By William M. Welch, USA TODAY
LAS VEGAS - O.J. Simpson, grayer and softer after nearly five years in a desert prison, testified for the first time Wednesday about events that led to his robbery conviction and insisted he had no intention of using armed force during a 2007 confrontation with sports memorabilia dealers.
Shackled and locked to the witness stand, the 65-year-old former football star said he went into the fateful meeting in an off-the-strip casino hotel believing the dealers had items - including footballs, autographs and personal family photos - that had been taken from him.
"I had never sold any of my personal memorabilia, ever,'' he said.
"I was kind of stunned because i was looking at stuff I hadn't seen in 10 years,'' Simpson testified of the meeting with dealers. "Some of this stuff, I didn't even know was gone. I had forgotten about.... I was a little emotional about'' seeing the items.
Simpson said he did not plan to to take the items by armed force, though he acknowledged one member of the entourage accompanying him had a license to carry a concealed weapon in Nevada.
"There was no talk about guns at all,'' Simpson said.
Simpson was addressing a judge -- without a jury -- in a rare post-conviction hearing in which he seeks a ruling overturning his conviction of armed robbery and kidnapping of the sports memorabilia dealers during the bizarre, disputed confrontation at the Palace Station in September 2007. He was visiting the city at the time to attend the wedding of a friend.
His new team of lawyers has challenged his conviction on 19 points during that 2008 trial, essentially arguing that his previous attorney, Yale Galanter of Miami, was incompetent or worse in his defense of Simpson. Galanter is to testify later in the week.
Simpson is serving a 9 to 33 years sentence and, barring a favorable ruling in this hearing, won't be eligible for parole until 2017, when he is 70.
Though the judge in his 2008 trial said at the time that Simpson's sentence was not payback for other matters, it was widely viewed that way nonetheless by a nation polarized, often along racial lines, by his 1995 "trial of the century" acquittal of the slashing deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a friend, Ron Goldman, in Los Angeles.
Norman Pardo, a promoter who describes himself as Simpson's former and future business manager, says Simpson has been depressed as he passes his golden years in a prison outside Reno. Simpson appears to have spent some time in the Nevada sun and, looking a little heavier now, may have found prison food - while hardly a Las Vegas buffet -- agreeable.
"He's doing as well as he can,'' Pardo said. "He's depressed, but he's got a chance now. This judge is giving him a chance.''
Simpson's testimony on his own behalf was a long-awaited event.
The former college and pro football star who gained even wider fame in movies and as a TV pitchman didn't testify before the jury during his trial in the same Clark County courthouse five years ago.
Nor did he testify in the 1995 murder trial in Los Angeles, when his defense team was headed by the late Johnnie Cochran, who famously had Simpson struggle without success to try on a bloody glove that was in evidence.
Simpson did testify later, without success, in a 1997 civil trial that resulted in a $33.5 million wrongful death judgment against him.
He is being put on the stand by a pair of Las Vegas lawyers, Patricia Palm and Ozzie Fumo, who went through boxes of evidence and testimony from his 2008 trial and identified two-dozen issues on which to challenge the verdict. Fumo said Judge Linda Marie Bell agreed to hold the hearing on 19 of them, in itself a considerable legal victory.
Palm's legal strategy contends that evidence was withheld or misrepresented to the jury, including phone calls between Simpson and Galanter around the time of the 2007 confrontation, and that Galanter's rejection of plea-bargain talks before the conviction may have been without Simpson's full knowledge and understanding.
Under questioning by his attorney Palm, Simpson detailed his activity in the days and hours before the confrontation and his conversations beforehand and after with Galanter, then his friend and attorney.
Simpson said he had been drinking alcohol at breakfast, at a hotel pool with friends and in a hotel bar before the confrontation, and said he knew he was too impaired to drive a vehicle. He testified Galanter never told him that the drinking, had he testified at the 2008 trial, might have aided his defense.
"I think I hold my liquor pretty well,'' Simpson testified. "I'm not a falling down drunk at all. I was there to celebrate (the wedding).''
He said he and Galanter discussed the missing items beforehand and that the lawyer advised him on how to get them back, without force or trespassing.
"The overall advice he gave me was, 'you have a right to get your stuff,''' Simpson said.
He said Galanter had advised him to call police if the dealers did not give him the items.
Simpson said he did not plan for anyone to have weapons during the meeting, which was tape recorded, but acknowledged saying at one point that no one should be allowed to leave the room - a major factor underlying the kidnapping conviction.
He said he went into the meeting with a group of associates that he wanted for unarmed security and to help him move what he expected would be boxes with hundreds or thousands of items.
"All celebrities, they have a big imposing guy with them, not to start trouble but to be sure there is no trouble,'' Simpson said.
Under detailed questioning of his relationship with Galanter, and Simpson testified that Galanter represented him without a fee, and that tens of thousands of dollars Simpson had transferred to the attorney from his own pension account were intended for expenses and to pay local counsel assisting Galanter.
Questions about Galanter's handling of Simpson's robbery defense were also raised in testimony Tuesday by Gabe Grasso, who assisted Galanter in the 2008 trial. Grasso, who says Galanter stiffed him on a promised $250,000 fee, testified that Galanter should have hired expert witnesses or audio analysts to go over tape recordings of the disputed confrontation.
A friend tried with Simpson, Clarence "C.J." Stewart, saw his conviction overturned after serving two years in prison. The state Supreme Court ruled he should have been tried apart from Simpson. Stewart accepted a plea deal to avoid another trial and is out of prison.
Dressed in blue jailhouse garb with a bare collarless short-sleeved shirt, Simpson has been attending the proceeding with his legs and hands in shackles, a chain around his waist locked to chains around his wrists.
He appears under the watchful eyes of beefy armed deputies who stand nearby. Still, when entering and leaving the courtroom, Simpson smiles broadly as he looks into the faces and locks eyes with each visitor sitting behind him, some of them family or long-time friends. He wordlessly taps a fist against his chest, a gesture of affection, toward some.