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LAS VEGAS — O.J. Simpson will return next week to the Las Vegas courthouse where he was convicted of leading an armed sports memorabilia heist to ask a judge for a new trial on the grounds that his lawyer botched his case.
Simpson will take the witness stand to testify that the Florida lawyer who collected nearly $700,000 is to blame for his armed robbery and kidnapping conviction in 2008 and his failed appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court in 2010.
Simpson’s testimony in open court will offer a first look at the aging 65-year-old former football star since he was handcuffed and sent to prison more than four years ago. Simpson didn’t testify at his Las Vegas trial or in the historic case that led to his 1995 acquittal in the slayings of his ex-wife and her friend in Los Angeles.
Instead of an expensive suit and tie, Simpson will be dressed in blue Nevada Department of Corrections clothing — grayer, heavier and limping a little more from long-ago knee injuries, friends say. He is now Nevada inmate No. 1027820, a far cry from his playing days when Simpson wore jersey No. 32, won the Heisman Trophy, earned the nickname “The Juice” in the NFL and gained induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Simpson is scheduled to be in Clark County District Court beginning Monday for the entire five-day hearing. He could testify Wednesday before a judge who has agreed to hear 19 separate points, mostly claiming that lawyer Yale Galanter provided such poor representation that Simpson deserves a new trial.
Simpson is serving a nine-to-33-year sentence that makes him first eligible for parole at age 70.
If he wins a new trial, prosecutors would have to decide whether to retry him for an incident that happened in September 2007 or offer a plea deal sparing the time and expense of another trial.
In a sworn statement outlining his upcoming testimony, Simpson said he told Galanter in advance that he planned to confront two collectibles dealers in Las Vegas and retrieve what he expected would be family photos, heirlooms and personal sports mementoes that he believed had been stolen from him after his “trial of the century” in Los Angeles.
“I fully disclosed my plan to Yale Galanter, and he advised me that I was within my legal rights,” he said.
Simpson said the two even had dinner the night before in Las Vegas, and Galanter told him the plan was OK as long as he didn’t trespass on private property or use physical force.
Simpson claims that at trial, Galanter told him he didn’t need to testify because prosecutors failed to prove their case, and didn’t tell him about a plea offer by prosecutors that would have gotten him a minimum of two years in prison.
“Had I understood that there was an actual chance of conviction, I would have accepted such an offer,” Simpson said.
Galanter, who is expected to testify Friday, declined to comment ahead of his appearance.
Throwing trial attorneys under the bus on appeals is a common legal tactic for people convicted of crimes — but rarely successful.
The burden of proof in a post-conviction writ of habeas corpus is on the defendant to convince a judge — not a jury — that the trial was tainted and new evidence might yield acquittal. It’s not yet clear whether Clark County District Court Judge Linda Marie Bell will make an immediate ruling or issue a written decision later.
Bell didn’t handle the trial, and both prosecutors have retired. Most of the colorful cast of characters involved in Simpson’s first trial won’t be involved in next week’s hearing. Attorneys put the number of expected witnesses at 16 — including lawyers, experts, Simpson friends and his 44-year-old daughter, Arnelle.
Some legal observers think Simpson has a chance at getting a new trial.
“If Mr. Simpson can establish that the strategy of the defense was motivated by his lawyer’s self-interest, and that it compromised Mr. Simpson’s trial rights, he could overcome the defendant’s burden and establish the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel sufficient to get him a new trial,” said Las Vegas attorney Michael Cristalli. The veteran lawyer handled the successful appeal, retrial and 2004 acquittal of a former stripper in the 1998 death of wealthy casino executive Ted Binion.
Simpson’s 94-page petition for a new trial exempts trial co-counsel Gabriel Grasso from the conflict-of-interest question. It says Grasso wasn’t made aware of Galanter’s pre-incident advice, wasn’t privy to private strategy discussions between Galanter and Simpson, and was rebuked when he tried to advise Simpson without Galanter’s approval.
Former District Attorney David Roger is due to testify. In an interview, he recalled discussing a possible plea with Galanter during trial, but said discussions didn’t yield “negotiations in the legal sense.”
Galanter said Simpson might be willing to serve 24 months in prison, Roger recalled. Prosecutors countered with 30 months. Galanter later said Simpson wanted no more than 12 months. Roger said he thought Galanter had spoken with Simpson.
“That’s where the conversation ended,” the former prosecutor said.
A key element in Simpson’s bid for a new trial is his claim that because Galanter handled his appeal and oral arguments before the Nevada Supreme Court, Simpson was blocked from claiming that Galanter had conflicted interests.
H. Leon Simon, the chief deputy district attorney now handling the case, said Simpson isn’t owed a new trial. Evidence was overwhelming, he said.
Hotel security video showed Simpson and five other men arriving at the Palace Station casino-hotel with middleman Thomas Riccio, and leaving with boxes of items. Jurors heard audio recordings of Simpson and others talking about the plan ahead of time and of the five-minute confrontation involving nine men crammed around a big bed in a small room. Two of the men said they had guns.
Simpson trial co-defendant Clarence “C.J.” Stewart served more than two years of a 7½-to-27 year prison sentence before the state Supreme Court overturned his conviction. The justices ruled Simpson’s fame tainted the Las Vegas proceedings and Stewart should have been tried separately.
Stewart took a plea deal to avoid a retrial and was convicted of felony robbery and conspiracy but set free.
“As far as Simpson is concerned, I wish him luck,” said Stewart, now 59 and driving limousine in New Orleans. “He needs to tell the truth about Yale Galanter. Yale only represented him to protect himself, to make sure his name didn’t come up.”