Pool, Myung J. Chun, file, Associated Press
LAS VEGAS — Like a recurring nightmare, the return of O.J. Simpson to a Las Vegas courtroom come Monday will remind Americans of a tragedy that became a national obsession and in the process changed the country's attitude toward the justice system, the media and celebrity.
His 1995 trial is the stuff of legends, the precipitous fall of a Hall of Fame football player from the pinnacle of adoration to a murder defendant who, although acquitted of killing his ex-wife and her friend, was never absolved in the public mind.
He is arguably the most famous American ever charged with murder, and his "trial of the century" cast him in the role of the accused — no longer the superhero-turned-movie actor held up to young people as an example of achievement.
But less is remembered about the 2008 Las Vegas trial that sent Simpson to prison for a bizarre hotel room robbery in which the celebrity defendant said he just wanted to take back personal memorabilia that he claimed was stolen from him.
When he comes to court Monday, it is that conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping that will be before a Nevada judge. Simpson is seeking freedom in what lawyers often call a "Hail Mary motion," a writ of habeas corpus. It claims he had such bad representation that his conviction should be reversed and a new trial ordered. Most defendants lose these motions, but in this case nobody is taking bets on the outcome.
"Nothing is the same when O.J. is involved," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, who observed Simpson's Los Angeles trial. "An O.J. case is never like any other case."
With Simpson, the past is always a prologue — and so memories of his murder trial are certain to serve as a backdrop throughout the Las Vegas hearing. This case, while less dramatic in nature, carries with it far more devastating consequences.
Now 65 years old, Simpson has already spent the last four years in prison and must serve at least nine years of his maximum 33-year sentence before he is even eligible for parole. He would be 70 by then. If Simpson doesn't win a new trial, he could conceivably spend the rest of his life locked up.
"I try to explain to people how somebody could come from nothing to live the American dream and then lose it all," said Simpson's former manager and agent, Mike Gilbert, who is expected to testify at the hearing. "I have a hard time with it."
Close friend Jim Barnett describes Simpson as grayer, paunchier and limping a little more these days from old knee injuries. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist has visited Simpson several times at the medium-security Lovelock Correctional Center, an hour northeast of Reno.
Simpson, Barnett said, is a favorite among inmates. He has served as prison gym steward and coached a champion prison baseball team. "He gets along with everyone there," he said. "But he's slow. Last time I saw him, he had gotten quite heavy."
Before the "trial of the century," there were few televised court cases, no celebrity justice shows and a minimum of talking heads holding forth on TV about the prospects of famous defendants in court. Simpson's murder trial, televised from gavel to gavel, brought the legal arena into living rooms and turned lawyers into stars.
And Simpson, the quintessential American sports hero, was brought down by a trial that could not vindicate him even with a "not guilty" verdict. Too many people wanted him to pay for the deaths of his beautiful ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, found stabbed in front of her Los Angeles condominium.
Too many people believed Simpson had gotten away with murder.
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