LAS VEGAS — More than four years after the world last heard from O.J. Simpson in court, one of the nation’s most famous prisoners spoke again Wednesday in a bid to win freedom from a sentence that could keep him behind bars until he dies.
Simpson took the stand to testify about his legal representation by attorney Yale Galanter in the case involving a strange hotel room confrontation with sports memorabilia dealers that led to a conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping.
Under questioning by his co-counsel, Patricia Palm, Simpson discussed his background with Galanter and the hotel incident.
“Yale had a good relationship with the media,” Simpson said.
“I was in the media a lot. He was able to refute many of the tabloid stories,” Simpson said with a laugh. “He sort of liked doing it; he told me he did.”
The 65-year-old former football star and actor, now with short graying hair, receding hairline and dressed in drab prison uniform, spoke clearly and confidently as he recounted events leading up to the confrontation in a hotel room where the dealers had Simpson footballs and family photos.
During the trial, two co-defendants who took plea deals and testified for the prosecution, said they had guns. Simpson, however, was adamant Wednesday that he never asked anyone to bring weapons.
“There was no talk of guns at all,” he told Palm.
Simpson’s voice cracked a bit as he recounted recognizing items on the hotel room bed, including framed photos that used to hang on the wall of his Los Angeles home.
“Look at this stuff. Some of the stuff I didn’t really realize was gone. These were things I hadn’t seen in 10 years,” he said. “You know, you get a little emotional about it.”
Simpson told his attorney he believed he was allowed to take the items.
In 2008, Simpson was near tears as he told a judge: “I didn’t mean to steal anything from anybody. … I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all of it.”
There is no jury in the hearing and his fate will be determined by Clark County District Judge Linda Marie Bell.
Unlike previous days of the hearing, the courtroom was full, with Tracy Baker, daughter of Simpson sister Shirley Baker, Charles Durio, husband of Simpson’s deceased sister, Carmelita, in the second row. Also on hand was Tom Scotto, a Simpson friend from Miami whose wedding brought Simpson to Las Vegas.
A marshal turned people away, sending more than 15 people to an overflow room where video was streamed live.
When he went to trial in 2008, Simpson did not testify — a decision that one of his lawyers said was pushed upon him by Galanter.
With 19 points raised to support reversal in the writ of habeas corpus, Simpson was expected to answer many questions from his lawyers and then undergo cross-examination by an attorney for the state who wants to keep him in prison.
Simpson is serving nine to 33 years in prison for his conviction on armed robbery, kidnapping and other charges.
Earlier, attorney Gabriel Grasso was Simpson’s star witness, the Las Vegas lawyer who joined the case when his old friend, Galanter, called and said, “Hey, Gabe, want to be famous?”
He said he soon realized he would be doing most of the behind-the-scenes work while Galanter made the decisions.
“I could advise O.J. all day long, and he was very respectful of me,” Grasso told the court. “But if I advised him of something different from what Yale said, he would do what Yale said.”
It was Galanter’s decision not to have Simpson testify, Grasso said.
Under questioning from H. Leon Simon, attorney for the state, Grasso acknowledged the trial judge, Jackie Glass, specifically asked Simpson if he wanted to testify and he said no.
“Mr. Galanter told him, `This is the way it’s going to be,”‘ Grasso said, adding he would have put him on the stand.
He said Simpson’s confidence in Galanter was born of the acquittal he gained for Simpson in a road rage case in Florida five years after his 1995 acquittal on murder charges in the stabbing deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.
Galanter is now the focus of Simpson’s motion claiming ineffective assistance of counsel and conflict of interest. He has declined to comment until he takes the stand Friday.
There are questions of money, too. Grasso accused Galanter of lining his own pockets while telling him they were “operating on a shoestring” and couldn’t afford to hire expert witnesses. Simpson’s business attorney, Leroy “Skip” Taft, testified by phone Tuesday that he kept getting big bills from Galanter but no explanation of what costs were eating up hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Witness after witness spoke of a proposed plea bargain that Galanter turned down on Simpson’s behalf but no one was sure the defendant knew about it.
There were rumors that Galanter gave his blessings to Simpson’s plan to show up at the hotel room and reclaim his memorabilia, which two dealers were trying to peddle.
Retired Clark County District Attorney David Roger, who prosecuted Simpson, was asked whether investigators determined if Galanter helped Simpson plan the hotel room confrontation.
“He said he did not advise Mr. Simpson to commit armed robbery,” Roger said.
“And he said he wasn’t there?” asked Simpson attorney Ozzie Fumo.
“Yes,” Roger replied.
Others have testified that Galanter was in Las Vegas and had dinner with Simpson the night before.
The other prosecutor, Chris Owens, testified about discovering phone calls between the two but hiding that fact from the judge. He identified at least 10 calls in the days preceding and on Sept. 13, 2007.
Both prosecutors described an agreement with the Simpson defense that was read to the jury saying there were no calls.
“So you stipulated to events that weren’t true?” Fumo asked Owens.
“It was in the form of a legal construct,” Owens replied and said the judge encouraged it because she didn’t want to confuse the jury with another issue.
This is Simpson’s last chance under state law to prove that he was wrongly convicted. A federal court appeal is still possible.