In the end, O.J. Simpson comes up a loser in Vegas
By Linda Deutsch,
In a city where luck means everything, O.J. Simpson came out the big loser — and his unlucky number in a case full of bizarre twists was 13. He was convicted of an armed robbery that happened on Sept. 13 and was found guilty on the 13th anniversary of his Los Angeles murder acquittal. The Las Vegas jury deliberated for 13 hours after a 13-day trial. And then, as only the sobs of Simpson's sister broke the silence late Friday, the lights went out.
Court marshals flipped on flashlights and shouted for everyone to stay seated. Only the judge knew what had happened. It was 11 p.m. and the courthouse lights had shut down automatically. "Timed out," Judge Jackie Glass said in a fitting epitaph for the story of O.J. Simpson, which has long haunted America. The 61-year-old Hall of Fame football star was convicted of kidnapping, armed robbery and 10 other charges for gathering five men a year ago and storming a room at a hotel-casino to seize Simpson sports mementos — including game balls, plaques and photos — from two collectors. Prosecutors said two of the men with him were armed; one said Simpson had asked him to bring a gun.
After the verdict, Simpson, the sports-idol-turned-celebrity-pariah, was handcuffed and led from the room with his co-defendant, Clarence "C.J." Stewart. They could spend the rest of their lives in prison. "There is justice," said attorney Gloria Allred, who has represented the family of his slain ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. "Justice was delayed, but in this case it was not denied. Now that he may spend the rest of his life in prison, the law, and not O.J. Simpson, will have the last word."
Some observers said the Las Vegas case paled in comparison to the "trial of the century" in 1995, a yearlong opus in which Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her friend Ronald Goldman. A rapt nation followed the Los Angeles trial. Tales of a gruesome murder and a bloody glove, as well as the celebrity defendant, drew a media frenzy. In Las Vegas, Simpson's fate played out in a small courtroom dotted with empty seats. Even the stunning verdict came as most of America slept, oblivious to the irony that Simpson might spend the rest of his life in prison for what most perceived as a petty crime, a tussle among dysfunctional middle-aged men.
Simpson's Las Vegas defense tried to tell the jury that the two cases had nothing to do with each other, but it was a losing battle. "I don't know that one trial cancels out the other," said Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson, who attended Simpson's murder trial. "People will always be troubled by O.J. For the people troubled by the Los Angeles acquittal, this case will make small amends. Saying finally there is justice, at least from a legal perspective, is very crude way of looking at justice." She predicted that Stewart, 54, will have a strong chance for reversal on appeal because he was forced to stand trial beside Simpson. "O.J. was toxic, and he has been toxic since 1994, and this jury was just ready to clean up the mess," Levenson said.
Simpson lawyer Yale Galanter said Saturday he felt bad for Simpson but even worse for Stewart, who got dragged along in a campaign to convict Simpson. "This was just payback," he said of the verdict. "They were on an agenda." Galanter and Stewart's lawyers promised to appeal, in part because unlike the predominantly black jury that decided Simpson's murder case, this panel included no African-Americans. Neither Simpson nor Stewart testified. Simpson friend Tom Scotto, who wept in court, called it "a public lynching." "Was this something to put someone in jail for the rest of their life for? It's a total injustice. There was no justice served in that courtroom," Scotto said.
It was Scotto's wedding that had brought Simpson to Las Vegas on that fateful week in 2007, and details of wedding plans, flowers, a cake and parties formed an ironic counterpoint to testimony about Simpson gathering up a posse that included two gun-toting men to confront memorabilia dealers who were peddling Simpson's personal property to the highest bidder. The case was set in motion by Thomas Riccio, a collectibles broker who tried to bring in the FBI when he heard that two memorabilia dealers were planning to sell a trove of Simpson artifacts. Failing to get their attention, he helped set up a "sting" by promoting an anonymous buyer who turned out to be Simpson.
Riccio, who has peddled goods including video of Anna Nicole Smith's breast implant surgery, saw a chance to profit by recording the confrontation between Simpson and collectibles dealers Alfred Beardsley and Bruce Fromong. He rented a cramped hotel room away from the Las Vegas Strip for the meeting and planted a digital recorder atop an armoire. Riccio then sold the recordings of the six-minute confrontation for $210,000 before turning them over to police eight days later. Although they couldn't be authenticated, the recordings became the heart of the prosecution's case, along with audio recorded by gunman Michael McClinton at two wedding parties.
The recordings were sometimes garbled, but Simpson's voice came through loud and clear: "Don't let nobody out of this room." The words formed the basis of the prosecution's kidnapping charge. The former football hero also was heard accusing the men of stealing his possessions. His lawyer would argue that Simpson was on a recovery mission to reclaim the artifacts of his life. But District Attorney David Roger argued that ownership was not a defense to robbery. Kidnapping is punishable by five years to life in prison. Armed robbery carries a sentence of at least two years behind bars and could bring as much as 30.
Simpson and Stewart were taken to the Clark County jail, where the football star will live in a 7-by-14-foot cell, far removed from his ranch-style home in the lush Miami suburbs. It will be his home until at least Dec. 5, when he and Stewart are scheduled to be sentenced. Even before the verdict, Simpson appeared resigned that his luck had run out. He had been prepared for the worst, his lawyer said. And in a conversation with The Associated Press on Thursday, Simpson implied as much, saying, "I'm afraid that I won't get to go to my kids' college graduations after I managed to get them through college." Scotto told reporters Saturday that he had spoken to Simpson by phone. "He's in good spirits," Scotto said. "He's one of the strongest human beings on the planet. He's confident the truth will come out eventually."