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Simpson Is Free, but Can He Regain His Life and Image? : Aftermath: He faces civil suits and possible custody battle. But his far greater fame may carry a high price.

October 04, 1995|ALAN ABRAHAMSON and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

O.J. Simpson has regained his freedom, but at what price?

A man acquitted of murder hears the cell door open, but usually the next thing he hears is the sound of doors closing--doors to opportunity, to approval, to old friends.

For one who once seemed to imbibe his legendary popularity like strong drink, for whom charm was a passport across every sort of border, the sound of such doors closing could easily become a kind of dirge.

Simpson, in essence, faces the possibility of becoming, if not a man without a country, a man without the country he once knew--and something worse, a kind of exile in his own life.

It was a possibility the former football star seemed to envision in an eerily prophetic passage from the letter he left behind when he fled arrest in June, 1994: "No matter what the outcome, people will look and point," wrote the man who once basked in the applause of thousands.

During last week's final arguments, defense attorney F. Lee Bailey mused that, even if Simpson were to be acquitted, he would spend the rest of his life defending himself from those who believe that wealth and luck had allowed him to evade the consequences of his guilt.

"I don't like the signals," Bailey said. "There are people who will be committed to the opinion he beat the rap."

In a culture of celebrity, however, notoriety need not equal poverty.

Publicist Michael Levine, who has worked for suddenly controversial celebrities such as singer Michael Jackson, said Hollywood may be cautious about clutching Simpson immediately to its bosom but won't necessarily shun him forever.

"I am convinced that if Hitler were found alive, his first stop would be 'Nightline,' not Nuremberg," Levine said. "I expect Hollywood and the business community to react to O.J. Simpson in financial terms, whatever is in their best financial interest.

"He's much more famous now, though infamous."

But as Simpson already has discovered, fame may have its price, but infamy has its profits.

From his jail cell, he already has made nearly $3 million from a collection of fan letters and the sale of such authorized memorabilia as autographed trading cards and bronze statues that sell for $3,395 apiece. At the moment, he reportedly is entertaining lucrative tabloid photo packages, pay-per-view television interview proposals, speaking tours and additional book offers.

While some of the national advertising clients that Simpson once represented, including Hertz, have indicated that they will no longer retain him, there remains little doubt other lucrative offers will be forthcoming.

Joseph Cerrell of Cerrell Associates in Los Angeles, whose firm is best known for handling political candidates and causes, agreed that Simpson will once again be a salable commodity in both the African American and white markets.

"Trust me," Cerrell said. "O.J. will get offers ranging from the serious to the bizarre. He will get business offers, athletic offers, endorsement offers. . . . He'll get all those offers, and Johnnie Cochran and he will get to pick and choose."

At the very least, their proceeds should help cover the $6-million legal bills he has run up defending himself against murder charges. But his lawyers' bills are likely to mount still further in the months ahead.

Simpson now faces civil lawsuits over the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman. The families of both victims have filed wrongful-death suits, and it is widely expected that Simpson will be forced to testify in his own behalf.

Custody of his two younger children may be challenged. Sydney, 9, and Justin, 7, have been living with their mother's parents in a gated Orange County community since their father's arrest, and the grandparents have indicated that they may fight for their custody.

According to legal experts, Simpson's joy over the acquittal is likely to be tempered in the coming weeks as he confronts a variety of legal challenges.

Separate wrongful-death suits have been filed by Nicole Brown's family, by Goldman's father and sister and by Sharon Rufo, Goldman's mother, from whom he had long been estranged.

Even his attempt to register his initials as a trademark is being challenged legally. Six weeks after his arrest, Simpson's representatives informed the U.S. Patent Office of their client's intention to market products with his name or image ranging from dolls, video games and jigsaw puzzles to jewelry, bathing suits, cutlery and even brooms, place mats and aprons.

"The law says the federal government will not register scandalous trademarks," said Bill Ritchie, a New Hampshire lawyer who is formally challenging Simpson's trademark request.

Legal experts said Tuesday that the acquittal could help Simpson in contesting the civil suits. But they emphasized that he still faces an uphill fight. That is because, experts said, the standard of proof is dramatically lower in a civil suit than it is in a criminal case.

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