MIAMI — O.J. Simpson was back in court Thursday for what he jokingly called "another day in paradise"--his jury trial for an alleged outburst of road rage that could send him to prison for years.
The former pro football star and movie actor, the protagonist in what may have been the 20th century's most heavily publicized murder case, is charged with yanking the $300 sunglasses off the face of another motorist during a heated roadside encounter in suburban Miami in December. That action allegedly scratched the forehead of the other driver, export company owner Jeffrey Pattinson.
Under Florida law, this would be misdemeanor battery and felony burglary inside an automobile, which carry a combined prison sentence of two to 16 years. One of Simpson's attorneys, Yale Galanter, told the jury in his opening remarks Thursday that it was Pattinson, and not his celebrated client, who had behaved like a "madman."
Simpson, his lawyer maintains, has been "unfairly targeted as a result of his celebrity status and his notoriety."
Case May Hinge on Thumbprint
Like the pair of gloves that didn't fit and the DNA evidence that the murder jury didn't believe, the Miami trial may hinge on how the jury interprets a key piece of physical evidence: a thumbprint that prosecutors say Simpson left on Pattinson's glasses when he pulled them off. Galanter has a different explanation. He claims Simpson accidentally brushed Pattinson's glasses with his hand when the two men were talking.
The 54-year-old Simpson has said he hopes to use the Miami trial "as an opportunity to show people what kind of life I live."
Much of the country, though, may no longer be paying much attention. The news in Florida these past days has been dominated by the mysterious outbreak of deadly anthrax bacteria at a Boca Raton tabloid publishing company, and U.S. efforts to smash Afghanistan's Taliban regime and the international terrorist network it allegedly harbors.
On Thursday morning, the courtroom where Simpson's trial opened wasn't even full. And even Court TV, a prime source of live trial coverage for the nation's legal junkies, said it only planned to air "highlights" of the case.
The former Heisman Trophy winner and his teenage daughter and son had moved from California to South Florida in what Simpson said was an attempt to put the enormous publicity of his double-murder trial behind him. A Los Angeles jury found him not guilty of the June 12, 1994, stabbing deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman.
A civil jury, however, found Simpson liable for $33.5 million in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the victims' families. By placing himself under the jurisdiction of Florida's laws, Simpson safeguarded his house and his approximately $25,000-a-month pension from the National Football League.
Moving to the Sunshine State did not bring a stop to Simpson's involvement with the law. Miami area police have responded at least four times to reported domestic incidents involving Simpson and a girlfriend, Christine Prody. But none of those instances led to charges being filed.
A Popular Figure and a Prime Target
For some Floridians, "O.J. spotting" has become a popular pastime. New Times, a Miami alternative weekly, published a detailed guide this year to his usual haunts, informing readers where and when they can see Simpson driving his children to school, playing golf or squiring beautiful women to nightspots.
At some trendy South Beach bars, Simpson can count on a hero's welcome and beers paid for by other patrons. For other Floridians, unpleasant memories of the murder trial haven't faded with the passing of time. According to New Times, when Simpson was playing golf at one public course near his Kendall home, a passerby backed his truck up to the practice green and shouted, "Hey, O.J.! I think I saw the true killers on the back nine!" Simpson just smiled and waved his putter.
Pattinson, 55, told police he was driving home about 7 p.m. on Dec. 4 when a black Lincoln Navigator ran a stop sign at an intersection, forcing him to honk his horn and slam on the brakes. After he turned, Pattinson told police, he found the Navigator had stopped in the middle of the road. As he pulled up behind, Pattinson said, a man he recognized as Simpson got out of the car, approached his driver's side window and began shouting.
Testifying Thursday, Pattinson said Simpson told him: "So I ran the damn stop sign. What are you going to do, kill me and my kids?"
"This was a very angry gentleman--inexplicably angry in my view," Pattinson testified.
Seated at the defense table, and wearing a dark blue suit and a tie emblazoned with football motifs, Simpson smiled quizzically, shook his head and jotted down notes on a legal pad.
Pattinson told police that Simpson reached inside his car and ripped his glasses off, causing a laceration to his left temple. Meanwhile, Pattinson said, he heard a girl's voice yelling from Simpson's car: "No, daddy, no, daddy, no."