LAS VEGAS – The latest high-stakes court hearing for O.J. Simpson in the glitzy capital of big gambles has come to a close with the former football star's defense team feeling confident that their client is closer to getting out of prison.
The last time Simpson was in a Las Vegas courtroom, he was convicted of kidnapping and armed robbery. Now, with a new team of attorneys on his side, he has mounted a cool, methodical case that his former lead lawyer botched the 2008 trial so badly that a new one should be granted.
"He has a very good chance now," said Ozzie Fumo, one of the attorneys who represented Simpson. "I don't think the state was able to counter any of our issues."
Simpson's lawyers presented evidence that showed Miami-based attorney Yale Galanter shared responsibility for the ill-conceived plan for the NFL Hall of Famer and former Hollywood star to take back personal items and mementos from two sports collectible dealers in a Vegas hotel room. They also built a case that he deliberately sabotaged Simpson's chances for acquittal and appeal to protect himself and his own self-interests.
When the weeklong hearing ended Friday there seemed to be little doubt that major mistakes were made when Simpson was sentenced to nine to 33 years in prison on 12 criminal counts. The real question is whether enough was done to meet the high standard needed for District Court Judge Linda Marie Bell to free Simpson from state prison and grant him a new trial.
The final witness she heard from was Galanter, who defended his actions in a tense courtroom standoff with Simpson and his new representatives Friday.
As Simpson's legal team worked to portray Galanter as hungry for the money and fame that could come from an O.J. trial, the lawyer said it was Simpson who agreed to spend more than a half a million dollars on his defense, turned down a plea bargain and decided not to testify.
"I felt a genuine fondness for O.J. and was devastated when he lost," Galanter said.
However, when Simpson testified Wednesday, he recounted his hotel room confrontation with memorabilia dealers, and his interactions with the lawyer he blamed for his conviction.
He said he trusted Galanter based a long professional relationship. "He was my guy," Simpson said.
He said Galanter made no mention of a plea deal and advised him not to testify in his own defense when other lawyers said it would help.
Galanter, when he was on the stand, said Simpson brought "too much baggage" to testify given his 1995 acquittal in the murders of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Following the "trial of the century" Simpson was ordered to pay $33.5 million when he was found liable for the killings in civil court.
Galanter also testified that Simpson confided to him that he had asked two men to bring guns to the hotel room in September 2007, and Simpson "knew he screwed up."
Simpson lawyer Fumo, however, said that claim wasn't credible.
"Galanter tried to throw O.J. under the bus, but it was inconsistent with the entire defense he presented," Fumo said. At trial Galanter had said Simpson never ordered guns to be carried and didn't see firearms in the room.
Simpson's lawyers have a high legal burden to prove their case under a writ of habeas corpus, which relies on showing not only that his lawyer's work was ineffective but that if he had acted differently it would have changed the outcome.
But there is another key issue — conflict of interest.
"An actual conflict is a violation of the right to counsel," said Jennifer Carr, a criminal law professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas."
If Simpson "can succeed in showing that there has been an actual conflict, he need not show that that conflict caused the verdict. Merely showing the conflict is sufficient to show his right to counsel was violated," Carr said.
Simpson's testimony was pivotal on this point. Even with his hair gray and thinning, and his finely chiseled features lost under the burden of years and weight, the 65-year-old Simpson was an impressive witness.
He was still O.J. Simpson, a man used to the spotlight. He shuffled to the witness stand in shackles but spoke with confidence. He told of dining with Galanter the night before the hotel caper and telling him the plan.
"I talked to Yale about it two or three times," Simpson said. "The overall advice he was giving was, 'You have a right to get your stuff.'"
Galanter told a different story.
"He said he and some of his boys might be doing a sting in the morning," said Galanter.
He added that Simpson said, "he finally had a lead on some personal pictures and memorabilia that was stolen from him years earlier. I said, 'O.J., you've got to call the police.'"
As it turned out, someone called the police but it wasn't Simpson. The memorabilia dealers claimed they were robbed at gunpoint. Simpson was arrested.
"It obviously didn't go the way I hoped it would," Simpson said with a touch of irony.
Las Vegas lawyers Gabriel Grasso and Malcolm LaVergne, who also participated in the case, testified that Galanter had a conflict because he could have been called as a witness. There was a trail of phone calls between Simpson and Galanter before and after the Sept. 13, 2007 confrontation.
Other points raised by Simpson's team included Galanter's failure to hire investigators or experts and never interviewing witnesses against Simpson because, "We already knew a lot about them."
A key criticism was Galanter's refusal to hire experts to analyze audio recordings from the hotel incident, telling a colleague they were "operating on a shoestring" while demanding more money from Simpson's business manager. He also refused to challenge admissibility of the tapes, insisting they would help Simpson.
Jurors said they convicted Simpson solely on the basis of the tapes because they found the witnesses not credible.
When the hearing ended, the judge said would issue a written ruling but did not set a date.
If Simpson succeeds in getting his conviction thrown out, prosecutors will have to either retry him or offer a plea bargain. It is also possible Simpson could be freed with credit for time served. If he loses, he will be sent back to prison and will probably appeal to a higher court.
He will be 70 before he is eligible for parole.