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Which O.J. Simpson will Vegas jury see?

Times Staff Writer

When O.J. Simpson’s armed robbery trial opens here today, it will underscore the downfall of the once-dashing NFL running back who spun football glory into public adoration -- until he was accused of killing his ex-wife and her friend.

The O.J. Simpson acquitted in the 1994 slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman cavorted with a Playboy playmate and a cheerleader-turned-lingerie model, favored Bentleys and seaside rounds of golf, and roused people to his defense with a charm honed in post-game interviews.

This time, however, he will enter Judge Jackie Glass’ courtroom as a more polarizing figure, worn by years of speculation about his role in the Brentwood murders and portrayed in testimony as clinging to his tattered fame.

This O.J. Simpson purportedly signed footballs and jerseys on the sly, lest the Goldman family collect some of the millions that a civil jury awarded them in 1997; allegedly plotted a sting operation with an ex-con auctioneer who peddled Anna Nicole Smith’s diaries; and is said to have enlisted a golfing buddy nicknamed Goldie who allegedly prostituted women using an online photo service.

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“The question is: Is this case going to be decided on O.J.'s baggage or the facts and evidence of the case?” said Robert Hirschhorn, a trial consultant in Lewisville, Texas, who co-wrote a textbook on jury selection.

Simpson, 61, is accused of robbing two sports collectible dealers at gunpoint at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino last September. He and codefendant Clarence “C.J.” Stewart, 54, each face a dozen charges -- including kidnapping, which carries a potential life sentence. Four other codefendants agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for their testimony.

The trial, expected to last at least five weeks, will probably turn on how jurors view the always colorful, always controversial Simpson: as a guy who was trying to retrieve stolen mementos, as he asserts, or as a thug who masterminded a robbery and told two of his cohorts to bring “some heat.”

“Anybody who says they don’t know who O.J. Simpson is,” Hirschhorn said, “is either a recent immigrant to this country or an outright liar.” But if jurors can put aside their feelings about Simpson’s murder trial, he said, it is possible that “O.J.'s going to walk again.”

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The composition of the jury is crucial. In an unsuccessful motion to sever Stewart’s trial from Simpson’s, attorney Robert Lucherini said he feared jurors might try to “correct a perceived miscarriage of justice”: the double-murder verdict.

Attorneys already have tossed out half of a 500-person jury pool based on their answers to a 26-page questionnaire. Jurors who might be sympathetic to Simpson, experts said, include men, blacks and blue-collar workers. Women might be more likely to hold the murder case against him. Younger jurors won’t remember his days as a gridiron hero nicknamed “the Juice.”

Attorneys also will look at how potential jurors react to sitting in the same courtroom as Simpson: Do they appear enthralled or disgusted? Do they stare or try to avoid his gaze?

“He’s not just a celebrity; he’s a courtroom celebrity,” said Ian Weinstein, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York. “His celebrity status, at least recently, comes from being involved in a famous case. . . . So people come in with very strong feelings: that he got away with murder or that he was unjustly accused of murder. And even if people try to put them aside, they exert an unconscious influence.”

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After the Los Angeles criminal and civil trials, Simpson’s life remained tabloid fodder. Police in Miami, where he lives, have been called to his $1-million ranch house at least 18 times since 2000. He was acquitted in a Florida road-rage case in 2001.

Beginning in 2006, Simpson made headlines for an impending book release. “If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer” offered a “hypothetical confessional” from the former actor and pitchman as to how he might have murdered Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. (The Goldmans wrested away control of the book, which became a bestseller after Simpson’s Las Vegas arrest.)

Last summer, according to pretrial testimony, an ex-con auctioneer named Thomas Riccio contacted Simpson because memorabilia dealer Alfred Beardsley -- described in testimony as an “O.J. disciple” -- was looking to sell items purportedly taken from Simpson’s trophy room.

Simpson was enraged; he said some of the collectibles were intended for his children. The men plotted to meet Beardsley in Las Vegas and get back the memorabilia. For Riccio’s help, according to court testimony, Simpson promised to sign 200 copies of “If I Did It.”

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Riccio, who was granted immunity for his testimony, surreptitiously taped Simpson in the hours leading up to and during the confrontation -- a cornerstone of the prosecution’s case. Riccio sold the audio recordings to TMZ.com for an undisclosed amount before giving copies to police.

Riccio is offering ad space on the limousine he’ll take to court and on the hat he’ll wear, according to published reports. “I am out to make as much money as I can off this incident,” he wrote in his recent book, “Busted!,” in which he said he had lost business because of his ties to Simpson.

Simpson, who was in Las Vegas last September for a wedding, reportedly assembled a group of associates to meet Riccio and Beardsley at the Palace Station. During the trial, Simpson’s longtime attorney, Yale Galanter, and his Nevada counterpart, Gabriel Grasso, can be expected to mine the associates’ criminal pasts and their hunger for money or fame. The attorneys accuse Simpson pal Walter “Goldie” Alexander, for example, of prostituting women and of offering to slant his testimony if a Simpson friend paid him.

Clark County Dist. Atty. David Roger and prosecutor Chris Owens must remind jurors, Weinstein said, “that crimes don’t happen in heaven, and they have to take witnesses where they can find them.” The volume of witnesses and the corresponding audio recordings could help blunt defense attacks, experts said.

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Alexander and another witness, Michael F. McClinton, have testified that Simpson told them to bring guns to the meeting, where Beardsley was expecting a wealthy buyer. “Show them your weapon and look menacing,” Simpson said, according to McClinton, before marching into Room 1203.

Simpson has denied that he asked the men to tote guns or that weapons were even involved in the incident, which lasted less than 10 minutes. Riccio, Beardsley and a second memorabilia dealer, former Simpson friend Bruce Fromong, all said they saw at least one pistol.

“The whole thing is kind of sad and tawdry,” said Jean Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at the USC Gould School of Law. “This guy was in some ways an American hero -- superstar athlete, on commercials, handsome, an All-American guy.

“During the first trial, we found out that was a facade. And since, the tawdriness has continued. . . . He’s been on this downward spiral from hero to villain.”

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ashley.powers@latimes.com


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