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Robbery

[Cheap wisdom]

What I learned while covering the O.J. trial

Life lessons from a cautionary tale

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The Simpson trial was a cauldron of important life lessons waiting to be learned.
Photo: Jae C. Hong
Nick Divito

Once upon a time, there was a football hero named Orenthal James Simpson. Man, he was really great on the football field. He won a Heisman Trophy and was even inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. People called him O.J., or The Juice.

Then one day in 1994, he totally didn’t fatally stab his ex-wife and her friend. Although he was innocent, O.J. fled from police in a white Ford Bronco and led them on a low-speed chase that ended in the driveway of O.J.’s estate in Brentwood, California.

The Juice then endured a yearlong, televised murder trial dubbed “The Trial of the Century,” where a jury decided that he was not guilty of killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

But poor O.J.’s legal troubles didn’t end there. He would later be found guilty in a civil wrongful-death lawsuit filed against him by Goldman’s father. The Juice was ordered to pay the Goldmans $33.5 million—not for killing their son, but for being liable for killing their son. There’s a big difference there.

Thinking his legal troubles were at last behind him, O.J. proceeded to live a relatively quiet life in Florida. He got himself a girlfriend and was a regular fixture on the putting green.

Then, one day, he decided to come to Las Vegas for his best friend’s wedding. While here, he figured it would be a good idea to retrieve personal belongings that had been somehow missing for 13 years and somehow managed to fall into the hands of sports-memorabilia dealers Bruce Fromong and Alfred Beardsley. Footballs, baby pictures, plaques—that kind of stuff.

OJ Simpson: Images from the trial

O.J. faced a conundrum: How would he go about retrieving the stuff that he so dearly missed all these years? Perhaps he could simply ask for it back, politely. He could draft a stern letter demanding the immediate return of the ill-gotten treasures. He could file a lawsuit. Or he could simply rob the dealers and take his stuff back with guns and force.

The Juice opted for the latter, and hatched a simple plan. He would have one friend, Charles Ehrlich, pose as a monied sports-memorabilia buyer and set up a meeting with middleman Thomas Riccio, a broker, and Fromong and Beardsley in Room 1203 of the Palace Station on September 13, 2007.

Ehrlich was supposed to go into the room, scan the items, then report back to O.J. what he saw. What transpired was another thing entirely.

O.J. and the men he recruited stormed the room behind Ehrlich. Everyone started shouting, with O.J. leading the tirade, “motherfucker” this and “motherfucker” that. Guns were brought out, and fingers were pointed as to who stole the items. About $80,000 worth of stuff was bagged into pillowcases and carted off.

What poor O.J. didn’t know was that the entire incident—all six minutes of it—was secretly tape-recorded by Riccio, who would later sell the tapes to TV news stations and Internet gossip websites for $210,000 before turning them over to police.

The Juice was arrested and charged with kidnapping and armed robbery, among other things. A parade of turncoat cronies—many of them former co-defendants in the trial—then filed into the Regional Justice Center and squealed on O.J. in exchange for lesser sentences.

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On October 3—13 years to the day from his murder acquittal, on Day 13 of the trial, after 13 hours of deliberation—a jury of his “peers” (nine women, three men, none black) found him guilty of all 12 counts against him, including armed robbery, kidnapping, conspiracy and coercion. The 61-year-old now faces 15 years to life in prison when he’s sentenced in December. The same is true for his last-standing co-defendant, Clarence “C.J.” Stewart, the only accomplice not to take a plea deal in exchange for his testimony.

When the first “guilty” verdict was read, O.J. pursed his lips, glanced over at the jury and nodded his head, eerily, in agreement. He was handcuffed and carted out of the courtroom amid sobs from onlookers. Words like “comeuppance” and “payback” would be muttered across dinner tables everywhere. And (almost) everyone lived happily ever after, right?

Yes, while you were wringing your hands over the economy, the war and Sarah Palin, poor O.J. Simpson was found guilty of (murd) kidnapping and armed robbery. He just finished up his second full week in the hoosegow.

In the wake of the totally surprising verdict, and after sitting through the 13 days of testimony, we started to get all thinky about O.J. Simpson.

What life lessons could be gleaned from this, the ultimate cautionary tale?

Juice gets stale. In 1995, the world watched with bated breath as the first Trial of the Century unfolded during live, televised, gavel-to-gavel coverage.

We were enthralled by characters like Lance Ito and Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran, and we slapped our knees in unison when they were lampooned on Saturday Night Live. We were delighted when the quotable Cochran trotted out the zinger, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

On the day of the 1995 acquittal, the world seemed to converge in front of the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, as if the fulcrum of humanity threatened to unhinge at that very intersection of time and space. People screamed at each other and wagged “guilty” and “not guilty” banners in each other’s faces as they awaited the verdict. Hints of a riot floated through the air if the Juice got squeezed. Thankfully, it was “not guilty.”

But those were simpler times, back when we were happy. Before 9/11, before the wars in the Middle East, before the economy tanked, before people’s homes were foreclosed on, before gas prices surged over $4 per gallon. You know, before The Big Shit went down.

Now it’s apparent that the world feels ennui when it comes to anything O.J. Empty seats in the courtroom. Only two gadflies flitting about outside the courthouse during testimony. No throngs of people choking the streets after the verdict. America hates reruns, and has seemed to lose its sweet tooth for folksy scofflaws. O.J.? Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.

Pick your friends wisely. It’s probably hard for O.J. to make genuine relationships, what with his being O.J. and all. Almost all of the “friends” he recruited to retrieve his stuff last year testified against him in exchange for leniency. Most befriended The Juice after his 1995 acquittal. Several of them had rap sheets. At least one was said to be a pimp.

And then there’s Riccio, the man who set up the meeting and secretly tape-recorded not only the heist but also conversations before and after the incident. He sold the damning tapes to media outlets before handing them over to the cops. BFFs!

O.J.’s other buddy, admitted gunman Michael McClinton, testified that he was strapped with a belt-buckle-cam during a wedding dinner after the heist. McClinton said he planned to sell the footage of the heist to the tabloids. It was a good thing he also remembered to tuck a tape recorder into his jacket pocket, because the belt-buckle-cam malfunctioned. What a guy!

Come to think of it, the only person involved in the heist who didn’t testify against O.J. was Stewart. We’re wondering if he isn’t kicking himself now.

Act your profession. We liked how Judge Jackie Glass was saucy and sarcastic during the trial, and how she seemed to bark at attorneys at least once a day. It kept things zippy.

But we didn’t like her barbaric habit of licking her fingers to turn pages. We don’t think that jamming one’s hands into one’s mouth is a dignified page-turning approach for a highfalutin judge.

Handy tip: Cut a lemon in half, wrap it in a wet paper towel. Stab your fingers into the lemon to moisten your fingers. Repeat as needed.

Want the truth? Shove your head in the sand.The jury was instructed before the trial to basically forget everything they thought they knew about The Juice’s previous legal battles. Glass was adamant in her refusal to allow attorneys to discuss the ’95 acquittal or the ’96 civil lawsuit.

It’s a good thing the jury wasn’t allowed to consider O.J.’s previous legal issues, right? Because then they would for sure have found him guilty. Oh, wait. Never mind.

O.J. is really a white woman. Seriously, you try finding a jury of O.J.’s peers. “Wanted: Heisman-winning football legends with proven courtroom experience. Murder trials preferred. Please be ‘open-minded.’”

When committing a crime, say as little as possible. The Juice faces life in prison for “kidnapping” Beardsley and Fromong in a hotel room for all of six minutes. Do not do what O.J. did and say, “Don’t let nobody outta here!” when you’re stealing your stuff back. It leads to a kidnapping conviction. As a general rule, it’s best to say as little as possible when committing a crime. In fact, it’s best to assume someone is tape-recording you at all times.

It’s still stealing, even if it’s your stuff. This was news to us. We didn’t think it was technically “stealing” if the items were yours in the first place. Silly us.

It was Juror Instruction No. 20 that ultimately hobbled O.J.’s “I-was-only-retrieving-my-personal-stuff” defense and possibly drove the final nail in his coffin: “A good-faith belief of right to property taken is not a defense,” prosecutor David Roger said.

“You can’t even get your own property back even if it’s absolutely certain that it’s yours,” he said. “We have courts and other processes to protect property rights, and we don’t allow people to take the law in their own hands.”

This ain’t the gun-slingin’ Wild West—and that’s certainly not how Nevadans roll. “In Nevada, we’re a civilized community,” Owens said in his closing arguments. “This was a crime against the state of Nevada.”

Look on the bright side. Beardsley perhaps said it best after the hold-up: “I guess we’ll all have a good story to tell our fucking grandkids. We were robbed by fuckin’ O.J.”

Look on the bright side, Part 2. War? The economy? The election? Remember, it could be worse. You could be O.J. Simpson. (And if you are O.J. Simpson, here’s your silver lining: free room and board for at least the next 15 years!)

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