O.J. Simpson Returns to Court to Battle Las Vegas Charges

On Sept. 8, one Orenthal James Simpson will return yet again to a courtroom to plead for his freedom. This time, there are few of the ingredients that made his earlier ventures into legal territory such blockbusters-no bloody glove found by a cop with a racist past, no attractive young people stabbed to death in cold blood. This drama is set in a Vegas hotel and involves middle-aged alleged victims whose livelihoods are made partly by profiting off the notoriety of others. A curious public will be hard-pressed not to wonder: Will things end differently this time?

"People ultimately want to see if he's going to finally end up in jail," says Marlene Dann, executive vice president for TruTV, which plans live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the latest O.J. Simpson trial. "It's not a murder trial, so in that way this is different. But it's still O.J., and there's still an ongoing public fascination."

That fascination may be tempered by the low-rent nature of the Sept. 13, 2007, incident that led to the dozen criminal charges against Simpson, ranging from felony kidnapping to assault with a deadly weapon. Here are the undisputed facts: Simpson gathered five acquaintances at a hotel bar and plotted to enter a room at the Palace Station Hotel-Casino near the Las Vegas Strip to retrieve hundreds of pieces of O.J.-related memorabilia he claimed had been stolen from him, and that was now in the possession of sports memorabilia dealers Bruce L. Fromong and Alfred Beardsley. The meeting between O.J.'s crew and Fromong and Beardsley was arranged by go-between, Thomas Riccio, as a setup to record the anticipated confrontation, which he sold to tabloid celebrity Web site TMZ.com for a reported $165,000.

With all that posited, legal analysts say Simpson's courtroom fate rests on areas of dispute. Were these items rightfully his? Did he or his group make violent threats or physically harm anyone? Did Simpson know about or see the brandishing of the weapons carried by two of his companions, Walter Alexander and Clarence Stewart? Oh, and one more intangible: Will jurors want to nail the 61-year-old football Hall-of-Famer as much for this incident as for the 1994 murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, of which he was acquitted in this generation's biggest legal spectacle?

(Four of the five men who joined Simpson in the raid have struck plea deals with the district attorney. The fifth, Clarence "C.J." Stewart, is scheduled to be tried alongside Simpson this month but has appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court to receive a separate trial.)

"With O.J., you have this added undercurrent," says Jean Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor and professor at the University of Southern California School of Law. "A lot of people think this guy got away with something heinous and horrible in the '90s, and they think he should only get one get-out-of-jail-free card."

Or conversely, jurors may find the case to be much ado about little and resent Clark County District Attorney David Roger's efforts to get Simpson on such serious charges as kidnapping and robbery with a deadly weapon, both of which carry potential life sentences, for an incident in which nobody was physically harmed.

Vegas defense attorney Dayvid Figler, a TruTV commentator for this case, predicts jurors could be offended by being forced to consider a case that, were it not Simpson, would be tried in six days rather than six weeks. "I expect there's going to be one or two on the jury who are going to say, 'Seriously? This is what this is all about? This is why I'm stuck here for all these weeks?'"

On top of which, the alleged victims aren't entirely sympathetic. By even being in Las Vegas, Beardsley was jailed for violating a parole agreement stemming from a California stalking conviction. For his part, Fromong went on eBay, within a week of the alleged robbery, advertising other memorabilia as "IDENTICAL to the ones OJ STOLE from me!!!!!!!!" Beardsley has since said he doesn't feel victimized, but Fromong said he can prove that the Simpson memorabilia in question was rightfully his.

"It's not a case of me being after O.J. because of what happened 14 years ago, because I supported O.J. 14 years ago," Fromong told NEWSWEEK. "This is a case of right or wrong. I was wronged."

The likely after-the-fact profiteering of both Riccio and Fromong, however, will be a key element of the defense argument that Simpson is being unjustly persecuted.

"If you're going to treat it as robbery, it was a robbery that was conceived as a media event by Mr. Riccio, who received immunity and got away scot free," says Simpson-attorney, Gabriel Grasso, whose team has rejected plea offers from the district attorney because any deal would likely require prison time for Simpson. "You have the two alleged victims talking on the tape about calling 'Inside Edition' or wherever before even calling the police."

TV commentator Figler and others believe the prosecution's success depends not so much on witness testimony as on what the jury hears on Riccio's recording. If Simpson sounds menacing and out of control, the jury may be reminded of the 1994 murders and think he's a dangerous man who needs to be punished, says former prosecutor Laurie Levenson, who covered the 1995 trial for CBS News.

Yet while the specter of those famous murders will loom large, the names of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman probably won't be uttered once the jury is seated, even though some of the memorabilia taken in the incident include a tie Simpson wore during the 1995 trial. "When they select the jury, they're going to have to talk about the prior case, but the direct mention of those names once the trial has begun would be a real basis for a mistrial," says Las Vegas defense attorney David Chesnoff, who has represented Mike Tyson and Martha Stewart. "If I was the defense, I'd file a motion of in limine, asking that there be no reference to items from that trial."

Many of those whose fame was borne out of, or enhanced by, the original Simpson potboiler, will be back on the scene. The Associated Press's Linda Deutsch is serving as a pool reporter during jury selection. Dominic Dunne has put in for media credentials. Former prosecutor Marcia Clark, who was deliberately seated by Clark County court officers far away from Simpson during the preliminary trial, to avoid a media frenzy of capturing the two former nemeses in the same frame, is expected back as a commentator for "Entertainment Tonight."

For her part, Levenson has declined offers to go to Vegas for this round. "I don't see running off to Vegas to handle this case. But even if this were in L.A., it's not as important legally," she says. "I've done my O.J. time. This is O.J. light."