By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 4 -- Thirteen years to the day after a Los Angeles jury found O.J. Simpson not guilty in the murders of his former wife and her friend, he rose from his chair in a Las Vegas courtroom late Friday to hear jurors declare him guilty of 12 felonies, including kidnapping and armed robbery.
He faces two years to life in prison when he is sentenced next month.
Simpson bit his lip and bobbed his head resignedly as the verdicts were announced an hour before midnight at the Clark County courthouse in Nevada. The jury took 13 hours to decide that he and co-defendant Clarence "C.J." Stewart, along with four men who had previously pleaded guilty, held a pair of memorabilia dealers at gunpoint last September in a hotel room filled with mementos from Simpson's football career and murder trial.
Bailiffs led a wincing Simpson out of the courtroom in handcuffs after District Judge Jackie Glass denied bail pending his sentencing.
"He's extremely upset, extremely emotional, but it is something that was expected," Simpson's longtime attorney Yale Galanter told reporters outside the downtown Las Vegas courthouse. "I wasn't surprised."
The three-week trial rose directly from the nimbus of notoriety, distrust and shabby opportunism that enveloped the onetime football great after his 1995 trial, and it showcased the gallery of rogues who ran with Simpson. But the prosecution case was cemented by the audiotapes secretly recorded by several of the accused in the hope of making a buck. The strongest evidence was a 26-minute tape made the night after the incident, by the man who testified he brandished a .45-caliber pistol in a room at the Palace Station Hotel and Casino at Simpson's specific request.
"I kept that thing in my pocket till we got inside that room," Michael McClinton says on the tape, after Simpson has asked whether he pulled "the piece" in the hotel hallway, where security cameras were mounted.
"There ain't nothing on that video, ain't nothing he can see," Simpson says, sounding relieved. "It's a tabloid story."
Jean Rosenbluth, a law professor at the University of Southern California, called the recording "pretty solidly inculpatory. Everything else, there was probably a layer of ambiguity to it."
Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor, expressed surprise at the speed of the verdict. "I thought this was a difficult case that I thought was probably won not by the quality of the evidence but by the quantity of it," she said. "There were a lot of different tapes. There was a lot of testimony from the co-conspirators."
Though the jury included no African Americans, the Las Vegas trial carried little of the racial freight of 1995's "trial of the century," the murder trial of Simpson for the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. With its reliance on circumstantial evidence, collected by a Los Angeles Police Department viewed with suspicion by many African Americans, those proceedings were cast by Simpson's defense team as a referendum on the treatment of black men by the U.S. judicial system. After the jury -- made up of nine African Americans, two whites and one Hispanic -- delivered its verdict, one juror saluted Simpson with a raised fist.
Two years later, a civil court, facing a lesser standard of proof, found Simpson responsible for the deaths and awarded damages of $33.5 million to the Goldman and Brown families. But the families received very little money, in part because Simpson's $300,000 annual pension from the National Football League was legally out of reach.
Another reason, prosecutors in Las Vegas pointed out, was that Simpson no longer had possession of the souvenir footballs, photographs and other memorabilia for which collectors pay large sums. After the civil judgment, the Hall of Famer gave much of his personal collection to his former agent for safekeeping. After the two had a falling-out, Simpson became incensed that the agent began selling the items on his own.
Simpson's anger was audible in Room 1203 of the Palace Station, where he was brought by Thomas Riccio, a memorabilia entrepreneur.
Riccio said he wanted Simpson to sign copies of "If I Did It," a book in which Simpson "imagines" the June 12, 1994, killings. Simpson agreed to autograph 200 only after Riccio told him that two other memorabilia dealers would be there with footballs, photographs and clothes that Simpson wore during the murder trial.
Also in the room was a digital audio recorder, which Riccio hid on a dresser. It was running when Simpson swept in with five other heavyset, middle-age men, two of them armed. Four testified for the prosecution after plea agreements. One, a furniture mover named Charles Cashmore, made a book deal. Riccio sold the tape of the confrontation to a gossip site for $150,000 and titled his own book, "Busted: The Inside Story of the World of Sports Memorabilia, O.J. Simpson and the Vegas Arrests."
Simpson autographed it, Riccio told reporters outside the courtroom: "Tom -- don't squeeze the Juice."
In the abject cravenness of it all, Simpson's attorneys found a defense.
"This case has taken on a life of its own because of Mr. Simpson's involvement," Galanter told the jury in closing arguments Thursday. "You know that. I know that.
"Every cooperator, every person who had a gun, every person who had an ulterior motive, every person who signed a book deal, every person who got paid money, the police, the district attorney's office, is only interested in one thing: Mr. Simpson."
Simpson's attorneys also argued that the court proceedings could not escape the widespread belief that Simpson got away with murder in the 1995 trial.
Half of the pool of 500 potential jurors was eliminated for expressing a belief that he should have been convicted. Riccio's RadioShack recorder, which was still running after police arrived, captured investigators joking about Simpson finally getting his comeuppance. Galanter played the exchange in his closing argument:
"You're just picking on him because you are mad about the verdict," one investigator said.
"Yep," another said.
Prosecutors acknowledged the unsavory flavor of the case and of almost every witness. But in his own closing argument, Clark County District Attorney David Roger emphasized that, at bottom, the essential elements of the crimes were unusually clear.
"When they went into that room and forced the victims to the far side of the room, pulling out guns and yelling, 'Don't let anybody out of here!' -- six very large people detaining these two victims in the room with the intent to take property through force or violence from them -- that's kidnapping," Roger said.
Rosenbluth, the law professor, noted: "The whole undertaking was sleazy. When you think someone's taking your stuff, you don't take guns and try to get it back. You sue them. That's the American way."