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Fla. Jury Acquits O.J. Simpson in Road Rage Case

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Writing a happy ending for O.J. Simpson in his latest run-in with the law, a jury Wednesday speedily found him not guilty of a road rage episode that carried a potential 16-year prison sentence.

“Thank God,” the retired football player and onetime murder defendant told a friend in the courtroom. After the verdict was read, Simpson mouthed “thank you” to the jury, hugged his trio of lawyers and expelled his breath in relief. Usually garrulous, he said he couldn’t make a statement immediately.

“You say things that you don’t want to,” Simpson said. “I just need 24 hours to get my anger and my joy settled.”

Simpson was whisked away from the rear entrance of the Dade County courthouse in a black Mercedes, riding in the passenger seat.

“The Juice is loose,” quipped one of the many courthouse workers who stood on the steps watching.

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His chief attorney, Yale Galanter, said Simpson, 54, should never have been on trial. Assistant State Atty. Abbe Rifkin, the prosecutor, called Simpson “the Teflon man” and said she wasn’t sure any jury in the United States would ever convict him.

Simpson had been charged with running a stop sign in a Miami suburb Dec. 4 and then climbing out of his Lincoln Navigator to berate another motorist, Jeffrey Pattinson, who had objected by honking his horn and flashing his lights.

Simpson was accused of reaching into Pattinson’s Jeep Cherokee and snatching the glasses off his face. Under Florida’s laws, the alleged incident was prosecuted as misdemeanor battery and felony burglary inside an automobile.

Pattinson testified that Simpson had behaved “like a madman.” Simpson, though, said under oath Monday that it was Pattinson, and not he, who had been furious, and that he never extended his arm into the other man’s car.

If his right thumbprint was found by police technicians on Pattinson’s glasses, Simpson testified, his hand must have brushed against them as the two men stood at the roadside arguing.

In the end, it was a trial of diametrically opposing accounts, with even the meaning of the thumbprint open to debate.

“We didn’t think there was enough evidence” for a guilty verdict, said Ernesto Diaz, a member of the four-man, two-woman jury.

The panel only deliberated for about 1 1/2 hours before informing Circuit Judge Dennis J. Murphy that it had reached a unanimous judgment. If more proof had been offered that Simpson’s arm had been inside Pattinson’s Cherokee, said Diaz, the jury would have voted to convict.

“If there would have been some kind of fingerprints on the vehicle, things would have changed,” Diaz told reporters.

Galanter pronounced himself “thrilled” over the outcome of the trial, which began a week ago. In the past, the lawyer has accused police and prosecutors of targeting Simpson because of his prominence.

“This was a major piece of litigation over a very minor traffic altercation,” Galanter told a post-trial news conference. “This case was argued like a death penalty case, and it wasn’t even close to that.”

Rifkin said: “The fact of the matter is, this is the type of case that is filed every single day.” She said a plea bargain had been offered that included probation and anger management classes but that Simpson had refused.

“Obviously we are disappointed, but we respect the jury,” she said of the verdict.

One small mystery left unresolved was how Pattinson came to be scratched on his left temple that December evening. In her closing remarks, Rifkin accused Simpson of having nicked the other man with his fingernail as he pulled off his glasses.

Simpson never provided an alternative explanation and never had to because the burden of proof was on the prosecution. Throughout the trial, Simpson made his incredulity plain at having to be in court for a roadside argument he said couldn’t have lasted more than 30 seconds.

“How much did this case cost?” Simpson asked a reporter Wednesday. “Is there no crime in Miami?”

At one time, no personality in the country was more scrutinized than Simpson, who was found not guilty after a lengthy trial of the 1994 stabbing deaths of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. In a subsequent civil case, however, he was found liable for their deaths and was ordered to pay $33.5 million.

In her summation, Rifkin insisted that there is another Simpson besides the cheerful celebrity who became familiar to Americans through his football exploits with USC and the Buffalo Bills, and during a second career in acting and the movies.

“He is a figment of his own imagination. He is a legend in his own mind,” Rifkin told the jury. She accused Simpson of believing that only “common folk” have to obey stop signs and of exaggerating his limp in the courtroom to curry favor with jurors.

“His whole thing was to try to charm you,” she told the jury. “He was trying to baffle you.”

In his closing, Galanter portrayed the other man involved in the roadside incident as the true aberrant personality. “Pattinson became a vigilante,” the lawyer said. “He’s going to be the person who shows O.J. Simpson, ‘Hey, you can’t do this to me.’ He wants to play cop instead of calling a cop.”

Galanter asked the jury to acquit Simpson “not because he’s a movie star, a football player, has bad legs and can’t walk, but because they didn’t prove their case.”

Simpson, who moved to South Florida last year, lives with his daughter Sydney, 16, and son Justin, 13. Simpson phoned them with news of the verdict, but they already had heard, he said.

“They were happy,” Simpson said. “They’re kids. They’re trusting. I think as you get older, you get a little more cynical.”

Associated Press contributed to this story.


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