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'The piece' is the key in Simpson's defense

Attorneys question a witness who said the ex-football star asked him to bring a gun to a confrontation.

September 30, 2008|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — An attorney for O.J. Simpson tried Monday to undermine the effect of an audio recording in which the former NFL star asks whether a cohort pulled out "the piece" in a hotel hallway right before a confrontation with memorabilia dealers.

Simpson associate turned prosecution witness Michael McClinton testified last week in the armed robbery trial that Simpson asked him to bring a weapon and "look menacing" at a confrontation over sports memorabilia at Palace Station Hotel & Casino.

And in a tape recording McClinton surreptitiously made after the incident, Simpson asks whether McClinton might have inadvertently allowed the weapon to be picked up by hotel security cameras. McClinton is heard on the tape saying that he "kept that thing in my pocket until we got inside that room."

"You're not talking about a gun, right, because the gun was in a holster. . . . You're talking about something else, right?" Simpson attorney Gabriel Grasso asked him.

McClinton paused for several seconds.

"I can't recall," he said.

Whether Simpson saw McClinton and another admitted gunman draw pistols during the Sept. 13, 2007, encounter has become an issue in the former football great's trial. There is no evidence that Simpson himself carried a weapon, so prosecutors are trying to establish that he knew his cohorts carried guns.

Simpson, who says he was getting back stolen personal mementos from two collectibles dealers, maintains that he didn't see weapons during the incident and never asked anyone to bring one.

The NFL Hall of Fame running back is charged with a dozen crimes, including kidnapping, which carries a potential life sentence.

Judge Jackie Glass said closing arguments could begin as soon as Thursday.

Defense attorneys have tried to chip away at McClinton's credibility. He was the prosecution's final witness after two weeks of testimony.

Grasso said that McClinton did not say in statements to police that Simpson asked him and another man to arm themselves. "You have a whole conversation with police and you never say 'O.J. said to bring guns?' " Grasso said.

"It may have slipped my mind," McClinton said.

McClinton testified that he toted a .45-caliber Ruger; he stood up to show jurors how he brandished it at his side. Walter Alexander, who is also cooperating with prosecutors, had said he tucked a .22-caliber Beretta in his waistband.

The auctioneer who set up the meeting, Thomas Riccio, had hidden a digital recorder in the hotel room. On that recording, McClinton is portrayed as the most aggressive of Simpson's five associates, barking orders and threats.

"Stand the [expletive] up before it gets ugly in here!" McClinton is heard telling the men who were packing up footballs, baseballs and plaques, according to testimony.

McClinton testified that, later that night, he secretly taped Simpson at the Little Buddha restaurant. Grasso spent much of his cross-examination on what he described as inaccuracies in a transcript of the 26-minute recording.

McClinton -- dressed in a dark jacket and a yellow print tie with matching pocket square -- grew testy during Grasso's questioning. Simpson sat through much of it with downcast eyes.

On the tape, Simpson is heard asking McClinton whether he pulled out "the piece" in the hallway -- where security cameras might have captured it.

McClinton reassures him: "No, no, no, no, no, no, hell no."

Alfred Beardsley, one of the memorabilia dealers in the confrontation, who has repeatedly called for charges against Simpson to be dropped, appeared for 10 minutes Monday as a defense witness.

Handcuffed and in blue jail garb -- he is incarcerated on a parole violation -- Beardsley blamed Riccio for the incident, which "just smelled of set-up."

Beardsley testified last week for the prosecution wearing a button-down shirt. He told jurors Monday: "Sorry I'm not better dressed."

--

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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