This was not the O.J. Simpson of old.
His wrists shackled, eyes reddened and husky voice cracking, the fallen football star -- who famously was acquitted of double murder in Los Angeles -- was sentenced Friday to up to 33 years in prison for robbing a pair of memorabilia dealers. He will be eligible for parole in nine years.
Surprising even Judge Jackie Glass, Simpson delivered a tearful five-minute apology to a packed courtroom down the street from the casinos and pawnshops of downtown Las Vegas.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all of it,” Simpson said, in a moment that may have marked the end of a saga that the nation has watched for years: Simpson’s journey from gridiron icon to social pariah after the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1994. He was acquitted of their slayings in 1995, but a civil jury in 1997 found Simpson liable in their deaths.
Simpson, 61, told the judge that he went to a down-market Las Vegas hotel on Sept. 13, 2007, to recover family heirlooms -- including his slain ex-wife’s wedding ring -- to pass down to his children.
“This was the first time I had an opportunity to catch the guys red-handed who had been stealing from my family,” said the NFL Hall of Fame running back, dressed in navy jail garb, his hair graying at the temples.
“In no way did I mean to hurt anybody, to steal anything from anybody. I just wanted my personal things,” he said. When Simpson finished, his shoulders slumped and his face fell.
In the spectators’ gallery during Simpson’s apology, Goldman’s sister, Kim, gripped her father’s hand and leaned into his shoulder. Afterward, outside the courthouse, the pair were greeted by a Santa, a Wonder Woman, an Elvis and a man shouting: “We’re sorry, Goldmans, about your son being murdered by O.J.”
There was also a chorus of boos.
“Where are you going to get your money now, Goldman?” shouted Las Vegas resident John Post, who carried a “Free O.J.” sign. “You going to go after his ramen noodles, Goldman?”
Fred Goldman ignored him. “There is no closure,” he said. “Ron is always gone. What we have is satisfaction that this monster is where he belongs.”
Simpson’s broken demeanor and words of regret Friday capped a trial that had stripped him of much of his remaining sheen.
The former Heisman Trophy winner, Hertz rent-a-car pitchman and sports commentator was accused of leading a ragtag band of men -- two carrying handguns -- to confront dealers hawking mementos from him and other sports stars.
“I didn’t ask anybody to do anything but stand behind me, have me yell at the guys and help me remove my things,” Simpson told the judge.
Dist. Atty. David Roger and prosecutor Chris Owens -- who said they had never tried such a high-profile case -- argued that the robbery’s origins could be traced to the $33.5-million civil judgment.
Simpson stashed things with friends to keep them from the family, which he had nicknamed “the Gold Diggers,” but he grew frustrated when the items were not returned, prosecutors said.
On Friday, Simpson insisted that he was acting on behalf of his children, and said he had even told his former in-laws of his plans.
“In Mr. Simpson’s mind . . . what he was doing truly was a retrieval of his own property,” defense attorney Yale Galanter said. “What it was, was a highly emotional, stupid act that violated the law.
“Stupidity,” he added, “is not criminality.”
Glass rejected the defense’s protestations -- and made it clear that her sentence was not payback for the double-murder acquittal that polarized Americans.
“When you take a gun with you and you take men with you in a show of force, that is not just a ‘Hey, give me my stuff back.’ That’s something else, and that’s what happened here,” Glass said.
The evidence against Simpson, she said, was “overwhelming” because of surreptitious audiotapes -- made by cohorts who testified for the prosecution -- that captured the planning, execution and aftermath of the six-minute encounter. On one tape, Simpson casually talks about “the piece” -- the gun he purportedly asked an associate to bring.
“It is your own words, Mr. Simpson -- your own words that could be heard throughout those events that have brought you here to this seat in my courtroom,” Glass said.
Glass sentenced codefendant Clarence Stewart, whom Roger described as less culpable than Simpson, to at least 7 1/2 years behind bars, with a maximum sentence of 27 years. State parole authorities had recommended the men serve at least 18 years.
Roger told reporters Friday that he twice had offered the men a plea deal -- once during the trial -- but that “Mr. Simpson wanted something just short of a public apology.” His sentence, Roger said, is lengthier than what prosecutors had proposed.
Simpson, who is planning an appeal, will be eligible for parole in 2017.
In Nevada, half of all eligible inmates are denied parole and serve out their maximum sentence, a corrections department spokeswoman said. Any good-behavior credits Simpson earns will only reduce his maximum sentence.
Simpson will spend his first three weeks in an 8-by-10 cell at High Desert State Prison, an all-male medium-security facility about 40 minutes from Las Vegas. While in county jail, his attorneys said, Simpson bought other inmates snacks from the commissary.
“He thinks that ultimately he will prevail,” Galanter told reporters, promising to exhaust all possible legal challenges and calling his client “resilient.”
Indeed, before he was led from Glass’ courtroom, Simpson mustered a weak smile.
Times staff writer Kevin Baxter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
O.J. Simpson’s legal saga
June 12, 1994: Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman are stabbed to death outside her Brentwood town house.
June 17: O.J. Simpson is arrested on suspicion of murder after he leads police on a two-hour car chase.
Jan. 24, 1995: Simpson’s trial begins.
June 14: Simpson tries on the pair of leather gloves that prosecutors allege he wore during the killings. Simpson says they are “too tight.”
Sept. 27: Simpson attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. urges jurors to deliver a verdict that “talks about justice in America.” Of the gloves, he says, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Oct. 3: After less than a day of deliberations, the jury’s not-guilty verdict is announced on national TV.
Jan. 22, 1996: Simpson testifies for the first time in a pretrial deposition for wrongful-death suits that the victims’ families and estates have filed against him.
Feb. 10, 1997: The civil jury orders Simpson to pay $33.5 million to relatives of Nicole Brown Simpson and Goldman.
Dec. 4, 2000: Simpson is involved in an altercation with another driver in a Miami suburb. A jury later acquits Simpson.
Dec. 4, 2001: Federal authorities and Florida police raid Simpson’s Miami-area home as part of a probe into a drug ring. No charges are filed against Simpson.
Sept. 13, 2007: Simpson and an entourage confront two collectors in a Las Vegas hotel room over memorabilia that Simpson said had been stolen from him.
Sept. 18: Simpson and three others are charged with felonies, including kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon.
Oct. 3, 2008: A jury convicts Simpson on all charges.
Dec. 5: Simpson is sentenced to a maximum of 33 years in prison. He will be eligible for parole in nine years.
Source: Times research