LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - O.J. Simpson, acquitted in a murder trial that gripped America more than a decade ago, was sentenced to up to 33 years in prison on Friday for kidnapping and robbery in a bungled attempt to recover memorabilia of his storied sports career.
Clark County District Judge Jackie Glass ruled that Simpson, 61, who was known as “The Juice” during his days with the National Football League and later appeared in several movies, would be eligible for parole after nine years.
The retired star athlete had been found guilty two months ago of all 12 charges against him for last year’s gunpoint holdup of two sports collectors in a Las Vegas hotel room.
Shackled and dressed in blue prison garb, Simpson appeared somber as the sentence was pronounced. Minutes earlier he had pleaded for leniency, saying he had only meant to retrieve personal possessions he believed were wrongly taken from him.
“I didn’t mean to hurt anybody, and I didn’t mean to steal anything,” he said, his husky voice trembling with emotion.
Defense lawyer Yale Galanter insisted Simpson acted foolishly, though not out of criminal intent. But Glass was unmoved, saying, “It was much more than stupidity.”
Before his downfall, Simpson had not only been a sports hero in the 1960s and 1970s, but also the very picture of American success and celebrity.
Simpson has been in custody since he was convicted of the hotel room robbery on October 3.
That was exactly 13 years after his controversial 1995 acquittal in Los Angeles of the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, who were found stabbed and slashed to death in June 1994.
A civil court jury later found Simpson liable for the deaths and awarded $33.5 million in damages to the victims’ families, a judgment that remains largely unpaid.
Goldman’s father Fred and other family members, who have pursued Simpson for years in court and in the media, were present for the sentencing and celebrated the decision.
“We are thrilled. It is a bittersweet moment knowing that that S.O.B. is going to be in jail for a very long time. It was satisfying seeing him in shackles like he belongs,” said Fred Goldman, father of Ron Goldman.
Denise Brown, sister of Simpson’s slain ex-wife, added her family had “mixed emotions” about the sentence because of Simpson’s two children with Nicole — Sydney and Justin, who are both in their 20s.
“Our hearts are saddened that they once again face the tragedy of yet another parent absent in their lives,” Brown said.
The most serious penalty received by the onetime star was 15 years for kidnapping. He was sentenced to an additional six years for use of a deadly weapon in the commission of that crime, plus 12 years for assault, bringing his total maximum term to 33 years.
Simpson had faced a possible life sentence. His lawyers had asked that he serve no more than six years for storming into a room at the Palace Station hotel and casino with five cohorts to hold two sports merchandise dealers at gunpoint, then making off with thousands of dollars in collectibles.
The four other men originally charged in the case all pleaded guilty and took the witness stand for the prosecution during nearly three weeks of testimony.
Neither Simpson nor co-defendant Clarence “C.J.” Stewart, who was sentenced to spend 7 1/2 to 27 years in prison on Friday, testified during the trial.
Galanter has said his client’s past as a notorious murder defendant, widely seen as having eluded justice in Los Angeles, was a factor in Las Vegas jurors’ guilty verdict.
And prosecutors told jurors during opening statements that the Las Vegas case grew out of grudges Simpson had nursed since his murder trial and civil case, and suggested they could right a wrong by convicting him.
But Judge Glass, known for her tough sentences, said she was not influenced by Simpson’s acquittal 13 years ago.
“There are many people who disagreed with that verdict but that’s not what matters to me,” she said before sentencing him. “I’m not here to try and cause any retribution or any payback for anything else.”
Additional reporting by Damon Hodge; Editing by Mary Milliken and David Storey