , 1994. Pic: AP
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OJ Simpson trailed by Los Angeles police on 17 June 1994. Pic: AP

The vehicle was soon spotted on a California freeway and pursued by police in a car chase that was televised live across the country and watched by an estimated 95 million viewers.

Cowlings, in a phone call to police, said Simpson was lying in the back seat of the car holding a gun to his own head. After eventually driving to his Brentwood home he was persuaded to surrender.

Sky News’ Steve Bennedik recalls how Simpson’s trial was covered

It was the first few weeks of 1995 when Sky News’ live coverage of the OJ Simpson court case got under way. Each evening we showed the trial and invited questions. In those days, the main form of correspondence was by letter.

But there was also a new electronic method emerging, called email. And the first of these had the simple, but deflating, sentence: “Which one is OJ?”

We asked ourselves: Is our audience ready to follow the story of a very American tragedy unfold on British TV? We decided to stick with it.

In contrast, OJ Simpson was a household name in the US. So much more than an ex-football star. But the shock of this icon being arrested for murder, the bizarre Bronco highway chase, the high-profile celebrity defence team, and ultimately the “did he do it?” question had universal attraction.

Although the case stuttered through until October, the weak Judge Lance Ito was obsequious to lawyers’ demands for delays, but the interest among Sky News viewers surged and remained undimmed.

As the court camera panned to the state of California seal, signalling another adjournment, we and no doubt the viewer sighed.

More behind-the-scenes legal wrangling, but we had an ace up our sleeve – Professor Gary Solis. Gary is a Vietnam veteran, former military judge advocate, with alma maters including George Washington University and the London School of Economics.

At the time, he was in London and ready to give up his evenings. He calmly steered our presenters, Laurie and Vivien, and our often puzzled viewers through the complexities of the Californian legal system and became a firm favourite with the newsroom and the public alike.

The court characters emerged. Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden for the prosecution, and the “Dream Team” defence – Jonnie Cochran, F Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowitz and Robert Kardashian, whose children would go on to outshine his fame.

It was compelling court drama, but it was also the very tragic story of two young people who’d been savagely attacked and murdered, with their families devastated by the loss, and tormented by the lingering back and forth court battle.

The proceedings had lasted months, but the jury reached their verdict in just a few hours and when they returned to the courtroom to deliver it, an early evening audience in the UK was hanging on every moment. And then it was over. OJ was a free man.

The People of the State of California v Orenthal James Simpson faded as a memory, flickering back to life with the news of his death.

24 January 1995

The murder trial, dubbed the “trial of the century” by the media, began.

Prosecutors argued OJ Simpson had killed Nicole and Ron in a jealous rage, and they presented extensive blood, hair and fibre tests linking him to the murders.

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The defence countered that the celebrity defendant was framed by racist white police.

15 June 1995

Perhaps the defining moment of the trial came on a Thursday in June, when the prosecution committed what a defence lawyer would later describe as the “greatest legal blunder of the 20th century”.

OJ Simpson grasps a marker while wearing the leather gloves prosecutors say he wore the night his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered.
Pic: Reuters
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OJ Simpson grasps a marker while wearing the leather gloves prosecutors say he wore on the night of the murder. Pic: Reuters

On this day, a prosecutor asked him to put on a pair of gloves believed to have been worn by the killer.

The gloves appeared to be too small, as OJ Simpson struggled to put on the gloves in a highly theatrical demonstration and indicated to the jury they did not fit.

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This led defence lawyer Johnnie Cochran to famously state in his closing argument: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

3 October 1995

The trial came to an end with two words – not guilty.

Read more:
OJ Simpson a ‘completely free man’ after being released from parole

OJ Simpson, who maintained from the outset he was “absolutely 100% not guilty”, waved at the jurors and mouthed the words “thank you”.

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OJ Simpson dies – the story of his complex legacy

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OJ Simpson dies - the story of his complex legacy

The death of arguably one of America’s most-talked about names in the 1990s has re-ignited conversations about who OJ Simpson was and how he will be remembered.

The former NFL star was tried and acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. He later spent time in jail for armed robbery and kidnap.

On the Daily, Niall Paterson talks to our US correspondent James Matthews as they discuss his life and the controversies surrounding the 76-year-old, who died on Wednesday following his battle with cancer.

👉 Listen above then tap here to follow the Sky News Daily wherever you get your podcasts 👈

Producers: Emma Rae Woodhouse, Rosie Gillott, Soila Apparicio
Senior producer: Annie Joyce
Editors: Paul Stanworth, Wendy Parker

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OJ Simpson death: Lawyers for families of victims still believe he was ‘a murderer’

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OJ Simpson death: Lawyers for families of victims still believe he was 'a murderer'

Lawyers for the families of OJ Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman have told Sky News they still believe he was “a murderer”.

The former NFL star and Hollywood actor died aged 76 of cancer on Wednesday.

Nicknamed “The Juice”, Simpson was tried for their double murder in 1995, in what was dubbed the “trial of the century”.

OJ Simpson is shown in his official Los Angeles Police Department booking photo following his arrest for two murders
Pic: Reuters
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LA police department booking photo of OJ Simpson following his arrest for two murders. Pic: Reuters

He was found not guilty of murdering Ms Brown and Mr Goldman, but was later found liable for the deaths in a civil lawsuit.

It is claimed Simpson still owed $114m (£91m) to Mr Goldman’s family, and that they are considering how to claim it back over assets.

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How OJ Simpson’s trial unfolded

Speaking to Sky News, the Goldman family’s lawyer David Cook said: “I review and consider Simpson as what he was: that he was a bad person; he was a murderer; he got out of the acquittal here.

“He remains now and in his death as the day that he committed the crime in whatever the amount of years ago.

“He’s still the same person. And the fact that he died doesn’t change it.”

Nicole Brown Simpson is seen in this photograph that was shown to the jurors in the OJ Simpson trial February 6. Nicole's sister Denise-Brown testified that she took these picture to document injuries at the hands OJ Simpson.
Pic: Reuters
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Nicole Brown seen in a photograph – shown to jurors in the trial – documenting injuries allegedly from OJ Simpson. Pic: Reuters

Gloria Allred, the lawyer for Ms Brown’s family, also told Sky News that “he killed her” and pointed to Simpson pleading no contest to spousal abuse in 1989.

“What happened five years before he killed Nicole? He gave her that black eye, she ran out of the house,” the lawyer said. “She was terrified. She hid in the bushes. The police came.

“He was arrested, charged with spousal battery and what were the consequences of that case? He admitted it.

OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson in 1993.
Pic: AP
Image:
OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson
Pic: AP

“In other words, he pled no contest to a spousal battery, but he never was sent to jail. In fact, it’s really questionable as to whether he did anything that the judge required him to do, even out of jail, community service, for example.”

Ronald Goldman
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Ronald Goldman was stabbed to death at Nicole Brown Simpson’s Los Angeles home on 12 June 1994. Pic: Reuters

Ms Allred added that “it’s only going to get worse for the victim” if no action is taken against perpetrators of domestic violence and said: “That’s what happened. He killed her.”

‘No great loss’

Mr Goldman’s father Fred Goldman told Sky News’ partner network NBC News earlier on Thursday that Simpson’s death was “no great loss”.

“The only thing I have to say is it’s just a further reminder of Ron being gone all these years,” he said.

“It’s no great loss to the world. It’s a further reminder of Ron being gone.”

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In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Keith Zlomsowitch, Ms Brown’s ex-boyfriend who served as a pallbearer at her funeral, said Simpson’s death was a “relief”.

Read more:
OJ Simpson: The case that gripped the US

How the dramatic Simpson court case unfolded

He said: “I think finally some sort of justice has been served, that he’s been taken from the earth.

“So it doesn’t bring Nicole back. But it means he can no longer be who he is in this world.”

‘Good riddance’

Simpson’s team of lawyers also included his friend Robert Kardashian, the late husband of reality TV star Kris Jenner.

Caitlyn Jenner, who was previously married to Ms Jenner, tweeted just two words in response to the news of Simpson’s death: “Good Riddance.”

The former Olympian and media personality wrote in her autobiography The Secrets Of My Life that Simpson “was the most narcissistic, egocentric, neediest asshole in the world of sports I had ever seen, and I had seen a lot of them”.

Simpson was acquitted after the 1995 criminal trial watched by millions worldwide, where Simpson famously tried on a pair of blood-stained gloves allegedly found at the scene of the crime.

The gloves appeared to be too small, leading defence attorney Johnnie Cochran to say: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Alan Dershowitz, another of Simpson’s former lawyers, told Sky News earlier that the defence was “a nightmare team” and that he did not want the former sports star to take the stand.

“Ultimately it was the glove” that made Simpson refuse to take the stand at his trial, Mr Dershowitz said.

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“When he was able to go in front of the jury and show them that the glove didn’t fit, that led him to conclude, and he made the decision, not to take the stand.

“In the civil case, he took the stand and was immediately found liable.”

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