In a scene of legal deja vu, a grayer, heavier O.J. Simpson stood handcuffed in court Wednesday to face charges that could put him behind bars for life. The prosecutor who failed to get him a dozen years ago was there to watch, and news cameras tracked his every move as if they were covering a slow-speed chase.
But as Simpson made his $125,000 bail on charges including kidnapping and armed robbery, legal experts were questioning: Could a former football star who beat a double-murder rap really do hard time for a crime that sounds like a bad movie?
Police have laid out a case that makes Simpson the leader in an armed holdup of sports memorabilia collectors, and they arrested a fifth suspect in the case Wednesday. Some of the facts — including a curious recording of the confrontation — don’t seem so clear-cut.
Experts say that issues such as who had rightful ownership of the goods and the reputation of witnesses in the sometimes less-than-reputable world of memorabilia trading could cloud the prosecution’s case.
Accuracy of tape questioned
Simpson has insisted he was merely retrieving items that were stolen from him earlier.
Alfred Beardsley, one of the collectors who says he was robbed at gunpoint by Simpson and several other men, told NBC’s “Today” show before Simpson’s hearing that he didn’t think an audiotape made at the scene was accurate. Beardsley was arrested on a parole violation Wednesday.
The other victim, Bruce Fromong, was recovering from a heart attack in a Los Angeles hospital. The man who arranged the meeting between Simpson and the two collectors, Tom Riccio, has a criminal record.
“The credibility of the cohorts in the enterprise would be a key issue at trial,” said University of Southern California law professor Jody Armour.
Agreed, said Dennis Turner, a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law. “This is a pretty shady world and pretty shady characters dealing with each other in a pretty shady way.”
A key difference with the 1995 murder trial is that there are plenty of witnesses this time who place Simpson at the scene, including hotel video surveillance. Simpson has made no secret he went to the hotel room intending to take the memorabilia and told The Associated Press that a man who came with him brought a truck to cart away the goods.
“It’s not like the murder case involving his ex-wife and Ron Goldman, where Simpson had a completely different story in which he said, ’I wasn’t there,”’ said Doug Godfrey, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. “A prosecutor only has to show intent. And the intent is, ’Were you acting in concert with someone with a gun to take property from someone?’ If you were, you’re guilty of armed robbery.”
Simpson attorney Yale Galanter said: “You can’t rob something that is yours.”
No plea entered
Simpson furrowed his brow as the judge read the list of charges against him. Gone was the slight smirk he flashed when he was arrested.
He answered quietly in a hoarse voice and nodded as the judge laid out restrictions for his release, including surrendering his passport to his attorney and having no contact with co-defendants or potential witnesses.
Simpson did not enter a plea.
Galanter said after the hearing that the $125,000 bond was reasonable.
The oddity of the case has attracted a swarm of reporters, including Marcia Clark, who unsuccessfully prosecuted Simpson for the 1994 murders and was reporting for “Entertainment Tonight.” A helicopter television crew followed Simpson’s vehicle leaving the court, strangely reminiscent of the slow-speed chase in which he once fled police in a white Ford Bronco.
Simpson, 60, flew home to Miami later Wednesday in a spectacle just as surreal. US Airways emptied a plane so he could board first with Galanter and his girlfriend, Christine Prody.
Simpson sat in seat 6D, an aisle seat in economy class. Passengers who boarded behind him took pictures with cell phones and cameras. He nodded and smiled as they passed.
Alleged details of incident
Simpson was arrested Sunday after a collector reported a group of armed men charged into a hotel room at the Palace Station casino and took several items.
The Heisman Trophy winner spent three nights in jail after being charged with kidnapping, robbery with use of a deadly weapon, burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon, coercion with use of a deadly weapon, assault with a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, conspiracy to commit robbery and conspiracy to commit a crime.
Four other men have been arrested on many of the same charges, and police were still looking for another suspect.
Charles Howard Cashmore, 40, surrendered to police Wednesday and was scheduled to appear in court Thursday morning. Cashmore brought in items that are believed to have been taken, police said without elaborating.
Authorities allege that the men went to the room Sept. 13 on the pretext of brokering a deal with two longtime collectors, Beardsley and Fromong. According to police reports, the collectors were ordered at gunpoint to hand over several items valued at as much as $100,000, including football game balls signed by Simpson, Joe Montana lithographs, baseballs autographed by Pete Rose and Duke Snider and framed awards and plaques.
Beardsley told police he expected that night that the collection would earn $35,000 from the “client” he had never met.
Beardsley told police that one of the men with Simpson brandished a pistol, frisked him and impersonated a police officer, and that another man pointed a gun at Fromong.
Authorities said Beardsley, of Burbank, Calif., was paroled in March 2006 after serving 11 months of a two-year sentence for stalking a woman in Riverside County.
He was arrested at his room at the Luxor hotel Wednesday for violating parole. A California corrections spokesman said Beardsley was required to get written approval before traveling more than 50 miles from home or leaving home for more than 24 hours.
Beardsley was held without bail pending an extradition hearing Thursday.
Court records show Riccio also has a criminal history, including grand larceny in Florida in 1984, when he received three years of probation; and felony arson in 1995, in California, for which he was sentenced to two years.
Riccio has said he was not concerned with how his past might affect his credibility “because everything’s on tape. That’s why it’s on tape.”
He also said he had been promised some form of immunity by prosecutors.
Other suspects arrested
Two other defendants, Walter Alexander, 46, and Clarence Stewart, 53, were arrested and released pending court appearances. Stewart turned in some of the missing goods and Alexander agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, authorities said. Suspect Michael McClinton, 49, of Las Vegas, surrendered to police Tuesday. Jailers were unable to say whether Cashmore or McClinton had retained a lawyer.
Police have not identified the remaining suspect they are seeking.
Armour said if the other suspects who have been arrested turn on Simpson in exchange for lighter sentences, it could help the prosecution, but also damage their credibility. Allegations of a setup could also cast doubt on the testimony of the memorabilia dealers, he said.
“But at the end of the day, that may not matter as much as whether they think he (Simpson) deserves some punishment for something,” Armour said.