O.J. Simpson isn’t free—yet. He’s still inmate number 1027820 at Lovelock Correctional Center, a medium-security facility in Nevada where the 70-year-old former NFL star and actor has been serving a nine- to 33-year sentence for masterminding a bungled robbery of memorabilia items.
It’s not the crime for which Simpson is most often associated, but it is the crime for which he was convicted.
But on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, Simpson will take a major step towards freedom. On that day, Simpson will be released from prison on parole.
Simpson’s pending release is the result of a unanimous parole approval by a four-member panel of the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners on Thursday. Connie Bisbee, Tony Corda, Adam Endel and Susan Jackson—the same four parole commissioners who in 2013 granted Simpson parole on kidnapping, robbery and burglary charges—granted parole on the remainder of the charges.
Simpson appeared before the panel via video teleconference from a prison conference room. Simpson, who looked fit and spoke with energy, mixed contrition and deflection over the course of the one hour and 20 minute hearing.
“I had no intent to commit a crime,” Simpson at one point told the panel. Simpson insisted that he simply wanted to retrieve his memorabilia but the plan to do so unintentionally spiraled into a criminal act.
At other moments in the hearing Simpson portrayed himself as a mere bystander to a criminal conspiracy. At least one board member noted that Simpson’s depiction of the robbery is squarely at odds with the testimony of others participants in the robbery.
Simpson also depicted the robbery as a one-time lapse in judgment in an otherwise law-abiding life.
“I’m not a guy who's lived a criminal life,” Simpson pleaded, while adding that he has “lived a conflict-free life.” At a minimum, those comments are at odds with the domestic violence Simpson inflicted upon his ex-wife, Nicole Brown.
Simpson’s 48-year-old daughter, Arnelle Simpson, and Bruce Fromong, who was one of two men whom Simpson robbed, testified quite effectively on Simpson’s behalf on Thursday. Arnelle Simpson spoke with humility and contrition—a stark contrast to Simpson’s confidence and defensiveness. For his part, Fromong said he accepted Simpson’s apology and endorsed Simpson’s character. Fromong appears to have become friends with Simpson, referring to Simpson by his trademark nickname, “Juice.” Simpson’s attorney, Malcolm Lavergne, also offered comments during the hearing.
Had the panel rejected Simpson’s petition, his estimated sentence expiration date would have been in September 29, 2022, when he’ll be 75 years old.
Simpson’s hearing on Thursday followed standard protocols, and its outcome is hardly a surprise. As Jon Wertheim and I explained, Nevada reviews parole-eligible inmates by applying 11 largely objective factors, most of which clearly favored Simpson. Each factor offers insight on whether the inmate who is eligible for parole would, if released from prison, likely follow the law.
The 11 factors include age at the time of first arrest, gender, current age and the presence or absence of disciplinary write-ups during the inmate’s incarceration. Each factor carries of score of between -1 and +2. An inmate hopes for the fewest number of points: an inmate who exceeds five points is classified as a “medium” or “high” risk while one who scores fewer than five points is a “low” risk.
Under this metric, Simpson was an excellent candidate for parole: He’s a senior citizen, he has no gang affiliation and he has avoided disciplinary problems while incarcerated. He has taken education courses during that time. He’s housed is a medium-security rather than maximum-security facility. Only a few factors counted against Simpson, one of which was that he is male.
Parole hearings tend not to deviate from the 11-factor test, a dynamic which no doubt advantaged Simpson on Thursday. The elephant in any room that Simpson enters is his unique and pervasive infamy, which has nothing to do with memorabilia. Instead, it’s about belief: many people believe Simpson got away with the murders of Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman. There is no getting around it. Yet belief about Simpson’s alleged role in those murders doesn’t fit into the 11-factor test. It thus played no role in Thursday’s parole hearing.
Reactions to the granting of Simpson’s parole span the spectrum. One sports litigator, Alan Milstein, tells SI, “Justice was done.”
“If it was anyone but O.J.” Milstein reflected, “he would have served a year or less.”
Milstein’s remark alludes to Nevada District Court Judge Jackie Glass’s controversial sentencing of Simpson in 2008.
“Whatever your feelings about the verdict in the murder trial,” Milstein stresses, “it was unsettling to think a court may have imposed a sentence which in reality was for a crime for which a jury had acquitted the defendant.”
How Simpson wound up before a parole board: it began with a bungled robbery
Milstein’s remarks bring up the origin of Simpson’s parole hearing.
It dates back to 2008, when Simpson learned that his personal items might be in the possession of a memorabilia collector. A sensible plan to retrieve those items would have been to threaten a lawsuit or to call the police. Simpson instead joined six other men, some of whom were armed, in raiding the Las Vegas Palace Station hotel room of two collectors, Alfred Beardsley and Fromong. There, Simpson instructed his collaborators to grab “his” collectibles, which had been laid neatly out on the bed, and toss them into pillowcases. The group took off with as many as 800 items. Some of the loot, which included a Joe Montana lithograph, had nothing to do with Simpson.
Hotel surveillance videos unmistakably placed Simpson at the crime scene. Worse yet for Simpson, his collaborators recorded the incident. In one recording, Simpson can be heard saying, “Don't let nobody out of this room. ... [Expletive], you think you can steal my [expletive] and sell it?” Once media started to follow the story, Simpson laughed it off, saying, “I thought what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas?”
Law enforcement saw it differently. Simpson would be charged with 12 counts including conspiracy, burglary, robbery, kidnapping, and assault with a deadly weapon.
Clark County prosecutors, no doubt sensing an opportunity to do what eluded Los Angeles County prosecutors a decade earlier, quickly arranged for favorable plea deals with four of Simpson’s five accomplices. Those four accomplices, who would later be sentenced to only probation, agreed to spill the beans. Crucially, they admitted that they displayed guns while raiding the room and threatened Beardsley and Fromong. They also testified against Simpson, painting him as the criminal mastermind. Simpson’s attorneys also failed to offer a justifiable defense: breaking into a hotel room and threatening its occupants with guns is obviously criminal.
On Oct. 3, 2008—13 years to the day California jurors found Simpson not guilty of murder—Nevada jurors found Simpson guilty on all 12 counts. Fred Goldman, the father of Ronald Goldman, rejoiced, saying that he was “thrilled” to see “that S.O.B.” convicted. Simpson’s supporters, in contrast, lambasted the conviction as a make-up call.
Judge Glass possessed significant discretion in sentencing Simpson. She could have sentenced him from anywhere to 15 years in prison, with a chance for parole after five years, to life in prison. Prosecutors wanted Simpson to serve at least 18 years. For his part, Simpson, in a sentencing hearing, Simpson assured Judge Glass that he was “sorry,” though he insisted he thought the collectibles belonged to him.
Simpson had an unlikely factor working in his favor: he was technically a “first-time offender” in that he had never before been found guilty of a crime. His only criminal record stemmed from a 1989 spousal abuse charge, for which he pleaded no contest—which means not contesting a charge but not admitting guilt. Typically judges impose lighter sentences on defendants who had never before been found guilty.
Judge Glass wasn’t swayed. Noting that the evidence of Simpson’s guilt was “overwhelming” and that “the potential for harm to occur in that room was tremendous,” Judge Glass sentenced the then-61-year-old to 33 years in prison, with a chance for parole after nine years. The combined sentence for 12 charges was complex in that Judge Glass mixed consecutive sentences (which run after the other) and concurrent sentences (which run at the same time). But it ensured that Simpson would be in prison at least until he was 70 years old.
No doubt anticipating critique that her sentence reflected misplaced vengeance, Judge Glass stressed that Simpson’s alleged involvement in past murders had played no role in her sentencing. “I’m not here,” Judge Glass declared, “to try and cause any retribution or any payback for anything else.” To many Americans, however, the thought of Simpson spending his twilight years in prison felt like just desserts.
Simpson would unsuccessfully appeal the verdict. Among other points, he argued that Judge Glass improperly restricted the manner in which Simpson’s attorneys could question potential jurors about whether they agreed or disagreed with the verdicts in the murder and wrongful death cases. The Nevada Supreme Court disagreed, noting that Judge Glass properly determined she did not want to “relitigate those cases.”
Simpson also sought a new trial. This too failed. He insisted that his attorney, Yale Galanter, was ineffective as counsel. Galanter, Simpson claimed, had failed to relay plea deal offers from prosecutors. Forced to testify against his former client, Galanter asserted that he not only told Simpson about a plea deal offer where Simpson would have received two to five year sentence, but that Simpson rejected it.
Simpson received good news in 2013. The Parole Board granted him parole on July 18 that year in regards to five of his charges—those for kidnapping, robbery and burglary charges. This development generated little notice because Simpson remained incarcerated on the other portions of his sentence, including for his four weapon enhancement sentences and sentences for two counts of assault with a deadly weapon. Still, for Simpson, persuading the Parole Board in 2013 was an encouraging development. He did that once again on Thursday.
Simpson faces a restricted life on parole
When Simpson is released on Oct. 1, he will have served about eight years and nine months at Lovelock. After a jury found him guilty of 12 charges on Oct. 3, 2008, Simpson was denied bail and immediately jailed in the Clark County Detention Center. On Dec. 5, 2008, Simpson received his prison sentence from Nevada District Court Judge Jackie Glass and was transferred to Lovelock. It wasn’t Simpson’s first extensive incarceration. Back in 1994-95, Simpson was jailed in Los Angeles County Jail for 470 days between being charged with the double murders and being found not guilty of them.
Although Simpson will be released from Lovelock on Oct. 1, he won’t be “free” in a legal sense. Simpson will be a parolee of the State of Nevada. As a result, he will be obligated to comply with the numerous conditions of parole.
Parole is a discretionary and conditional form of release. If granted, parole allows a prisoner to serve out the remainder of their sentence under supervision. The prisoner is deemed no longer to pose a threat to the community, but that assumption can change if the parolee violates the terms of parole.
Along those lines, the onus will continuously be on Simpson to justify that he deserves parole.
He will be required to meet regularly with a supervising parole officer and submit monthly reports on developments in his life. He’ll face restrictions that he didn’t experience the last time he was free.
For instance, Simpson will be barred from changing his place of residence or travelling outside of the state of Nevada without first obtaining written permission from his supervising officer. If Simpson intends to move to Florida, where he resided prior to his incarceration in 2008, or to another state, he will need the blessing of his supervising officer.
“I don’t think you want me here [in Nevada],” Simpson joked during Thursday’s hearing in regards to his plans following his release. Simpson, however, will need to explain to his supervising officer how his “support system” would work in another state. That is, he’ll need to detail where and with whom he would live and how he would support himself financially.
Along those lines, as a condition of leaving the state, Simpson will need to waive extradition to return to Nevada should he leave the state and the state demands his return.
He’ll also be subject to blood and breath tests for evidence of excessive consumption of alcohol. He’ll also need to immediately notify his supervising officer of obtaining any prescription drugs.
Further, Simpson must accept any reasonable cause searches by a parole officer of his body, car and home. Such searches can be conducted without a warrant and at any time of the day or night. Simpson will also be barred from possessing any kind of weapon and will be ordered to avoid association with individuals who have criminal records.
As a 70-year-old who is eligible for Social Security, Simpson won’t be obligated to seek and maintain employment—which is often required for those on parole. But he’ll be encouraged to keep a regular and productive schedule.
Here’s the most important term: if Simpson were to violate any of the terms of his parole, he would risk being ordered back to prison.
Fred Goldman won’t stop pursuing O.J.
Aside from a restricted life as a parolee, Simpson’s financial status will remain tied to the millions of dollars he owes to the Brown and Goldman families.
Although Simpson, then 48, beat the murder charges in 1995, the victims’ families soon pursued a wrongful death lawsuit against him. Forced to testify, Simpson struggled to explain his purported timeline, the cause of a suspicious cut to his left middle finger and other relevant topics that has been obscured or overlooked in the criminal trial. On Feb. 4, 1997 a jury found Simpson liable for the wrongful deaths of Brown and Goldman and ordered Simpson to pay their families $33.5 million. The victims’ families have reportedly collected less than one percent of the owed amount.
Simpson’s life between 1997 and 2008 suggests how he might handle his outstanding debt. During that time, Simpson maintained a comfortable lifestyle in part by utilizing federal and state laws that exclude certain assets from civil forfeiture. For example, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ensures that Simpson’s NFL pension accounts, which are estimated to be worth $19,000 to $25,000 a month, are outside the reach of the Goldman and Brown families. Simpson also moved to Florida in 2000 and availed himself of the state’s homestead exemption, which under certain circumstances can block a forced sale. At the time, this law protected Simpson’s 4,233-square-foot house in Kendall, Florida (this same house, however, was foreclosed in 2013 after an incarcerated Simpson stopped paying his mortgage).
Fred Goldman, who is now 76 years old, has nonetheless pursued Simpson and will continue to do so as long as possible. He has gone to court several times to renew his civil judgment against Simpson. Goldman has also employed unconventional legal strategies. For instance, in 2007 Goldman obtained a court order from a federal bankruptcy judge for Simpson’s copyright rights for the book “If I Did It.” After doing so, Goldman added the subtitle “Confessions of the Killer.” Goldman also dramatically reduced the size of the word “If” so it essentially reads “I Did It.”
It is unlikely the Goldman and Brown families will ever receive more than a small percentage of what Simpson owes them. Nonetheless, if Simpson signs a lucrative book deal or conducts paid media interviews, watch for Goldman to aggressively go after any and all of Simpson’s earnings. At this point, it’s likely more about principle than dollars to the Goldman family.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.