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Published: Friday, 9/21/2007

In court of public opinion, the verdict on O.J. Simpson is in

ONLY a man who got away with murder would think nothing of masterminding a personal "sting" operation in a Las Vegas hotel room with weapons reportedly drawn. If O.J. Simpson could beat the rap for slaughtering his ex-wife and another man despite an incriminating mountain of evidence against him, why sweat an apparent armed robbery with an obliging posse? The former NFL player has his celebrity shield. Can't touch him.

Orenthal James has led a charmed life ever since his talent for running and carrying a ball was discovered. His athletic skills catapulted him to stardom where he quickly became accustomed to the privileged lifestyle of the rich and famously pampered. In his world, laws could be broken, offenses overlooked, and excuses made.

For years, the "Juice" was feted and followed by adoring fans. He was a Hall of Fame legend. The man could do no wrong. We forgave him his mortal failings because he was O.J., a charismatic sports star, likable TV pitchman, and even bit actor on the big screen.

He had it all. He was one of the beautiful people living the high life of catered celebrity until everything fell apart in 1994. Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were found stabbed to death. All the bloody trails and DNA matches led straight to Nicole's former husband.

The evidence tying O.J. to the vicious crime was overwhelming. Everything in the sensational 1995 murder trial screamed that the defendant did it. But the accused killer had his name and fame and race going for him. He also had the best legal "Dream Team" money could buy.

The lawyers managed to turn O.J. into a sympathetic black man victimized by "the system." His fate turned on convincing the jury that he was set up by a racist cop who planted evidence. The tactic worked.

His star power had pulled him out of a dicey predicament. He'd subsequently be held liable for the killings in a civil trial and ordered to pay a $33.5 million judgment. But no way did O.J. lose sleep over the wrongful death lawsuit.

Nor did he intend to satisfy the judgment any time soon. He intended to while away his days in Florida relaxing at tony resorts and playing golf with his buddies. Sure he got into a few scrapes with the law, but nothing as serious as a double homicide and nothing he couldn't explain away as a persecuted celebrity.

He still acted like a matinee idol, signing autographs and football memorabilia and thriving on the attention he could always generate. He was special, unique, a Heisman Trophy winner, for Pete's sake. He moved in a realm beyond the ordinary, above the rules that apply to everyone else.

O.J.'s greatest claim to fame in recent years was his 134-day "trial of the century." So why not cash in on a book surmising how Nicole and Ron could have been murdered if he did it. Or, if O.J. wanted to retrieve what he said was stolen sports memorabilia from collectors by barging into a hotel room with a group of armed men, why not?

O.J. could get away with anything. Someone was always willing to smooth the way for the star. Even after being arrested for the alleged armed robbery last weekend, he quipped that he thought what happened in Vegas stays in Vegas. It was all a joke, right?

No doubt O.J. figures this, too, will pass. Just a harmless misunderstanding blown up into eight felony charges including robbery and kidnapping. And the high-profile athlete turned minor actor turned author may be right. There are enough questions about the event and trustworthiness of the characters involved to cast doubt on what happened.

But then again, it may be that karma has finally caught up with O.J. and he won't get away this time without paying a debt owed. A lot has changed since he was acquitted of killing his ex-wife and her friend. Chances are the race card won't play as well as it did more than a decade ago.

Plus it'll be tough to portray O.J. as a victim because he admittedly orchestrated the whole affair in Vegas. It could be that a criminal court will force the 60-year-old suspect to grow old behind bars.

But in the court of public opinion the O.J. verdict is already in. The notorious celebrity is undoubtedly guilty of over-the-top arrogance and deserves none of the prosecutorial courtesies once proffered, or the sympathy once shown by those who believed he could do no wrong.



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