Pool photo by Julie Jacobson
O.J. Simpson speaks with his attorney, Patricia Palm, during a hearing in Clark County District Court in Las Vegas. Simpson is seeking a new trial for his 2008 conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping, claiming he had bad legal representation.
by William M. Welch, USA TODAY
LAS VEGAS - O.J. Simpson, grayer and softer after nearly five years in a desert prison but still flashing the smile that made him a star beyond the football field, testified Wednesday that he believed memorabilia collectors had personal items stolen from him when he confronted them in a casino in 2007.
"I had never sold any of my personal memorabilia, ever,'' said Simpson, shackled and dressed in blue prison garb.
Simpson addressed a judge -- without a jury -- in a rare post-conviction hearing in which he seeks a ruling overturning his conviction of armed robbery and kidnapping of sports memorabilia dealers during a bizarre, disputed confrontation.
Simpson, 65, testified that his lawyer at the time, Yale Galanter, discussed the missing items with him and advised him on how to get them back.
"The overall advice he gave me was, 'you have a right to get your stuff,''' Simpson said. He said Galanter told him not to trespass, but that he began formulating his plan for recovering the items with the lawyer's advice.
Under questioning by his attorney Patricia Palm, Simpson detailed his activity in the days and hours before he confronted sports memorabilia dealers that he believed had a large number of his items, such as family footballs, autographs and family photographs.
Simpson said he had been drinking alcohol at breakfast, at a Las Vegas hotel pool with friends and in a hotel bar before the confrontation at the Palace Station casino hotel. He said he asked a friend "to get me a couple of big guys" to serve as security for the meeting, and that he wanted some additional people around to carry what he expected would be numerous boxes with hundreds of items.
He said he always tried to have a tall, large man serving as security for him where ever he traveled.
"All celebrities, they have a big imposing guy with them, not to start trouble but to be sure there is no trouble,'' Simpson said.
Simpson said that when he finally entered the hotel room where the dealers had his memorabilia, he saw items he recognized as his own.
"I was kind of stunned because I was looking at stuff I hadn't seen in 10 years,'' Simpson said. "Some of this stuff, I didn't even know was gone. I had forgotten about. ... I was a little emotional."
Simpson said he went into the meeting intending to ask for return of the items, and did not intend to take them by force. He said Galanter had advised him to call police if the dealers did not give him the items.
Simpson said he did not plan for anyone to have weapons during the meeting. "Weapons were never an issue,'' he said.
His new team of lawyers has challenged his conviction on 19 points during the 2008 trial, essentially arguing that Galanter was incompetent or worse in his defense of Simpson. Galanter is to testify later in the week.
Simpson is serving a 9- to 13-year sentence and, barring a favorable ruling in this hearing, won't be eligible for parole until 2017, when he is 70.
Though the judge in his 2008 trial said at the time that Simpson's sentence was not payback for other matters, it was widely viewed that way nonetheless by a nation polarized, often along racial lines, by his 1995 "trial of the century" acquittal of the slashing deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, outside her Los Angeles condo.
Norman Pardo, a promoter who describes himself as Simpson's former and future business manager, said Simpson has been depressed as he passes his golden years in a prison outside Reno. Simpson appears to have spent some time in the Nevada sun and, looking a little heavier now, may have found prison food -- while hardly a Las Vegas buffet -- agreeable.
"He's doing as well as he can,'' Pardo said. "He's depressed, but he's got a chance now. This judge is giving him a chance.''
Simpson's testimony on his own behalf is a long-awaited event.
The former college and pro football star, who gained even wider fame in movies and as a TV pitchman, didn't testify before the jury during his trial in the same Clark County courthouse five years ago.
Nor did he testify in the 1995 murder trial in Los Angeles, when his defense team was headed by the late Johnnie Cochran, who famously had Simpson struggle without success to try on a bloody glove that was in evidence.
Simpson did testify later, without success, in a 1997 civil trial that resulted in a $33.5 million wrongful death judgment against him.
Handling his court appearance this week are a pair of Las Vegas lawyers, Patricia Palm and Ozzie Fumo, who went through boxes of evidence and testimony from his 2008 trial and identified two-dozen issues on which to challenge the verdict.
Fumo said Judge Linda Marie Bell agreed to hold the hearing on 19 of them, in itself a considerable legal victory.
Palm's legal strategy contends that evidence was withheld or misrepresented to the jury, including phone calls between Simpson and Galanter around the time of the 2007 confrontation, and that Galanter's rejection of plea-bargain talks before the conviction may have been without Simpson's full knowledge and understanding.
The confrontation that led to Simpson's conviction stemmed from his attempt to retrieve what he believed were his own belongings - footballs, autographs and other sports memorabilia from a career at the game's highest levels. Simpson won the 1968 Heisman Trophy as a running back at the University of Southern California and went on to a Hall of Fame professional career, when he became the first to rush 2,000 yards in a season.
Michael Gilbert, a sports agent, testified Tuesday that some of the items that had been offered for sale, and that Simpson was trying to recover, had been stolen from his storage unit in Hanford, Calif.
Defense lawyers, seeking to bolster their contention that Galanter had a conflict of interest in representing Simpson, questioned two former prosecutors in the 2008 trial about whether Galanter communicated with Simpson at the time the robbery was planned and committed.
"Our concern was that at some point he (Galanter) might become a witness in the case,'' former deputy district attorney Chris Owens testified.
Simpson said in a sworn statement that Galanter knew about the memorabilia sting before it happened and "advised me that I was within my legal rights."
Simpson also contends the lawyer never told him about a plea bargain offer from the prosecutors.
Questions about Galanter's handling of Simpson's robbery defense were also raised by Gabe Grasso, who assisted Galanter in the 2008 trial as local counsel. Grasso, who says Galanter stiffed him on a promised $250,000 fee, testified that Galanter should have hired expert witnesses or audio analysts to go over tape recordings of the disputed confrontation.
A friend tried with Simpson, Clarence "C.J." Stewart, saw his conviction overturned after serving two years in prison. The state Supreme Court ruled he should have been tried apart from Simpson. Stewart accepted a plea deal to avoid another trial and is out of prison.
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