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Guns, tapes key to 'bad sequel' O.J. Simpson trial

  • Story Highlights
  • O.J. Simpson's armed robbery and kidnapping trial opens Monday
  • Clarence "C.J." Stewart also on trial in alleged memorabilia heist
  • Four co-defendants have cut plea deals with prosecutors
  • Simpson, Stewart face life if convicted of most serious charges
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By Emanuella Grinberg
CNN
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(CNN) -- The charge is robbery, not murder, but 13 years after the so-called "Trial of the Century" ended with his acquittal, O.J. Simpson is back in court. Again.

O.J. Simpson could face life behind bars if convicted of the most serious charges.

Simpson goes on trial this week in a courtroom in Las Vegas, Nevada. Opening statements are scheduled for Monday.

A jury of nine women and three men promised they could disregard Simpson's past and solely consider the evidence against the 61-year-old football hero and his 54-year-old co-defendant, Clarence "C.J." Stewart.

Simpson and Stewart are charged with a dozen offenses stemming from an alleged sports memorabilia heist a year ago. The charges include conspiracy to commit a crime, robbery, assault and kidnapping with a deadly weapon. If convicted of the most serious charges, both could face life in prison. Video Watch how high the stakes are for Simpson

Four former co-defendants cut plea deals with Clark County prosecutors and could be called to testify.

With its Las Vegas casino setting, colorful cast of characters and dialogue spiced with salty language, the alleged heist seems at first to be a low-budget parody of "Oceans 11." See who the players are

Simpson has said he was just trying to get his own property back.

But it was the introduction of guns -- and threats -- that prosecutors say elevated what Simpson portrays as a tense encounter among former business partners to an armed robbery and kidnapping.

Witnesses say Simpson and five men burst into a hotel room brandishing guns. They are accused of making off with pillowcases containing O.J. Simpson memorabilia, signed Pete Rose baseballs and Joe Montana lithographs. Video Watch what happened in Vegas

The kidnapping charges refer to claims from memorabilia dealers Alfred Beardsley and Bruce Fromong that they were lured to the hotel under false pretenses and threatened with guns to stay in the room while Simpson and his men gathered the memorabilia.

Police were called to Room 1203 at the Palace Station Hotel and Casino shortly before 8 p.m. on September 13, 2007.

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Just hours later -- after midnight on September 14 -- Simpson welcomed detectives into his room at the Palms Casino Resort with handshakes. The former Hall-of-Famer thanked the officers for coming to hear his side of the story and said he was simply trying to recover property that had been stolen from him.

"Why are they not in trouble?" he asked about the alleged victims, Beardsley and Fromong, according to police reports filed in the case. See the police report

He also told police the meeting "wasn't about ... being physical," that the others present would back up his story, and that the memorabilia dealers told him, "Take it," and "We cool, Juice."

But former co-defendants Walter Alexander and Michael McClinton testified at a preliminary hearing last year that Simpson instructed them to "look menacing" before they entered the hotel room. Once inside, they said, Simpson accused the dealers of stealing his property and grabbed a cell phone from Fromong.

For allegedly snatching the cell phone, along with Beardsley's hat and sunglasses, the men are charged with two counts of robbery with the use of a deadly weapon.

In addition to the testimony from the former co-defendants, prosecutors plan to introduce audiotaped conversations between Simpson and some of his cohorts that were recorded surreptitiously before, during, and after the alleged heist.

Prosecutors say the tapes will show that the armed confrontation was planned in detail -- including the use of guns.

For Simpson, the tapes are not only a crucial obstacle for his lawyers to overcome, but a symbol of what it means to be the most visible criminal defendant in modern history.

"I think O.J. walks around with a big target on his back, and he may have drawn it there himself," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor who has closely watched Simpson's legal travails since he was arrested in the 1994 slayings of his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her waiter friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman. Video Watch O.J.'s long legal saga

A jury in Los Angeles, California, found Simpson not guilty of murder for their deaths in a criminal trial. In a subsequent wrongful-death civil trial, a jury found Simpson liable for the death of Goldman and committing battery against his ex-wife.

"The state of being O.J. is constantly to be in the limelight, and people are always going to be waiting for him to make a mistake," Levenson said.

The case that could put Simpson behind bars for the rest of his life began with a phone call from sports memorabilia dealer Thomas Riccio, a convicted felon who made the rounds on network news shows immediately after the hotel room fracas.

Riccio, who was not charged in the case, testified at the preliminary hearing that he made a habit of taping such transactions, so he didn't think twice about recording Simpson when he asked for help retrieving what he claimed was his property.

Riccio testified that he first called the FBI in California for help retrieving the goods from Fromong, a memorabilia dealer in California who once worked with Simpson as director of sales and marketing for memorabilia retailer Locker 32.

When the FBI passed, Riccio said he contacted Beardsley and told him he had a "wealthy buyer" looking for Simpson memorabilia. Beardsley, another memorabilia dealer with a diverse rap sheet, contacted Fromong and arranged the meeting. Riccio made several more recordings that the jury is likely to hear, including one at a pool party the afternoon before the confrontation.

Simpson, who was in Las Vegas for a friend's wedding, attended the party with Riccio and former co-defendant Charles Ehrlich, who was recruited to pose as the wealthy memorabilia buyer.

Simpson has told police he had no idea the people with him were armed. But former co-defendant Alexander has testified that Simpson asked him if he could get "heat" in case things went wrong.

Another former co-defendant, Michael McClinton, also said Simpson asked him to bring guns and told him his role would be to act as "security."

For Stewart, Simpson's remaining co-defendant, the Riccio tapes are crucial to establishing his claim that he was not involved in the alleged plan to bring guns to the meeting.

Prosecutors in the case face their own challenges

At least three of the four co-defendants who cut deals to testify have criminal records.

And then there's Fromong, who claims to have received the property from one of Simpson's former managers, and Beardsley, who should not have been in Las Vegas in the first place.

At the time, Beardsley was on parole after serving time for a probation violation in California. Since 1990, Beardsley has been arrested repeatedly for a variety of charges, including battery and stalking and DUI.

When he appears on the stand, Beardsley will come directly from a California prison. He has been incarcerated since he allegedly attempted to contact Riccio through his publisher in violation of a restraining order earlier this year.

"The victims are not sympathetic and the act that others involved taped O.J. in the room suggests they were looking to make money off O.J.'s presence," said CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

"The true owner of the merchandise is going to be very hard to determine, so it's very far from a straightforward armed robbery and kidnapping case," he added.

As this trial begins, the specter lingers of Simpson's earlier trials.

Judge Jackie Glass has sought to keep references to those cases out of this trial, and members of the jury were questioned closely about their ability to set aside their opinions.

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While some may be watching to see if this case ends differently from the murder trial, Levenson doubts that the level of fascination will be the same.

"I watched every minute of the criminal case and every moment of the civil case. Those were trials of the century," she said. "This is a bad sequel."

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