LAS VEGAS — Like a recurring nightmare, the return of O.J. Simpson to a Las Vegas courtroom on Monday will remind Americans of a tragedy that became a national obsession and in the process changed the country’s attitude toward the justice system, the news media and celebrity.
His 1995 trial is the stuff of legend, the precipitous fall of a Hall of Fame football player from the pinnacle of adoration to a murder defendant who, although acquitted of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, was never absolved in the public mind.
But less is remembered about the 2008 Las Vegas trial that sent Simpson to prison for a bizarre hotel room robbery, in which the celebrity defendant said he just wanted to take back personal memorabilia that he claimed was stolen from him.
When he comes to court Monday, it is that conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping that will be before a Nevada judge. Simpson is seeking freedom in what lawyers often call a “Hail Mary motion,” a writ of habeas corpus. It claims he had such bad representation that his conviction should be reversed and a new trial ordered. Most defendants lose these motions, but nobody is taking bets on the outcome of this case.
“Nothing is the same when O.J. is involved,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, who observed Simpson’s Los Angeles trial. “An O.J. case is never like any other case.”
Now 65, Simpson has already spent the past four years in prison and must serve at least nine years of his maximum 33-year sentence before he is even eligible for parole. He would be 70 by then. If Simpson does not win a new trial, he could conceivably spend the rest of his life locked up.
Close friend Jim Barnett describes Simpson as grayer, paunchier and limping a little more these days from old knee injuries. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist has visited Simpson several times at the medium-security Lovelock Correctional Center, an hour northeast of Reno.
Simpson, Barnett said, is a favorite among inmates. He has served as prison gym steward and coached a champion prison baseball team. “He gets along with everyone there,” he said. “But he’s slow. Last time I saw him, he had gotten quite heavy.”
Those who try to explain the hotel room heist come back to one word — hubris. Simpson boasted about his continuing celebrity status. He was delighted that people still wanted his autograph and wanted to hang out with him at the pool of the Palms hotel in Las Vegas.
He had come to Las Vegas in September 2007 for a happy event. His old friend, Tom Scotto, was getting married and invited Simpson to be his best man. Scotto still sounds anguished when he recalls the weekend.
“If it wasn’t for me,” Scotto said in an interview, “he wouldn’t have been there.”
Simpson, trial testimony would show, organized a posse of five friends and acquaintances to accompany him to a hotel where he was told some men were trying to sell his mementos, including family pictures. It was to be a sting of sorts, in which the memorabilia dealers would think an anonymous buyer was coming.
When Simpson walked into the hotel room, he realized he knew the sellers from previous dealings and he accused them of stealing from him. He shouted that no one was to leave the room — an action that would be judged to fit the legal definition of kidnapping. As Simpson’s associates began bagging up the memorabilia, one of them pulled a gun, according to trial testimony.
No one was injured, but the sellers called the police — and another Simpson case for another century was launched.
It turned out that Tom Riccio, another memorabilia dealer who played middleman between Simpson and the sellers, had planted a tape recorder in the hotel room and the tape, played for jurors, was powerful evidence.
Simpson’s cohorts testified against him, including the man who said he brought a gun. They were an odd assortment of down-on-their-luck Vegas characters who received plea deals and were set free on probation.
Simpson’s co-defendant at his trial, Clarence “C.J.” Stewart, served more than two years in prison before the Nevada Supreme Court overturned his conviction. The justices ruled Simpson’s fame tainted the proceedings and that Stewart should have been tried separately. Stewart took a plea deal to avoid a retrial and was released.
Simpson, meanwhile, was sentenced by Clark County District Court Judge Jackie Glass to nine to 33 years in prison. Referencing the earlier murder trial, the judge said that her penalty was not intended as “retribution or any payback for anything else.” She made no mention of the two Las Vegas police detectives overheard in a taped conversation saying that if California authorities couldn’t “get” Simpson, those in Nevada would. The tape was played at the trial.
On Monday, Simpson will be back before a different judge who agreed to hear evidence on 19 claims of ineffective counsel and attorney conflict of interest. Simpson contends his trial attorney never told him about a plea bargain that had been offered by prosecutors. He also said in a sworn statement that the same attorney knew about the memorabilia sting before it happened, and “he advised me that I was within my legal rights.”
Simpson is expected to testify sometime during the weeklong hearing.