LAS VEGAS – When O.J Simpson and five other men pushed into a cramped casino hotel room to confront two memorabilia peddlers a year ago they were only trying to retrieve keepsakes and family heirlooms that Simpson hoped to pass along to his children.
That's what Simpson's lawyers will tell a jury of nine women and three men due to begin hearing testimony Monday in a Las Vegas courtroom.
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"My client was recovering personal property that was stolen from his home many years prior," Simpson lawyer Yale Galanter said Friday. "This is not a case about sports memorabilia. It's about personal property."
But prosecutors will cast the confrontation as a dangerous plot that could send the 61-year-old former football star to prison, maybe for the rest of his life.
Clark County District Attorney David Roger has said the case against Simpson and one remaining co-defendant, Clarence "C.J." Stewart, will rely on testimony from some 25 witnesses, including four former co-defendants who have taken plea deals and agreed to testify for the prosecution.
Defense lawyers said that after opening statements, the prosecution is expected to call Bruce Fromong, a 54-year-old sports collectibles dealer from North Las Vegas to the stand.
Fromong testified at an evidentiary hearing last November that he expected to meet with an anonymous buyer when Simpson arrived with others "in a military invasion fashion."
Fromong said one man wielded a gun while Simpson shouted that items in the room belonged to him and instructed those with him to gather them up.
Fromong suffered a heart attack after the alleged robbery. But Simpson's lawyers have cast him as less traumatized by the alleged robbery than excited about the chance to cash in on the notoriety of the case.
Roger also plans to use audio recordings surreptitiously made by Thomas Riccio, a Los Angeles collectibles trader who arranged the Sept. 13, 2007, meeting between Simpson, Fromong and sports memorabilia dealer Alfred Beardsley.
Galanter said the recordings could also help the defense.
"It'll be clear from the tapes," he said, "when O.J. says, 'Don't take any things that aren't mine."'
Galanter will have to overcome testimony from former Simpson buddy Michael McClinton, who testified at a hearing last November that Simpson directed him to bring guns and "look menacing."
Another former co-defendant, Walter Alexander, depicted Simpson as the mastermind of a "sting" operation to recover his possessions, and said Simpson asked him to bring some "heat."
Charles Cashmore, a union laborer, testified he was invited to tag along to help Simpson carry items away.
Charles Ehrlich, a Simpson pal from Miami, has yet to testify after pleading guilty several weeks ago to reduced charges that could get him probation.
Simpson denies guns were brought to the hotel room where nine men were so crowded around a queen-sized bed, armoire, desk and chair that one had to stand in the bathroom.
Simpson, of Miami, and Stewart, 54, a former golfing buddy from North Las Vegas, have pleaded not guilty to 12 charges including kidnapping, armed robbery and conspiracy. Each could face life in prison with the possibility of parole if convicted of kidnapping, and mandatory prison time if convicted of armed robbery.
Jury selection took four days before Judge Jackie Glass had 12 jurors and six alternates sworn in late Thursday. Trial is expected to take about five weeks.
One lawyer who has followed the case closely since Simpson's arrest said he expects the prosecutor to systematically lay a foundation for the jury to understand the case.
"I know David Roger likes to do things chronologically," said Al Lasso, who watched the contentious three-day preliminary hearing.
But Lasso also expects some early fireworks.
"You almost like to have a big punch in the beginning to get the jury's attention," he said.