What Happened in Vegas: Why O.J. Simpson Is Likely to Go Free After 9 Years in Prison

Behind bars for armed robbery after being acquitted of murder, a look at the legalities and the emotions still raging ahead of the disgraced star's second parole hearing and first shot at getting out

By Natalie Finn Jul 19, 2017 12:00 PMTags
O.J. SimpsonJulie Jacobson - Pool/Getty Images

On Oct. 3, 1995, O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder after one of the most polarizing criminal trials in American legal history.

Exactly 13 years later, Simpson was convicted of being an idiot.

Officially he was convicted of armed robbery, kidnapping, assault, conspiracy, burglary and coercion for a 2007 confrontation in a Las Vegas hotel room that Simpson maintained was an innocent attempt on his part to reclaim his own memorabilia—but the gross lack of judgment he exercised in being anywhere near a gun or in any way involved in this ill-advised caper was astounding.

That doesn't mean, however, that Simpson shouldn't be paroled when his number comes up tomorrow. The long-ago football great turned sociological talking point and resurgent pop culture figure of late has spent almost nine years in a Nevada prison, by all accounts a model inmate.

And what happened 23 years ago isn't supposed to matter. 

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"They're not supposed to consider the prior conduct at all, that's a part of the law," attorney Todd Berger, an associate professor at Syracuse University College of Law and Director of the school's Criminal Defense Clinic, tells E! News. "It would be hard for the parole board to justify not paroling him, based on where he falls in the assessment, without having people say, 'Well, obviously you're considering other conduct.'"

According to the letter of the law, a number of pertinent, legally relevant factors are what will be taken into consideration Thursday when Simpson appears via teleconference from Lovelock Correctional Center in front of the state parole board located in Carson City. Among other things, they'll consider his age, if he was convicted of a violent crime (technically, yes) and his prior criminal history (technically, he doesn't have one).

The hearing will be televised, Simpson once again starring in his own real-life legal drama.

Simpson is the only one of the six men who entered the room at the Palace Station hotel to retrieve the memorabilia who remains locked up. Four were sentenced to probation after cutting deals, while the only other one who went to trial and was sentenced to any prison time, Clarence "C.J." Stewart, had his conviction overturned on appeal, after which he took a plea deal and was sentenced to probation and house arrest after spending 27 months incarcerated.

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"Assuming that he's behaved himself in prison, I don't think it will be out of line for him to get parole," David Roger, the now retired Clark County district attorney who prosecuted Simpson in 2008, told the AP this month.

"He's going to get parole," defense attorney Yale Galanter, who represented Simpson at the 2008 trial, told USA Today. "Parole in the state of Nevada is really based on how you behave in prison, and by all accounts he's been a model prisoner. There are no absolutes anytime you're dealing with administrative boards, but this is as close to a non-personal decision as you can get."

The risk-assessment worksheet the Nevada parole board considers utilizes an 11-point system, in which anywhere from 0 to 5 points would make him a low-risk parolee. When he was paroled on five of 12 counts in 2013, he was given a 3. Considering the type of offenses under consideration this time, including kidnapping and use of a weapon while committing robbery, he would get a 2, plus 2 more points for having consumed alcohol before committing the 2007 crime and 1 point for being male (women don't get a gender point). A point is subtracted, however, for candidates 41 or older. He also got a point subtracted in 2013 because he had no disciplinary issues in prison, and that's expected to occur again tomorrow.

"By all indications he's between 0 and 5, so he's basically a shoo-in for parole," Berger says.

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None of the people reportedly planning to be in attendance, including Simpson's daughter Arnelle, his sister Shirley Baker, a couple of prison guards, a longtime friend from Florida and a now-retired investigator who worked the case, plan to argue against his release. One of the victims, memorabilia broker Bruce Fromong, is said to have forgiven O.J. since the robbery and plans to be at the hearing in a way that's "good for O.J." (The other victim, Alfred Beardsley, died in 2015.)

But the decision to grant or not grant the now 70-year-old Simpson parole after he served the minimum nine years of his maximum 33-year sentence, is expected to re-stir the same pot of emotions that the not guilty verdict in his 1995 murder trial sent bubbling over.

Myung J. Chun/Daily News via AP

Moreover, it's also a quirk of timing that this moment comes so hot on the heels of renewed mass interest in Simpson, thanks to 2016's Emmy-winning American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and Ezra Edelman's 7 1/2-hour O.J.: Made in America, which just won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in February. Anyone who sat down to watch, perhaps reluctantly, thinking they couldn't possibly know more about the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and the O.J. trial, were promptly treated to the most thorough, immersive examination yet of his life and the cultural climate in Los Angeles at the time of the trial and how it's changed, or hasn't changed, in the past two decades.

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The intensity of that time makes the ridiculousness of what Simpson later got locked up for all the more poignant.

"I didn't mean to steal from anybody...I realize that. It was stupid of me," the disgraced star told Nevada District Court Judge Jackie Glass before he was sentenced in December 2008. "I didn't think that I was doing anything illegal. I thought I was retrieving my things. So I am sorry."

"You knew what was going on there," Glass, who called Simpson's behavior "arrogant" and "ignorant," said in reply. "I have to tell you now it was more than stupidity." She continued, pointedly, "I'm not here to sentence Mr Simpson for what's happened in his life previously in the criminal justice system," she said. "There are many people who disagree with that verdict but that doesn't matter to me. I'm not here for retribution or payback for anybody else."

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It's not an uncommon opinion that Simpson's hefty sentence in the Vegas robbery case was in some way payback for the murder trial, which left a city (if not a whole nation) divided and the Brown and Goldman families devastated.

"I don't think he got fairly treated, and I don't think I got fairly treated," F. Lee Bailey, the only member of Simpson's legal "Dream Team" from 1995 whom he was still in touch with when he went on trial for robbery, told Town & Country in a new interview in the magazine's August 2017 issue. The 84-year-old criminal defense legend, who was disbarred in 2003, firmly believes he's been unfairly maligned for maintaining all these years that Simpson is innocent. "If that's not a level of kinship, it's certainly a level of identity," he said. "We have the O.J. curse in common, to a degree."

Bailey, 84, says he has a book that supports Simpson's innocence ready to roll, but "the publishing industry does not want a book favorable to O.J."

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It remains to be seen what the public will want, if anything, from O.J. himself.

"He'll probably do one big interview, probably cash in, and I don't think you'll hear from him again," predicts Kato Kaelin, whose name became synonymous with "house guest" after he parlayed his turn as a prosecution witness into a still-chugging 15 minutes of reality-TV stardom. "I think he's...I think he understands that he doesn't want to be behind bars."

Kaelin told NBC News in an interview this week that he thinks Simpson has "paid his due" for this crime and his "gut opinion" is that his old friend will be paroled. But, he added, "I also think that he got the break of his life during the actual trial."

As in the murder trial. 

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Kaelin, who was staying in one of O.J.'s guest houses at the time of the killings and testified for the prosecution about his interactions with Simpson that night to help establish a timeline of events, has said that he thinks Simpson is guilty of killing Ron and Nicole. He reiterated as much to Barbara Walters in 2015, saying, "in hindsight and everything, 20 years later, I think that O.J. Simpson is guilty."  

"I think he'd be crazy to want to be seen again in the public," he also told NBC News. "I could be wrong, maybe he'll do some crazy video...but I think he'd probably just...hide out. Maybe go golfing. And that's it."

If he's granted parole, Simpson could be released as early as Oct. 1. Four members of the parole board will consider his fate while another two will be monitoring the proceedings. If it's a 2-2 decision, then the monitors will weigh in. Simpson needs a majority, so if the board then ties 3-3 (there's currently a vacancy on the board), he'll have another parole hearing in January.

Jason Winslow / Splash News

Among the questions remaining is where the indisputably infamous parolee is going to live, should he go free, as residential stability is also one of the things the board will consider. Simpson had been living in Florida when he was arrested in Nevada, but his Miami home was sold at auction in 2014. His now 31-year-old daughter Sydney has since moved back to Florida after graduating from Boston University and living in Atlanta for awhile. Both she and brother Justin, 28, live in St. Petersburg.

"One of the things I would wonder is, are they going to transfer the parole to another jurisdiction?" Berger says. Aside from establishing residency, Simpson will also have to report to a parole officer, possibly multiple times a month, and avoid any kind of criminal conviction—"a standard condition of parole no matter where you are," the attorney added, "and you have to immediately report any contact you have with law enforcement. If he gets pulled over with a broken tail light, he has to tell his parole officer he got pulled over."

Berger also said it's possible that, because Simpson's alcohol use was considered to be involved in the 2007 crime, he may be required to seek alcohol treatment, or even be required to refrain from drinking alcohol while on parole.

Meanwhile, Simpson's time behind bars has been largely uneventful and his "positive institutional record" was duly noted at his 2013 parole hearing. His friend Tom Scotto, whose wedding Simpson was in town to attend when the heist went down in 2007 and who plans to be at Thursday's hearing, told the AP that O.J. has passed the time at the medium-security Lovelock serving as commissioner of the prison yard softball league, mentoring fellow inmates, working in the prison gym and leading a Baptist prayer group.

Addressing the parole board in 2013, Simpson expressed remorse for his actions and said he had since apologized to both victims. "I've not had any incidents despite all the stories in the tabloids and everything," he said, adding that he had promised to be a model prisoner when he went in, and "for the most part I've kept my word on that."