Simpson's past overshadowing his robbery trial in Las Vegas

By Linda Deutsch
Associated Press / September 6, 2008
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LAS VEGAS - O.J. Simpson was once a national sports hero, showered with adulation and endorsement contracts. He was the "Juice" - a Hall of Fame football star, actor, TV commentator, and pitchman with a beautiful wife, two children, and a Rolls-Royce.

But the stabbing death of his former wife more than 14 years ago makes those early days seem like a fairy tale for Simpson. It was a life before allegations of murder, robbery, and kidnapping, before the world he knew ended and a new, darker one began.

The next chapter will unfold Monday in a Las Vegas courtroom, where Simpson and codefendant Clarence "C.J." Stewart go on trial on armed robbery and kidnapping charges.

The Nevada Supreme Court rejected a motion filed Thursday by Stewart's lawyers seeking to have the two men tried separately. A conviction could send them to prison for life.

Simpson, 61, is accused of leading an odd collection of characters, including three convicted criminals, to a casino hotel room, where they allegedly held two sports collectibles dealers at gunpoint and took memorabilia that Simpson maintains belonged to him.

Simpson, who lives in Miami, has said he was trying to retrieve personal belongings and family heirlooms, that he didn't ask anyone to bring guns, and that he didn't know anyone in the room was armed.

But four of the five men who accompanied him have pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Simpson. One, Michael McClinton, testified that Simpson asked him to bring guns and told him to look "menacing" during the confrontation with sports memorabilia dealers Bruce Fromong and Alfred Beardsley.

Hanging over the trial, scheduled to last five weeks, will be the shadow of the 1994 slaying of Simpson's former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, who was found slashed to death along with her friend, Ronald Goldman.

As a stunned nation looked on, police pursued Simpson as he rode in a white Ford Bronco and charged him with the killings. A year later, after a televised trial watched by millions, he was acquitted. A civil jury later held him liable for the killings, but he hasn't paid the $33.5 million in damages, insisting that he did not commit the slayings.

Then Simpson retreated to Florida seemingly intent on living the life of a retiree. But things have not been idyllic for Simpson. He was tried in a road rage case and acquitted.

This latest episode ironically resulted from a clash between past and present: Simpson's obsession with keeping control of memorabilia from his glory days.

One of the men expected to testify against him, Thomas Riccio, a convicted felon and a memorabilia dealer who arranged the meeting, said Simpson's motive was clear when he went to the hotel room at the Palace Station casino a year ago and demanded the return of items he said belonged to him.

The memorabilia dealer acknowledged letting Simpson into the hotel room with a key. He also had a tape recorder running inside the room, and the tape will be key evidence against Simpson.

Prosecutors say Beardsley and Fromong were lured to the room and held against their will at gunpoint. Defense lawyer Yale Galanter said prosecutors overreached for charges against Simpson. He called the witnesses against him "very nefarious characters" with credibility problems and a financial incentive to twist their stories.

"For the public, it's justice delayed," said Jerry Reisman, a Garden City, N.Y., lawyer who represented Simpson on business matters before the murder case.

"I think the public is going to see and hear what they want to and hope that he is convicted," Reisman said. "It's going to be difficult for O.J. to get a fair trial. A lot of the public believes he was guilty of the crimes he was charged with back then and he got away with it."

The challenge for Simpson's attorneys will be to keep the focus on the current charges, he said.

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