Commentary

Guilty as charged (12 times), O.J. is looking at 10 to 15 years

Originally Published: October 4, 2008
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- After 13 hours of deliberation on the 13th anniversary of O.J. Simpson's acquittal on murder charges, a jury in Las Vegas unanimously convicted Simpson of 12 counts of robbery and kidnapping. Its finding of guilty on all charges was an enormous victory for police and prosecutors in Las Vegas. Clark County marshals quickly handcuffed Simpson and led him to the Clark County Jail, where he awaits sentencing on Dec. 5. The jury's decision and the trial which led to it raise a number of questions about the incident which led to the charges, the trial and Simpson's future. Here are the answers to some of them.

What's next for Simpson?

Simpson is now an inmate in the Clark County Jail in Las Vegas. He will remain there until Dec. 5, when District Court Judge Jackie Glass pronounces his sentence. I once interviewed David Casper, a son of legendary golfer Billy Casper, in the Clark County facility. He was confined there after a drug-fueled crime spree which ended in Las Vegas. This jail is nasty and scary. There is no celebrity row in this jail, and there are none of the special privileges Simpson, now 61 years old, enjoyed in the Los Angeles County Jail before and during his murder trial. It's the kind of place that becomes oppressive after a few days, and Simpson will be there for nine weeks.

What chance does Simpson have in an appeal? Is there a possibility of a reversal?

Simpson's chances for success in an appeal are slim. His first problem is that in the state of Nevada there is only one level of appeal. In most states, there are two chances to win on appeal -- the first in an intermediate appellate court and the second in the state's supreme court. But in Nevada, there is no intermediate level of appeal; the only court for appeals is the Nevada Supreme Court. So Simpson has only one chance to persuade a group of judges he should be freed.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Simpson
Daniel Gluskoter/Pool/Getty ImagesO.J. was taken away in handcuffs to the Clark County Jail, which isn't likely to offer the celebrity-row status of the Los Angeles County facility in which he stayed during his murder trial.
Simpson and his lawyers will offer two principal arguments in their appeal. First, they will suggest the jury of 11 whites and one Latina was the result of systematic elimination of African-Americans from the panel. It is a point they raised repeatedly during the selection of the jury. Although the original panel of 500 possible jurors included more than 50 African-Americans, an accurate reflection of the racial population of Clark County, the only blacks who made it through the process were two who served as alternates and were not involved in the verdict. Judge Glass noted early in the selection process there was no indication of systematic exclusion by District Attorney David Roger and Deputy DA Chris Owens, and it is unlikely the Supreme Court will second-guess her rulings.

Second, Simpson's lawyers will argue Judge Glass blundered when she allowed the prosecutors to argue to the jury about the wrongful death damages judgment the family of 1994 murder victim Ron Goldman obtained against Simpson. Owens told the jury it was Simpson's enduring rage against the Goldmans that caused him to plan and execute the robbery. Simpson had hidden his furniture and other belongings to prevent the Goldmans from seizing them and selling them in partial satisfaction of their $33.6 million judgment. The judge did prevent the prosecutors from presenting witnesses on the issue, but she allowed the audiotapes of Simpson raging at the Goldmans and their efforts to collect from him. It will be difficult for Simpson's lawyers to succeed on the issue when the justices of the Supreme Court hear the tapes of Simpson himself describing how the robbery would prevent the Goldmans from obtaining his things and selling them.

Race was a major factor in the Simpson murder trial. How much did race figure into this trial?

With the possible exception of the selection of the jury, race was not a factor in this trial. In the Los Angeles murder prosecution, race was a primary issue from beginning to end. Simpson, a black man, was charged with killing a white woman and a white man. It was a black on white crime, the kind which provokes intense reactions. On numerous occasions, Simpson's attorney, the late Johnnie Cochran, turned the racial issues to Simpson's advantage before a jury dominated by black women, most famously when he confronted LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman with a tape-recorded series of Fuhrman's racist comments. But in Las Vegas, Simpson's crew which entered the hotel room for the robbery consisted of four blacks and three whites. Simpson and his diverse crew and their victims were brought together across racial lines as the result of their participation in an underground, cash-based, darker element of the sports memorabilia business. Simpson's most important witness was a white man, his best friend, Thomas Scotto. If you look at the Las Vegas trial from the perspective of race, the conclusion you draw is the participants were remarkably diverse.

How much time will Simpson spend in jail?

Although the kidnapping conviction could result in a life sentence, the chances of Simpson receiving a life sentence are slim. It is entirely possible that Judge Glass will sentence Simpson to a term of 10 to 15 years, since the jury convicted him on all 12 charges, and since the presence of the guns during the robbery means the sentence likely will be pushed more toward the maximum than the minimum. Simpson's lawyers will argue that a term of five or six years is appropriate, but Simpson probably will be into his 70s before he returns to freedom.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Simpson
AP Photo/Daniel Gluskoter/PoolThe verdict means O.J. likely will be sentenced to between 10 and 15 years.
In a single day of deliberation, the jury found him guilty on all charges. How did jurors decide so quickly?

The preparation and presentation of prosecutors Roger and Owens, which included 22 witnesses and 84 exhibits, were exquisite. They studied and examined more than 12 hours of audiotape and videotape of Simpson's preparation for the robbery, the robbery itself and conversations among Simpson's crew after the robbery. They dug out compelling and persuasive details which they wove together seamlessly, erasing any doubt about what happened. Patiently and methodically, and with dazzling technology, they presented their material to the jury. Then, in masterly final arguments, Roger and Owens put it all together in a way that frequently surprised Simpson's lawyers and left no escape for Simpson.

Both sides knew about the tapes, and both sides had studied them. How could the prosecutors surprise Simpson's lawyers and investigators?

Two details used by the prosecutors surprised Simpson and his lawyers in final argument. Video from hotel security cameras showed Simpson and his crew entering the hotel, going to the robbery, leaving the robbery and exiting the hotel. In the videos, two of Simpson's men, Walter Alexander and Michael McClinton, are wearing dark suits, the kind of suits that are worn with the jackets buttoned. As they enter the hotel, the suit jackets are buttoned. As they leave the hotel, the jackets are unbuttoned. As he described the suit jackets, Roger showed the precise video excerpts to the jury. There was no doubt about what he was saying. Roger then explained that the jackets were unbuttoned as the men left after the robbery because McClinton had unbuttoned his jacket to pull out his gun as the robbery began and Alexander had unbuttoned his jacket to show the victims the pistol in his waistband. Simpson's legal team had been denying that any guns were involved, but Roger's suit coat observation was one of those "aha!" moments that happen so rarely in a trial.

In a second observation resulting from the prosecution's laser-like look at the tapes, Owens reminded the jury that Simpson claimed he wanted to take only family keepsakes which had been stolen. Simpson's lawyers claimed repeatedly that Simpson personally took nothing out of the room during the robbery. Then, on a big screen in a deft bit of showmanship, prosecutors suddenly showed video of Simpson walking out of the hotel room with a victim's hat in his hand. "He took everything he could, even the victim's hat. This was not a recovery of heirlooms. It was a robbery based on rage and spite," Owens told the jury, stopping the video as the screen was filled with a picture of Simpson crushing the victim's hat in his hand. It was another one of those moments.

What was the turning point of the trial?

[+] EnlargeO.J. Simpson
AP Photo/Daniel Gluskoter/PoolHis arrival at court before the verdict was read was among O.J.'s final moments as a free man.

There were two turning points in the four-week trial. The first came during McClinton's testimony. Elegantly attired in three-piece, tailored suits (one blue and the other brown) and complementary silk ties during his two days of testimony, McClinton told the jury that Simpson was impressed McClinton had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, that Simpson asked him to bring "some heat" to the robbery, and that Simpson told McClinton to brandish his .45 as they entered the hotel room. He told his story in simple and convincing terms. Simpson's lawyers had been looking forward to attacking McClinton as an out-of-control street thug who used his gun without any direction from Simpson. But the cross-examination attack on McClinton fell flat, enmeshed in a clumsy series of botched audiotape excerpts that left the jury noticeably bored and looking around the courtroom for something interesting. McClinton clearly triumphed when he looked at one of Simpson's attorneys, Gabriel Grasso, and said, "C'mon," clearly asking Grasso to take his best shot. A witness Simpson thought would help him became a powerful weapon against him.

The second turning point came in the finale of Owens' summation to the jury. After describing Simpson as the leader and "mastermind" of the robbery, Owens went straight into the lives of jurors who think of Las Vegas as home and as a fine place for their families. "It was arrogance and hypocrisy that brought this man into the state of Nevada," Owens roared. "What he did is a crime against the 'peace and dignity' of the state of Nevada." "Peace and dignity" is a legal phrase used in indictments all over the United States, and can easily become just another piece of legal boilerplate. But Owens took the phrase and instantly turned Simpson into an unwelcome interloper who thought of Las Vegas, the home of the jurors, as a place to implement his evil intentions. "We don't do things like that in Nevada," Owens said. There was an eerie silence in the courtroom, and you knew Simpson was in violation of the peace and dignity of the jurors' home, and in real trouble.

Simpson and his crew were accused of going into the hotel room with guns and robbing two memorabilia dealers. How does that become a conviction for kidnapping?

The usual story of a kidnapping is the bad guys grab the victim and take him or her somewhere to be held for ransom. But in Nevada, the law adds to this conventional definition of a kidnapping. Under Nevada law, if you lure someone to a place where you intend to rob them, you are guilty of a kidnapping. The word that is the key to the crime is the word "inveigle." If the victims are "inveigled" into a location where the bad guys can obtain control over them, it's a kidnapping. It is not the law in all 50 states, but it is the law of Nevada. And the jury agreed that Simpson had "inveigled" the dealers into a hotel room where he could rob them. It is the most serious crime in the list of 12 counts on which he was convicted, and could result in a life 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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