Commentary

Looks like at least 18 years in maximum security for O.J.

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

It was a bad few minutes for O.J. Simpson late on a Friday evening in early October, when 12 angry jurors unanimously pronounced him guilty of kidnapping and robbery and a Las Vegas judge instantly ordered him handcuffed and taken to jail. And it's been a bad nine weeks for him since then, sitting alone in a small cell in the Clark County Jail awaiting the next step in the legal process.

But on Friday morning, it will be much worse.

With his legs shackled in irons and his hands chained to his sides, Simpson, in a dark blue prison jumpsuit, will stand before District Court Judge Jackie Glass as she pronounces his sentence.( ESPNews will carry the hearing live at noon, ET.)

Glass, a jurist with a flair for the melodramatic, is likely to begin with a stern lecture. And she is likely to end with a prison sentence that will keep the 61-year-old Simpson behind bars in Nevada for 18 years and possibly more.

Court probation officials have been investigating Simpson for weeks, preparing a recommendation that will be a critical factor in Judge Glass' decision. In most cases, probation officials are inclined to suggest sentences that are more lenient. But according to recently filed court documents, the probation officers in Simpson's case are suggesting a sentence of 18 years. Even worse, it will be 18 years of actual incarceration before there can be any consideration of parole.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Simpson
Daniel Gluskoter/AFP/Getty ImagesThis was a bad moment for O.J. Simpson. He'd just heard the guilty verdict. Friday morning likely holds another bad moment for him.
Even Simpson's lawyers acknowledge that the best possible outcome for Simpson would be six years in the penitentiary before any possibility of parole.

Within a day or two after he is sentenced, Simpson will be taken to High Desert, a Nevada prison facility about an hour's drive from Las Vegas, where he will be evaluated for assignment to a penitentiary. The evaluation includes physical, dental and psychological examinations, and will take three weeks.

Nevada prison officials refuse to discuss where Simpson might be assigned, but numerous reports indicate that he will be sent to a maximum security prison in Ely, Nev. And that could make his life even worse. It houses a concentration of incarcerated members of the Aryan Warriors, a white supremacist gang that reportedly manages its operation in part from within the prison walls.

Asked whether Simpson would receive any special treatment either because of his notoriety or the doubt surrounding his acquittal on charges of murdering his former wife and her friend (both white) in 1995, a prison system spokesman said, "When he comes to us, he is not a celebrity. He is an inmate."

Simpson's time in prison -- whether it's six years (unlikely) or 18 years (very likely) -- is the result of a bizarre incident on Sept. 13, 2007, when Simpson and six men, two of them brandishing guns, roared into a $35-per-night hotel room and demanded Simpson memorabilia that Simpson claims had been taken from him.

Despite repeated assertions from Simpson's legal team that the trophy footballs and photos belonged to Simpson, a jury concluded in only 13 hours of deliberations that Simpson was guilty of 12 charges of coercion, burglary, robbery and kidnapping.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Simpson
AP Photo/Ethan Miller/PoolDuring the trial, Simpson's lawyers attacked -- unsuccessfully -- the testimony of two of the gunmen in the robbery.
The jury was clearly angry with him. At one point in their deliberations, they asked Judge Glass whether one charge duplicated another charge. If he's guilty of kidnapping, they inquired, can he also be guilty of coercion, one of the elements of the kidnapping charge? When the judge refused to answer their question, the jurors quickly voted to convict Simpson on all 12 charges, even if they appeared to be duplicates.

Under Nevada law, the jurors' conclusion that Simpson was guilty of a kidnapping that involved guns leads directly to the stiff sentence. Both gunmen in the robbery, Walter Alexander and Michael McClinton, testified that Simpson told them to bring the guns and to brandish them. Although Simpson's lawyers attacked their veracity, suggesting they fabricated testimony to avoid jail sentences, the jurors clearly believed both Alexander and McClinton.

If a jury decides that a gun was used in a crime in Nevada, a separate sentence for the use of the gun is tacked on to the sentence for the original crime. In the patois of lawyers and judges, the gun sentence is "consecutive" to the original sentence. Simpson must serve the sentence on the kidnapping and robbery convictions, and then serve the sentence on the gun charge.

Simpson's only hope now is the appeal his lawyers have promised. Their principal argument will be an attack on the selection process that led to a jury with no African-Americans. It's a long shot, but it is all that remains for a football hero who once starred in movies and commercials and enjoyed a celebrity status beyond any athlete of his time. For now, however, his life will only get worse, and worse again.

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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