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The O.J. Verdict 20 Years Later: What Has Judge Ito Been Up To?

20 Years Ago: Judge Ito Presided over the O.J. Simpson Double Murder Trial 1:48

Twenty years ago, 150 million people turned on their TVs, waiting for the moment for which the nation had anticipated for months — the verdict in the double murder case against former football pro O.J. Simpson.

The televised trial catapulted many in that courtroom to national fame, including the man who presided over the shocking Oct. 3, 1995, acquittal: Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance Ito.

BAILEY SIMPSON COCHRAN SHAPIRO
O.J. Simpson reacts as he is found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman at the Criminal Courts Building in Los Angeles on Oct. 3, 1995. At left is defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey and at right, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. Defense attorney Robert Shapiro is in profile behind them. MYUNG J. CHUN / Pool/AP file

In the two decades since, Ito’s signature facial hair has turned gray, and the name plate outside of his courtroom has been stolen more times than he can count by thieves who want a piece of history.

Ito, now 65, presided over some 500 trials since Simpson's, and only just put away his gavel for the final time earlier this year.

But no case garnered him anything close to the limelight than Simpson's did. Ito's decision to televise the eight-month-long trial has been credited — for good or for bad — with forever changing the way criminal cases are publicized; some have called it one of the worst moves in American judicial history.

Image: Superior Court Judge Lance Ito addresses the court Sept. 1, 1995, during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in L.A.
Superior Court Judge Lance Ito addresses the court on Sept. 1, 1995, during the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial in Los Angeles. MARK J. TERRILL / Pool via AP, file

Despite inviting cameras into his courtroom, Ito was constantly angry with the media during the trial. He refused to speak to mainstream press after the verdict, and in the 20 years since, has barely done any interviews.

Ito would not speak to NBC News for this story, but close friends say the publicity from the Simpson case didn't go to his head.

"He is so humble. It's kind of amazing, considering the spotlight he got put on," said Sergio Robleto, the former commanding officer of the LAPD homicide unit who was also a detective.

"He's humble — but he's not timid."

That humbleness may hearken back to Ito's roots: He's the son of Japanese-American schoolteachers, who met in an internment camp during World War II.

Robleto has known him since 1978, when Ito, then a young attorney, was asked to help police gather evidence in a gang member witness intimidation case. He introduced Ito to his wife, former detective Margaret Ann York, in a setting that was hardly romantic.

"We met at 4 a.m. at a homicide scene, both looking over a dead body," Ito has said.

Despite an unlikely beginning and bumps along the road — Ito's marriage to York, who rose to become the top woman in the LAPD, was seen by prosecutors as a possible conflict of interest in the Simpson case — the two celebrated their 34th wedding anniversary this year.

They have no children and regularly host cookouts for guests at their Pasadena mansion, friends say.

"He's having a wonderful retirement," former Los Angeles County District Attorney Robert Philibosian, who has known Ito for about 35 years, told NBC News. "They travel and they have a huge group of friends."

Philibosian and Robleto describe Ito as loyal, as well as a prankster with a top-notch sense of humor.

His appreciation for comedy came in handy during the Simpson trial. Late-night shows parodied Ito to no end, particularly "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," which featured the "Dancing Itos" — a troupe of Ito lookalikes who made regular appearances.

"He wouldn't like me saying this," Robleto said, "but he was a little jokester. He could joke at himself and others, which makes him a human being. He had a sense of humor, but then it was like: Back to work."

A spokesperson at the Los Angeles Superior Court confirmed that Ito retired on Jan. 5. Philibosian said he quietly spent the last 20 years on the ninth floor of the criminal courts building, where high-powered cases involving major murders, robberies, and rapes are tried.

Image: Judge Lance Ito sits in his closed courtroom on Jan. 16, 2013
Judge Lance Ito, seen on Jan. 16, 2013. Reed Saxon / AP, file

"There's separate security to get in there. He was assigned there because of his high level of expertise," Philibosian said.

His courtroom wasn't easy to find: The Los Angeles Times reported a few years ago that after having his name plaque stolen so many times, Ito gave up and stopped replacing it.

"We met at 4 a.m. at a homicide scene, both looking over a dead body."

Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike saw him as a respectful judge who was very involved in his cases, according to Philibosian.

"I've never heard anyone complain about getting him as a judge," he said. "He's humble — but he's not timid."

In a rare interview with the local Los Angeles FOX affiliate in 2012, Ito said he was "still ensconced on the ninth floor of the Downtown L.A. Criminal Courts Building, trying one long cause/complex criminal matter after another." Despite his notoriety, some things didn't change: He said he lived in the same neighborhood and drove the same car as he did during the Simpson days.

The Associated Press reported that after retiring, Ito had few plans, other than learning to play the guitar.

Ito has been called everything from "Trial Judge of the Year" — in 1992, by the L.A. Bar Association — to one of the world's crankiest judges. But to his friends, he's just Lance, a man who respects the law — and is a great grill chef.

"Just a decent, nice guy," Robleto said. "I think he gets a bum rap on this O.J. thing."