O.J. is back. Who cares?

He’s heavier, older and grayer these days. Yet O.J. Simpson seems small.  Even back in 1995, when he retained a hint of the athlete he had been, Simpson never quite rose to the “Trial of the Century!” headline or to all the others – from slow-mo white Broncos to ill-fitting gloves – that screamed his story.

After more than four years in prison, O.J. Simpson returned to a Las Vegas courtroom this week to protest his conviction on armed robbery and kidnapping charges for trying to reclaim items stolen from him and set to be sold as sports memorabilia. That’s his story, anyway. He blames bad counsel and wants a new trial.

The audience  was much smaller than in 1995 and the pandemonium nonexistent. It’s difficult to imagine the scene then, when Simpson was tried and acquitted on charges that he murdered his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

It wasn’t just about him. After all, the 1990s were many years away from his time as a toned football star. He had settled into life as pitchman and mediocre actor most known as comic sideshow in the “Naked Gun” film franchise. But the timing was perfect for him to rise in the public eye, the central figure in an awful murder case. The trial made tabloid history, was dissected and argued over, because it contained all of the most fascinating elements – race, wealth, celebrity and sex.

It wasn’t the first time a rich defendant with well-paid lawyers had won a “not guilty” verdict after being tried for murder. In Texas, criminal defense attorney Richard “Racehorse” Haynes built a fortune and reputation with his courtroom tactics in that sub-specialty. But Simpson was a rich black man, who leapt over NFL defenders and airport obstacles in Hertz commercials, and came crashing down.

That the trial was seen through the prism of race was not quite right even then. Cheers from some quarters after the verdict were not for O.J. but for defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, known before and after for representing aggrieved clients in police brutality and civil rights cases.

But a deluded Simpson must have mistaken getting off by the skin of his teeth with approval. Having escaped jail once, he returned to Florida, where any smart ex-footballer would have stayed, playing golf and signing autographs for anyone confusing notoriety with fame. Instead, Simpson took the entitlement he still thought clung to him to Las Vegas, a garish setting for a final fall.

The world moved on with other tabloid trials and scandals that followed like clockwork. Many catching a glimpse of Simpson this week might have wondered who that shackled 65-year-old was. According to the reports, O.J. Simpson enjoyed his time testifying on the stand – again the center of attention. It was clear he had been following every story that mentioned his name.

Did he know that, in 2013, he’s irrelevant?

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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Melinda Henneberger · May 16, 2013