(photo credit: AP)
After being acquitted more than a decade ago in one of the most sensational murder cases in US history, O.J. Simpson could be looking at hard time if convicted in a seemingly half-baked scheme to grab some sports memorabilia he claimed belonged to him.
Whether prosecutors can make the charges stick remains to be seen. But if they can, the 60-year-old former football star will almost certainly go to prison.
One charge alone - robbery with the use of a deadly weapon - carries a mandatory sentence of two to 15 years. Kidnapping could bring a life sentence with the possibility of parole.
The defense and the public will get a preview of the prosecution's case beginning Thursday at a preliminary hearing where a judge will be asked to decide whether there is enough evidence to take the case to trial sometime next year.
Simpson was arrested and accused along with five others of bursting into a Las Vegas hotel-casino room with guns Sept. 13 and stealing a trove of sports items from two memorabilia dealers. Prosecutors say at least one gun was drawn.
Michael Shapiro, a New York defense lawyer who provided commentary during Simpson's 1995 acquittal in the slayings of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, said the Las Vegas case "reminds me of the old Mad magazine cartoon `Spy vs. Spy'" in its amateurishness - "if it weren't for the presence of a gun or guns."
"That ups the ante," Shapiro said. "When guns come into play, bad things can happen."
The case is likely to pivot on Simpson's contention that he didn't ask anyone to bring guns, that he didn't know anyone had guns, and that no guns were displayed.
He has said that all he wanted was to retrieve items that had been stolen from him by a former agent, including the suit he wore the day he was acquitted of murder in Los Angeles. But if he tried to take the items by use of deadly force, it doesn't matter whether they belonged to him or not.
Three of Simpson's co-defendants have pleaded guilty or agreed to do so and are expected to testify against him.
One of them, Walter Alexander, 46, told authorities after his arrest: "O.J. said, `Hey, just bring some firearms.'" Michael McClinton, 49, who brought the weapons, is expected to bolster that account on the stand.
Nevertheless, the prosecution's case has certain weaknesses, including some unsavory witnesses.
Of the eight men who were in the room with Simpson, six have run afoul of the law before, with convictions for arson, theft, cocaine trafficking and assault among them.
Moreover, Simpson's lawyers have argued that the men who turned against him lied to win generous plea bargains for themselves.
"He's got a bunch of people making up anything they can make up, just to get out of trouble," said Tom Scotto, a friend of Simpson's from North Miami Beach, Fla. Scotto added: "He's taking this serious. It is serious."
Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said no one will be able to avoid an undercurrent of deja vu with Simpson sitting in court.
"The subtext, from the defense standpoint, is going to be prosecutors trying for another bite at the O.J. apple," Armour said, "and attempts by prosecutors to correct a miscarriage of justice that occurred in the O.J. Simpson murder acquittal."