For the first time in O.J. Simpson’s long life, something involving the former football star seems destined to proceed smoothly and without controversy Thursday when the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners meets to consider his fate.
Simpson is eligible for parole after serving the mandatory nine years of a 33-year sentence for armed robbery, and the largely administrative hearing is expected to draw ESPN, Fox, NBC, CNN and other outlets for live coverage in Carson City. Although the media crush will be considerably smaller, some faces will be familiar to those who remember his 1995 trial and acquittal for two murders or saw the recent documentary and miniseries on the trial of the century. Chris Darden, one of the prosecutors during that trial, will provide analysis for NBC, and Mark Fuhrman, the former police officer whose testimony about racist statements was discredited during the trial, will be on the air for Fox.
During the proceeding, four state commissioners will question Prisoner No. 1027820, who will be about 100 miles away in Lovelock Correctional Center, via video conference. Neither of the victims of the crimes for which Simpson was convicted in 2008 nor prosecutors are expected to oppose his parole. “He’s been a model inmate,” his former lawyer, Yale Galanter, told the New York Daily News. “He’s had no write-ups, no disciplinary issues. By all accounts, he’s totally abided by the rules.”
The hearing is largely procedural, and the parole board, in an effort to limit the circus, plans to take the unusual step of issuing its ruling quickly Thursday. Ordinarily, it can take weeks for a decision. “The media interest in this one case is a disruption to our operation,’’ it said in a statement. “A decision is being made at the time of the hearing so that the board’s operation can return to normal as soon as possible after the hearing.’’
Simpson — who could be freed by October — turned 70 this month and since his imprisonment, his public sightings have been limited to courtroom appearances. The most recent, in 2013, was jarring, showing a bloated, overweight man in blue prison garb, a former athlete and actor who surprised us by aging while we weren’t looking.
Thursday, cameras will show a man who reportedly is about 70 pounds lighter and more fit than he was during that 2013 hearing. “He’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen him,’’ Tom Scotto, a longtime friend, told USA Today. “He lost a ton of weight. He looks like he’s 50. He just turned 70 and he doesn’t look anywhere near 70.”
In prison, Simpson coached football and played a little softball, guards — many of whom called him “Nordberg” the name of the cop he played in the “Naked Gun” movies — told CNN. If parole is granted, he’s ready to resume another sport he couldn’t pursue in prison, according to Scotto.
“He says, ‘Tell them we’ll be playing golf again soon,’ ” Scotto said, describing a conversation with the Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Football Hall of Famer for USA Today. “He just says, ‘We’ll be together again, my life will go back to normal.’ He’s very positive. He’s always been positive.”
If only it were that easy.
The world to which Simpson is expected to return has changed. Although the ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America” and American Crime Story’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” brought his trial for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ron Goldman to a new audience, nearly 22 years have passed since his acquittal. His children with Nicole are nearly 29 and 32; his children from his first marriage are 48 and 47. The Juice, who was found liable in a civil trial for their deaths, was imprisoned after being convicted of charges stemming from a 2007 botched operation in which he tried to reclaim memorabilia in Las Vegas. He may dream of the carefree life of a duffer, but acceptance may not come easily for a man whose celebrated murder trial was recounted in two of the most widely viewed TV events in the last 18 months.
Although both television treatments sought to put the trial into the context of the times in Los Angeles, there has never been an easy conclusion about his innocence and 2016 research by The Washington Post found that opinion about whether Simpson had committed murder still breaks down along racial lines, but the divide has narrowed.
Attitudes toward domestic violence perpetrated by athletes has changed, too. Domestic violence by athletes is taken more seriously — and at times punished — by sports leagues such as the NFL. Part of Simpson’s murder trial centered on photos of his bruised ex-wife and her 911 calls to police. But if those attitudes have changed in America, the notion of second chances has not. And Simpson’s would be the ultimate redemption story.
Scotto said his friend will not be poor, although Simpson was ordered to pay $33.5 million to the families of his ex-wife and Goldman and has legal fees of $2 million-$3 million from his 2008 trial. Simpson has a personal pension in which he invested $5 million years ago, a Screen Actors Guild pension from his acting and producing days and an NFL pension, according to Scotto.
“He’ll be okay,” Scotto told USA Today. “He’s not going to be poor. He’ll survive. He’ll be able to get his own place. He just needs to adjust. Ten years is a long time to be away.”
Scotto said Simpson plans to move in with him in Florida before buying a house or to move in with his sister in Sacramento. Either way, golf is on his agenda. The man who became the butt of jokes speculating that he was looking for the killer or killers of Nicole and Goldman on golf courses may find that the 1995 trial remains part of his identity. Scotto recalled that the infamous bloody glove found at the scene — a key piece of evidence that prompted Simpson’s lawyer, Johnny Cochran, to say, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” — remains part of the lore, too.
“I’ll tell you something really funny. You know you wear a glove on the course. And all of his friends, any time he drops the glove, they say, ‘Oops, you did it again.’ “