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Breaking down the O.J. trial

The charges are serious, but the evidence is unclear

Posted: Friday November 16, 2007 3:21PM; Updated: Friday November 16, 2007 3:21PM
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If convinced, O.J. Simpson could face life in prison.
If convinced, O.J. Simpson could face life in prison.

What exactly is Simpson facing, in terms of charges?

Simpson is facing 12 charges, most notably robbery and kidnapping, the latter of which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Justice of the Peace Joe Bonaventure determined that prosecutors established probable cause -- meaning more likely than not -- that Simpson committed the crimes. It remains to be seen whether a jury will believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Simpson committed them.

But a jury may never hear this case, as there is always the possibility of a plea agreement. Such a deal would seem particularly plausible if Simpson and his attorneys conclude that the evidence against him is too damming. Though his attorneys have publicly stated that they welcome a trial, their thoughts behind closed doors might be different.

How solid is the evidence?

Based on the testimony of Simpson and several witnesses, the evidence seems unclear. On one hand, we hear that Simpson specifically instructed his associates about how the threat of guns would help their mission, but on the other, we hear Simpson insisting that he didn't know anyone had guns with them. It's hard to weigh the evidence with such contradictory recollections.

The quixotic nature of the story also matters, because it may complicate how the evidence relates to the charges. There is evidence that Simpson lured two sports memorabilia dealers to a hotel room, but whether that luring constitutes "kidnapping" for purposes of the law seems uncertain.

At the end of the day, it may prove very hard to figure out what actually happened that evening, and if that is the case, Simpson will probably be exonerated on grounds that the case wasn't proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

How much does it hurt Simpson that the main witnesses have plea deals to testify against him?

It definitely hurts. The prosecution could feature one witness after another testifying against Simpson, a chain of events which, from Simpson's standpoint, would be terrible, particularly if those witnesses seem believable.

But as Bonaventure acknowledged, these are not the most saintly witnesses, as six of the eight men in the room with Simpson have reportedly experienced legal problems, including various criminal convictions.

With their nefarious backgrounds in hand, Simpson's attorneys will likely use the rules of evidence to attack their credibility. There are various strategies for doing so, such as highlighting their prior unlawful acts, criminal convictions, untruthful character, and related biases.

There are some limits, however, in raising those alleged character flaws. Criminal convictions that were punished by less than a year, for instance, are normally deemed inadmissible, while discussion of prior bad acts must only relate to those acts that are probative of truthfulness.

Simpson's attorneys will also probably argue that the witnesses have reshaped their recollection of the facts to manufacture a fictional story that places most of the blame on Simpson, while largely, and conspicuously, exonerating themselves.

As a practical matter, judges have a great deal of discretion in allowing or disallowing the introduction of evidence that attempts to impugn the credibility of witnesses.

Will Simpson prior history factor into the trial?

It will be hard, if not impossible, for members of the jury to ignore the elephant in the room: the widely-shared belief that O.J. Simpson should have been convicted for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, but because of adroit lawyering (or perhaps jury nullification), escaped punishment. Simpson's legal team thus has the unique challenge of dissuading jurors from connecting perhaps the most famous case in American history and one that has made the defendant so infamous to the case at hand.

Simpson's prior civil judgment for wrongful death could also prove a point of contention. Though prior civil judgments are generally considered inadmissible hearsay, particularly since civil judgments only require preponderance of evidence instead of beyond a reasonable doubt, some courts have deemed them admissible if relevant to the establishing the defendant's motive for the crimes charged.