OJ faces life and death in prison

O.J. Simpson's 1995 trial for the brutal murder of his ex-wife and her friend captivated America and sparked racial tension. Since his dramatic acquittal he has lived a twilight existence and been pursued at every step by his ex-wife's father. But following his conviction for a bizarre robbery, he could now spend the rest of his life behind bars. Paul Harris reports

By (Guardian)

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Mon 6 Oct 2008, 11:25 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 3:42 PM

IT WAS A scene that many Americans had been waiting exactly 13 years to see. OJ Simpson, the former American football star widely believed to have got away with murder, was found guilty in a court of law, meaning he could spend the rest of his life behind bars.

On the exact anniversary of the day in 1995 in which Simpson was cleared of killing his ex-wife and another man, he was found guilty of robbery and kidnapping in a bizarre Las Vegas crime.

Standing in the courtroom in 'Sin City', Simpson winced briefly but visibly as Judge Jackie Glass denied him bail and ordered him sent to the cells to await his sentencing date. Dressed in a sharp, dark blue suit, he seemed to nod but remained calm. The same could not said of his sister, Carmelita Durio. She broke down in tears and collapsed to the floor of the court. Paramedics treated her as Simpson was led away.

It was a remarkable end to a strange trial that saw Simpson accused of robbing two sports memorabilia salesmen at gunpoint. They were hawking items from Simpson's own life and he claimed he was just getting his stuff back. That was not enough for the jury, who took 13 hours to reach their verdict, which was delivered in dramatic late-night scenes. ìThe verdict was not a shock. We knew it going in. There was a lot of baggage,î said defence lawyer Yale Galanter, who is now planning an appeal.

The word 'baggage' hardly covers it. The shadow of the 1995 verdict, which cleared Simpson of slashing to death Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman, loomed over the trial. Indeed it has cast a dark pall over America for more than a decade. News programmes called in the Trial of the Century and it gave birth to a modern culture of celebrity crime, helped spawn the 24-hour news cycle and, some say, turned justice into show business. It also deeply divided America on racial grounds. A mostly black jury cleared Simpson amid accusations of police racism. Yet at the time many Americans, especially whites, believed Simpson was clearly guilty.

In time, many black Americans came to join them, especially after Simpson wrote a book last year called If I Did It, in which he detailed a gruesome 'theoretical' version of the events of the night of the murder. In the book Simpson describes going to Brown's house, carrying a knife, arguing with her and then being shocked when Goldman appears. He then blacks out and comes to again only to find the two bloodied bodies.

Not surprisingly, that left many Americans with a sense of justice denied. But perhaps not now. For those who believe Simpson has spent years walking free despite being guilty of a double killing, the sight of Simpson trudging off to a Nevada jail will have been a long-awaited prize. Justice may have been delayed, but it was not denied.

The events that led to Simpson's final downfall began in the distinctly ordinary surroundings of Room 1203 of the Palace Station Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on 13 September 2007. Two men, Bruce Fromong and Al Beardsley, had set up shop in the room spreading out their memorabilia from Simpson's distinguished sports career.

The men had been told by a friend, Thomas Riccio, that he would bring a buyer to meet them. But instead Riccio brought Simpson and a gang of other men. At least one them was armed with a gun. They burst into the room, angrily shouting a stream of obscenities. The two salesmen were pushed against a wall and Simpson and his gang gathered up their goods in pillowcases and then marched out of the casino. The two shaken men called the police and gave them the extraordinary news that they had just been robbed by OJ Simpson.

Simpson was arrested a few days later. It seemed an open and shut case. Even in Las Vegas you cannot rob people at gunpoint and then expect to simply walk away. Yet things, as they always seem to have done around Simpson, took a strange twist. A recording of the robbery turned up on celebrity websites. It sounded like a scene from the violent gangster movie Reservoir Dogs as Simpson screamed abuse. It turned out that Riccio, who had encouraged Fromong and Beardsley into Room 1203, had also bugged the room. It was also Riccio who then told Simpson about the men. He then sold the resulting audio tapes, on which Simpson can be clearly heard, for thousands of dollars to a celebrity website.

That fact had many people - not just Simpson's dwindling band of supporters - suspecting that there might have been some sort of set-up. But not the police. Nevada authorities, once they had Simpson in their sights, did not let go. Riccio was not charged with any crime. Then, one by one, the men whom Simpson had led to Room 1203, began to turn against him. All four of Simpson's former co-defendants were 'flipped' by police.

All testified against him and two of them linked him to making threats and, crucially, the use of a gun in the crime. Simpson had denied knowing anyone had brought a weapon to the room. But prosecutors said that was nonsense and Simpson's co-defendants became the prosecution's star witnesses. ìFor Mr. Simpson to claim to people that he did not see any gun is flat-out nonsense. These defendants talked about guns. Mr Simpson asked them to bring guns, and they saw guns in the room,î said prosecutor David Roger.

In the end the jury agreed. They took a long time to reach their verdict but they did eventually reach it. The crime might have been shady and bizarre, but it was still a crime. The 61-year-old Simpson, who has spent his recent years golfing and partying in Florida, could now get a life sentence. That would see him die behind bars. One of Simpson's friends, Tom Scotto, held a press conference after the verdict. Clearly angry he told a throng of reporters that Simpson was the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice. He had been set up. ìWhat kind of justice is this? This is not justice!î Scotto claimed.

It is doubtful that many Americans will have much sympathy. That was similar to the cry of injustice that went out from many people in 1995 when Simpson walked free from accusations that he had brutally slaughtered Brown and Goldman. The crime itself was shocking. The two victims were found outside Brown's home and Simpson was arrested after a long and infamous car chase across Los Angeles.

In his white Ford Bronco Simpson had led a cavalcade of police and reporters along the city's motorways. Covered live on television the route had become lined with gawkers and supporters. It had been the perfect nexus of a live news event, the public and the media. Many commentators believe that car chase and the case that followed it gave dubious birth to a new celebrity-drenched age of media.

Certainly it is not hard to see why it held such a fascination for America. Though largely unknown to the outside world, Simpson was a legend in America. He had overcome an impoverished and sickly childhood to become one of America's sporting heroes. His prowess on the field was legendary. Then he began a successful career in Hollywood, often playing a loveable good guy.

His marriage to Brown - across America's still deep racial divide - seemed a fairytale. Here was the great black athletic hero with the stunning blonde bombshell wife. If it had not been real life, it would have been the perfect Tinseltown movie script. Except that this story had a vicious twist.

Their marriage was far from perfect. When things soured, Simpson emerged as a violent man with a dangerous temper. He was jealous of any hint that Brown might have a new boyfriend. Even if he had not led the cops on a merry chase in his Bronco, Simpson was already a suspect. Covered exhaustively in the media, the trial rapidly degenerated into a racially tinged showcase. Simpson's legal 'dream team', led by the flamboyant Johnnie Cochran, unashamedly played the race card. In the end, to the shock of many white Americans, and the delight of many black Americans, Simpson was found not guilty.

But he did not escape entirely. The past 13 years of Simpson's life have been a twilight existence. He emerged back into the world apparently believing he could restart his career as a celebrity. He could not. He was ruthlessly pursued by Goldman's father, Fred Goldman, in the courts. He brought a civil suit against Simpson for the deaths.

In civil cases the burden of proof is less stringent and Simpson was held liable for the deaths and hit for $33m. That bankrupted him for life. Instead of a mega-star existence, he fled to Florida where he led a distinctly easy, but middle-class suburban existence, sustained by his pensions. Every attempt to come back into the public eye seemed horribly misguided. He tried to create a reality TV show that mocked elements of the murder trial. He wrote his bizarre pseudo-confessional book, then saw a wave of outrage cancel it.

He seemed to live in a different world, where people still asked him for autographs and swarmed around him at night clubs. But it was because of the murders, not because of his football career or acting. Perhaps oblivious to the fact, perhaps not, Simpson became one of the most reviled men in America.

For Goldman, the trial in Las Vegas provided some tiny relief for the loss of his son. 'He's not going to get the punishment for Ron's murder that he deserved, but at least he should be in jail for as long as they can put him there,' he said last week.

So now the Simpson story could finally be over. Though he plans an appeal, it seems almost certain that Simpson will finally be heading for a lengthy stint in jail. Maybe it will be for the rest of his life. But he leaves an America that he changed completely. The original Simpson trial created a public obsession with criminal justice, especially as it related to celebrities. It led to a public clamour around all the other celebrity trials - such as those of Michael Jackson and Phil Spector and the post-mortem of Anna Nicole Smith - and seemed to create a generation of lawyers and judges who understood that a high-profile case could lead to a new career in entertainment. It also broke down the barriers between news and the public. They watched the car chase live on TV and followed the court case as it was broadcast direct from the courtroom. Then they could go and meet the suspect himself if they hung out in the sports bars of suburban Miami.

But not any longer. Simpson is now in jail and for many Americans the strange incident in Room 1203 was irrelevant. They will see Simpson, at long last, serving time for murder.

More news from