O.J. Simpson will stand trial on kidnapping, armed robbery and other felony charges stemming from a purported attempt to recover his sports memorabilia, a justice of the peace ruled Wednesday.
The former NFL running back, who has been a tabloid mainstay since being acquitted of murder more than a decade ago, and two codefendants each face 12 charges. If convicted on all counts, they could be sentenced to life in prison.
Simpson -- who showed little emotion through four days of testimony that painted him as the mastermind of the September robbery -- clenched his jaw and slumped as Justice of the Peace Joe M. Bonaventure announced his decision. Outside the courthouse, Simpson, 60, hugged one of his attorneys before leaving in a sport utility vehicle trailed by helicopters.
“He knows in his heart he is totally innocent of these charges and believes in the jury system,” attorney Yale Galanter said.
Bonaventure’s ruling came after he had heard eight witnesses offer colorful -- and sometimes contradictory -- accounts of what happened in Palace Station Hotel & Casino Room 1203.
Their testimony revealed potential trouble spots in Clark County Dist. Atty. David Roger’s case against Simpson. The cast of witnesses with rap sheets and suspect motivations led Galanter to call the case “a defense attorney’s dream.”
One witness who allegedly helped rob two sports memorabilia dealers at gunpoint, Simpson golfing buddy Walter Alexander, said under oath that he had been willing to slant his testimony had a Simpson friend paid him. Witness accounts sometimes clashed, particularly as to whether Simpson knew two of his companions were armed during the incident.
“This could be a battle royale come trial because the prosecution’s witnesses are so dirty,” said former federal prosecutor Laurie L. Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor. “Even people who don’t like O.J. might dislike the witnesses more.”
The hearing also provided a look at Simpson’s immersion in the sports collectibles world since a Los Angeles jury acquitted him in the 1994 slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.
Witnesses said Simpson had sold collectibles on the sly so that Goldman’s family, who had won a multimillion-dollar civil judgment against him, couldn’t claim the memorabilia.
One of the alleged robbery victims, Alfred Beardsley, was described during the hearing as so obsessed with Simpson that he even would have bought his underwear. Another, Bruce Fromong, was close enough to Simpson that Simpson sang “Happy Birthday” to Fromong’s mother over the phone.
The memorabilia dealers, prosecutors said, were tricked into a meeting arranged by Thomas Riccio -- an auctioneer who sold an audio recording made during the alleged heist to the celebrity website TMZ.com.
Beardsley and Fromong thought they were going to meet a potential buyer at the Palace Station. Instead, witnesses testified, Simpson and five associates took hundreds of signed footballs, awards and lithographs from the collectors.
Three Simpson associates -- Alexander, Michael F. McClinton and Charles H. Cashmore -- agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges and testified during the preliminary hearing. Alexander and McClinton said they carried guns into the hotel room.
The others, Clarence J. Stewart Jr. and Charles B. Ehrlich, both 53, are to stand trial on the same charges as Simpson. All are to be arraigned Nov. 28.
Riccio testified last week that Beardsley had contacted him in August about collectibles purportedly stolen from Simpson’s trophy room and his mother’s storage locker. Beardsley said Riccio had approached him. Simpson wanted to recover the items so his family could keep them, Riccio said. In return, Simpson agreed to sign 200 copies of “If I Did It,” his book about the 1994 slayings.
They set up a sting to recover the souvenirs in Las Vegas, because Simpson was flying there for a friend’s wedding. In weeks of planning, Simpson never mentioned using guns, Riccio said.
Alexander, another wedding guest, and McClinton testified that they went to Simpson’s Palms Hotel room on Sept. 13, where Simpson asked them to “get some heat” to intimidate the memorabilia dealers.
Their testimony appeared to undercut Simpson’s assertions that there were no guns involved.
Meanwhile, Beardsley and Fromong met Riccio at the Palace Station, where they spread collectibles on the bed.
Riccio then left Room 1203. When he returned with Simpson and his companions, Simpson accused the collectors of stealing his things and McClinton pointed a gun in Fromong’s face, the memorabilia dealer said.
Other Simpson associates shoved the collectibles into pillow cases and hauled them out.
In conversations after the incident, Simpson said he had not seen any firearms. Riccio testified that Simpson was standing in front of the armed men and might not have seen the guns.
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Charges and possible sentences
O.J. Simpson and two codefendants will be arraigned Nov. 28 on the following charges:
* Two counts of first-degree kidnapping with use of a deadly weapon, felony, carrying the possibility of life in state prison or a definite term of 15 years, depending on the sentencing judge’s discretion. Parole eligibility begins after five years.
* Two counts of robbery with use of a deadly weapon, felony; mandatory two to 15 years in prison, plus a possible additional one to 15 years for use of a weapon.
* Burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon, felony; two to 15 years.
* Two counts of coercion with use of a deadly weapon, felony; two to 12 years.
* Two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, felony; one to six years.
* Conspiracy to commit kidnapping, felony; one to six years.
* Conspiracy to commit burglary, felony; one to six years.
* Conspiracy to commit a crime, gross misdemeanor; one year in county jail.
Note: Nevada state law allows probation for convictions on the lesser charges, but not for kidnapping with use of a deadly weapon and robbery with use of a deadly weapon.
Sources: Las Vegas Justice Court, Nevada Revised Statutes, the Associated Press