OJ Simpson: Is this the final chapter?

He's back in the dock – and all of America is watching. As the drama unfolds in Las Vegas, Guy Adams reports on the bizarre sideshow to a case that could see him spend the rest of his life behind bars
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The Independent Online

On the steps of a courthouse, in the warm glow of a Las Vegas sunset, OJ Simpson is meeting his public: a few dozen well-wishers waiting patiently behind a row of crash barriers to watch him exit the Regional Justice Centre, after another long day in court 11D. The crowd contains several people who are almost certainly mentally ill. The rest are merely eccentric. The former camp contains a shouty homeless man, who bears a sign declaring "OJ God Well [sic] Save You." The latter contains several professional autograph hunters who – ironically, given the nature of Simpson's current legal woes – carry sports memorabilia for him to sign. Local radio producer John Tolson, 28, has turned up with a sandwich board saying "Photo with OJ $1." Sadly, no one has yet taken him up on the offer to have their picture taken alongside a bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice. He gaily informs reporters that: "I'm just trying to make a buck off OJ like everybody else." Two men dressed in lurid yellow chicken suits brandish cardboard posters. To the sound of clacking camera shutters, they display two differing slogans which neatly sum up the schizophrenic nature of the American public's attitude towards its most famous serial defendant. One reads: "HE DID IT!" The other declares: "NOT GUILTY!"

No living person, not even Michael Jackson, can put on a better media circus than Orenthal James Simpson. And no town on the face of the Earth could possibly provide a more appropriate setting for that media circus than Las Vegas, an urban exclamation mark slapped gaudily on the middle of the Nevada desert. A fortnight ago, OJ arrived at the city's biggest court to plead not guilty to 12 very serious criminal charges, including felony kidnapping, armed robbery, burglary, and assault with a deadly weapon. They stem from an incident that occurred at a local hotel last September. The case is scheduled to run for roughly five weeks, culminating in early October. Depending on the verdict, it could perfectly well see Simpson imprisoned for the rest of his natural life.

This being an OJ Simpson trial, and America being America, the whole thing is being televised. Across the street, the Courthouse Cafe streams a live feed, offering punters the chance to jollify the viewing experience by ordering the "OJ Special", an entrée consisting of orange chicken, a shot of orange juice, and a pair of onion rings. According to the restaurant's owner, Chip Lightman, the onions are supposed to signify handcuffs. Today, proceedings are being followed by roughly 50 reporters. That's just under a tenth of the 525 who have been accredited to follow the case. The remainder is expected to descend en masse on Las Vegas when the trial reaches its crucial stages. So, too, will hundreds, if not thousands, of members of the public – festooned with fancy dress, placards and various other trimmings of a typical OJ trial. As a result, Lewis Avenue, the street outside the courthouse, has been closed to traffic for the duration of the trial.

The press pack includes Dominick Dunne, the dapper old man of American letters who in 1995 reported for Vanity Fair on the "trial of the century", in which Simpson was sensationally accused of the frenzied stabbing of his glamorous former wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. Dunne can be seen in TV footage of OJ's famous acquittal, looking visibly gobsmacked. On Monday, Dunne was at the centre of another courtroom drama when proceedings were stopped to allow him to be rushed to hospital after suddenly falling ill. He is said to be "recovering". Also in the press pack is Marcia Clark, the California state prosecutor who handled the 1995 case and, according to many pundits, botched it. The ensuing celebrity helped her switch profession, and she now enjoys a lucrative media career, with a contract as "special correspondent" for TV's Entertainment Tonight, covering high-profile court cases and the occasional red-carpet bash. There are reporters and TV crews from every corner of the globe. Some are housed in satellite trucks parked behind the courthouse, deliberately out of sight of the doorway where the jury comes and goes. Others are hunkering down in the large Vegas resort complexes, to the detriment (should they be wooed by the city's famous attractions) of both their livers and their wallets. "We are sin city," says Wayne Bridge, of the Sin City Chamber of Commerce. "It's our nickname, what we've been called for 100 years. We have gambling, we have sex, and people come here for a circus. They would be very disappointed if they went home and nothing had happened. And the way I see it, OJ's just another arm of what happens in Vegas."

Such is the atmosphere around the latest chapter in one of the great cautionary tales of modern celebrity. It is a tale that began on 12 June 1994, when OJ Simpson – football star, Hollywood actor, and all-American hero – was arrested after leading police on a low-speed road chase across Los Angeles in a white Ford Bronco, waving a gun. Fourteen years on, Simpson still looks like the imposing figure of old. In a faultless blue suit, he moves gracefully for a 61-year-old, thanks perhaps to a knee operation he underwent a few months ago. He also retains star quality: when an elderly lady in a wheelchair shouts out, "You are the finest athlete I have ever seen!" he casually melts her heart, with a simple "Thank you."

Yet behind the smile, things have not been easy. Simpson long ago descended to public pariah. Debts of $33m (£18m) force him to live in Florida, one of the few places he can still draw his $25,000-a-month pension, since state law protects the pensions of bankrupts. He does not work, so passes time playing golf – at such clubs as will still have him. Simpson's personal credibility has also crumbled, thanks to the obsessive attention of a critical press and a series of court appearances (including a civil prosecution for wrongful death, and a road-rage trial). They have eroded his finances and led almost 80 per cent of Americans to be now of the opinion that he is little more than a callous double murderer.

So the OJ Simpson who climbs aboard a black Chevrolet people carrier and heads to his rented home for the night cuts a troubled figure. His life, which once promised so much, is entering its teatime years in disarray.

The host of extremely serious charges now being faced by OJ Simpson relate to a bizarre incident that took place late one night last September at the Palace Station Hotel, a large, reasonably priced, slightly moth-eaten casino and hotel complex about a mile from the Las Vegas "strip". Along with his co-defendant, Clarence "CJ" Stewart, Simpson is accused of leading five mostly unsavoury characters to a small room, and holding two sports collectables' dealers at gunpoint. They then allegedly took a large stash of memorabilia from the dealers. According to the prosecution, this makes them guilty of kidnapping and theft.

The evidence against OJ seems compelling. Both alleged victims, Bruce Fromong and Alfred Beardsley, claim they were robbed. Four of Simpson's five alleged accomplices, who are now testifying for the prosecution as part of a plea bargain, support their story. One, Michael McClinton, says Simpson specifically instructed him to bring guns and look "menacing" throughout. Several also made secret tape recordings of the incident, apparently hoping to later sell them to the press. These tapes, which have been played in court and have also found their way on to the internet, are crucial to supporting the prosecution's contention that Simpson was the ringleader.

"They are important," says Royal Oakes, an attorney hired by ABC news to provide expert analysis of the trial. "Giving evidence, people may lie. They may exaggerate. But a tape is reality, and if you listen to this tape, OJ is basically doing a stick-up. He's ordering people around, he's running the show. And after they leave, one of the victims says, 'Do you realise that we've just been robbed at gunpoint by OJ Simpson?' "

The case for the defence is less straightforward. It revolves around the fact that every item taken from Fromong and Beardsley was a piece of OJ Simpson memorabilia. The stash included several personal photographs, including one sentimentally valuable shot of him meeting J Edgar Hoover. Simpson has always been obsessed with keeping hold of memorabilia from his sporting career, an extraordinary odyssey that took him from a modest upbringing in San Francisco, where he was born in 1947, and turned him into a Rolls-Royce-driving, Hall of Fame star of American Football known as "The Juice".

This obsession is at the root of his trial. At some point in the past, Simpson claims, the items in Fromong and Beardsley's possession, were stolen from him. He was therefore not guilty of theft, but of retrieving his own property. As his lawyer Yale Galanter ventured during opening statements: "this was a recovery, and not a robbery".

In some ways, it's a compelling argument. Who wouldn't want to get what is rightfully theirs? Who wouldn't understand a father-of-four's desire to get hold of treasured personal effects that represent his children's inheritance, and the means for them to secure a college education? Unfortunately, it's not a legally sound argument. Any lawyer will tell you that possession is nine-tenths of the law. As far as the US justice system is concerned, the very moment that OJ Simpson attempted to forcibly retrieve the memorabilia, he was committing a criminal act – regardless of whether it was his property.

"Under the law, even if it's your stuff, you do not have the right to go into a room, with or without a gun, and force someone to hand it back," says Oakes. "You have to go to the cops, or sue. So it's difficult to argue that he wasn't taking part in a robbery. The evidence is also strong that in this case there were guns. OJ was the ringleader, so he is therefore largely responsible for an armed robbery."

Simpson's legal team has a second card up its sleeve. They will claim that prosecution witnesses, most of whom boast previous convictions are "a cast of very nefarious characters", who have a clear motive for giving unreliable evidence: a plea bargain to escape serious convictions and keep themselves out of jail. Whether the jury buys this is another matter. Despite being selected from a pool of 500 after a week of negotiation, all 12 men and women who will debate Simpson's innocence or guilt have admitted that they recall his 1995 acquittal. Several believe he probably got away with murder. Though they've pledged not to factor this into their deliberations, it is almost certain to have some impact on the verdict.

Whereas Simpson's 1995 jury was made up entirely of middle-aged black women (the demographic thought to be most forgiving of him), this one is drawn from a broad range of men and women, and contains no African Americans.

The consensus among legal experts is therefore that Simpson stands a good chance of being found guilty of most charges, the possible exception being two counts of kidnapping. That is significant, because kidnapping carries a life sentence. But any convictions for robbery, burglary, and conspiracy could still add up to more than 50 years in prison. OJ boasts a track record of confounding legal pundits. His 1995 trial represents one of history's most unlikely acquittals. This case could turn in any number of directions. But there is a sporting chance that America's most famous defendant will be forced to spend the remainder of his life behind bars.

At first sight, court 11D, many floors above ground at the Regional Justice Centre in Downtown Las Vegas, makes a curiously parochial venue for this episode in legal history. Decked out in artificial flowers, it resembles a cross between a wedding chapel and the kitchen of a show-home. Throughout the trial, Simpson has sat impassively, making occasional notes. Sometimes he wears a small pair of spectacles, which make him look curiously bookish. Occasionally, he'll exchange small talk with the 20 or so reporters who squeeze into the room, often about College Football, the discipline in which he achieved fame as a teenage running back for the University of Southern California.

Simpson isn't the only person whose future is at stake. Several of his and Stewart's lawyers are rumoured to be working for vastly reduced rates, hoping the exposure will boost their careers. So far, several aspects of the case have been eerily reminiscent of OJ's 1995 murder trial. For starters, we have a headline-prone judge: Jackie Glass, a former TV journalist. Glass is a school-marmish type with a touch of Sarah Palin, whose biography takes up a page-and-a-half of the case's official briefing notes for journalists. Like Lance Ito, the judge in the 1995 trial, she is no shrinking violet. She interrupts, tells lawyers to sit down, and has developed a soap-opera-style relationship with the security guard, Arthur. In one highly unusual move, Glass delayed the start of the afternoon session last Tuesday to criticise the jury for providing Arthur with a chocolate-chip cookie from the jury room during lunch recess (he has weight problems). Depending on your point of view, this either provided light relief, or marked a shameless piece of show-boating.

A second throwback to the trial-of-the-century concerns the role of the police. In 1995, Simpson's lawyer successfully gave the jury the impression that his client was being set-up by racist officers (afterwards, cynics said, the LAPD tried to frame a guilty man). This time, the police who arrested Simpson at the Palace Station Hotel were caught on tape celebrating their belief that they had "got" a man the LAPD couldn't nail. OJ's defence is using the recording to again claim that police were attempting to frame him. Yet for all the sense of déjà vu, veterans of the 1995 case say this case is no "trial of the century". The defendant is damaged goods, the charges he faces are too complex, and there will be no jaw-dropping equivalent of the "black glove" moment, in which OJ tried on the glove he was supposed to have worn to kill his ex-wife, showing that it didn't fit.

"OJ's murder trial was the exact opposite of this," says Jerrianne Hayslett, court information officer for that case, who will shortly publish Anatomy of a Trial, a semi-academic book on what the justice system has learnt. "It was the perfect storm. You had a celebrity, a former football hero, a beautiful woman. It touched the nation, and it was crazy. At the court, we were being sent hundreds of faxes every day from the public wanting to share their thoughts. We were being posted trinkets by people, because they didn't have a life any more because this had taken it over." This is nothing, by comparison."

The reporter who knows Simpson best, AP's special correspondent Linda Deutsch, covered the 1995 trial and has stayed in touch with him since. She speaks of a man who had it all, only to lose everything when he became the most famous American ever charged with murder. "I've never made a decision about whether he was a murderer, even though I've sat through everything, I've interviewed him many times, and heard every side. I'm just not sure. But if you are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and think perhaps he didn't kill these people, and perhaps his life has fallen apart anyway, then it's very sad. OJ Simpson had a life that was so glamorous and so gilded, and now it's diminished. The fame and fortune are gone. Life has changed so dramatically for him, and it's no longer the glory days, and he comes to court more like an ordinary person than ever before."

Fairly or otherwise, there is an air of finality about OJ Simpson's plight. A sadness neatly encapsulated on the steps of the Las Vegas courthouse, by the logo on commemorative T-shirts being sold by Wan Ali, a Rastafarian who has been present at all Simpson's previous trials. "This is OJ3," they read, "The final chapter."