Commentary

Sound familiar? O.J. faces long odds in armed robbery trial

Originally Published: September 8, 2008
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

Thirteen years after a jury in Los Angeles found O.J. Simpson not guilty of the murders of his ex-wife and her friend, Simpson faces armed robbery and kidnapping charges in a trial in Las Vegas that begins Monday with jury selection. If convicted, Simpson faces a possible life sentence. The charges, the selection of the jury, and the trial itself raise many legal questions. Here are some of the questions and my take on the answers:

[+] EnlargeO.J. Simpson
AP Photo/Jae C. HongAfter he was granted bail in September 2007, O.J. Simpson left the Clark County Detention Center. He returns to Las Vegas this week for the trial.

The prosecution claims Simpson and his gunmen terrorized and robbed two memorabilia dealers. Simpson contends he was simply asking for the return of personal items that had been taken from him. What is the evidence?

The evidence to be offered against Simpson will be powerful. It will include highly incriminating testimony from four of the men who accompanied him into the hotel room where the dealers where expecting to meet a legitimate buyer of their wares. None of the four men with Simpson, though, qualifies as a model citizen. But together, they tell a story that could convict Simpson. One of them, Michael McClinton, 50, says he supplied Simpson's crew with two guns. Others say they used the guns to force the dealers to stand back as they loaded the merchandise into hotel pillow cases and fled in a hurry.

In addition to the testimony of Simpson's four accomplices, there is a tape recording, allegedly of the incident; and the tape sounds a lot like a robbery. There is no conversation, no negotiation and no explanation on the recording. It is a series of profane demands ("Get your asses up" and "You, over there, against the wall") tinged with the threat of violence. The presence of guns is apparent, even on the audio tape. The dealers offer no resistance. One of them, Al Beardsley, is 6-foot-6 and weighs nearly 300 pounds. He says he thought he was closing a deal he had worked on for weeks that would net him tens of thousands of dollars he desperately needed, but he offered no resistance when he saw Simpson and his crew. Without the guns, Beardsley likely would have resisted Simpson to try to preserve his property and his deal.

What will Simpson offer as an explanation for what happened?

[+] EnlargeJudge Jackie Glass
RICK WILKING/AFP/Getty ImagesClark County District Court Judge Jackie Glass will preside over O.J.'s latest trial.

Simpson's attorneys will attempt to attack the veracity of the witnesses, will question the authenticity of the tape, and will try to explain that Simpson knew nothing about any guns and was simply trying to preserve his heritage as a football star for his children. He wanted the return of footballs from record-setting performances, ties he wore at his 1995 murder trial and an autographed photo of Simpson with J. Edgar Hoover. That's all, Simpson will argue. He will say it was his stuff, it was stolen from him and it should be returned. The attacks on the witnesses, all of them friends and acquaintances of Simpson, will include descriptions of their criminal records, which include some felony convictions. Yale Galanter, Simpson's lead attorney, will suggest that they are lying in an attempt to avoid jail. Galanter also will offer expert witnesses who will try to explain away the yelling, the screaming, the profane demands, and the surrender of the dealers that is audible on the tape. They will try to persuade the jury, using forensic techniques, that it was a benign gathering of a group of gentlemen talking over the glory days of Simpson's football career.

When the jury evaluates the witnesses, the testimony they will give and the audio tape, what conclusion will they reach?

It is hard to imagine the jury reaching the not-guilty conclusion that Simpson and his team will ask them to reach. The jury is more likely to find Simpson guilty on some, if not all, of the charges. Simpson spent the afternoon and the evening of Sept. 13, 2007, gathering them and preparing for their entry into the dealers' room. The witnesses, of course, are looking for leniency. None of them wants to go back to jail. But the prosecutors will argue that each of them is engaged in a most painful act of integrity, deciding to tell the truth even though it will put a friend in jail. One member of Simpson's crew will testify that Simpson told him to get the guns, and others will say they used them to threaten the dealers into surrendering their wares. Simpson's bail bondsman, Miguel Pereira, who brought him back to Las Vegas from Simpson's home in Florida for a bail revocation hearing, will testify that Simpson admitted to Pereira that he ordered his crew to bring the guns and to use them.

[+] EnlargeOJ Simpson
AP Photo/Isaac Brekken, PoolAt a preliminary hearing last November, O.J. got the news that he has to stand trial on kidnapping, armed robbery and other charges.

What about the memorabilia dealers? Are they legitimate victims or connivers?

They are a little of each. The way in which they came into possession of the Simpson materials is highly dubious. The footballs, the ties and the photos were all taken from Simpson's home on Rockingham Drive in Los Angeles, the house that became famous during the murder trial. It might be easy to portray these dealers as trading in stolen property. It is the kind of thing that happens from time to time in the memorabilia world. But they were also expecting to be working with a legitimate buyer. In addition to the Simpson material, they were trying to sell Joe Montana lithographs and baseballs autographed by Pete Rose and Duke Snider. When Simpson and his crew bagged up the dealers' wares, they took everything without paying a dollar to the dealers. If Simpson had paid anything for the Montana-Rose-Snider material, it's possible there wouldn't be any criminal charges.

Simpson assembled a dream team of lawyers to defend him against the murder charges 13 years ago. They managed to persuade the jury that Simpson was not guilty, even in the face of powerful evidence to the contrary. Does he have another dream team representing him in this trial?

[+] EnlargeMiguel Pereira
Rick Wilking-Pool/Getty ImagesAccording to reports, Miguel Pereira, O.J.'s former bail bondsman shown here testifying at Simpson's bail revocation hearing in January, will tell the court that O.J. admitted to him that he ordered guns to be brought to the hotel room.

No one has used the phrase "dream team" to describe the lawyers defending Simpson against these charges. Galanter, his lead lawyer, has represented Simpson in various scrapes in the years since the murder trial, including a road rage charge. He is a very good lawyer who prepares meticulously and will argue Simpson's case effectively. But Galanter will never be confused with the late Johnnie Cochran, the brilliant and charismatic advocate who led Simpson's defense against the murder charge. In fairness to Galanter, it must be said that very few, if any, American lawyers would measure up to Cochran and his performance in the murder case. In addition to the loss of Cochran, Simpson will face a prosecution team that most observers expect to perform significantly better than the prosecutors in the murder case, Marcia Clarke and Chris Darden.

What will happen? Is it possible that Simpson will go to jail on these charges?

It is not merely possible. It is probable. Even with the dubious provenance of the memorabilia, the evidence against Simpson is strong. It will be difficult to persuade the jurors he is not guilty. His only real possibility of success will be to convince them that he knew nothing about any guns when he entered the dealers' room with his crew. He must claim that he was surprised when the guns appeared, a claim that will be difficult, if not impossible to make. Simpson spent hours organizing the visit to the dealers, and members of his crew will tell the jurors that they spent some of the time fetching the guns, a Ruger .45 and a Beretta .22. The jurors will see the guns in the courtroom. Simpson might succeed in obtaining a not-guilty finding on some of the charges -- the kidnapping charge, for example, is questionable -- but he is likely to be found guilty of robbery and face a stiff jail sentence.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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