LOS ANGELES: Disgraced American football legend O.J. Simpson, whose 1995 acquittal for double murder polarized the nation, was granted his release from prison Thursday after serving nearly nine years behind bars for armed robbery.
A four-member parole board in the western US state of Nevada voted unanimously to free the 70-year-old Simpson after a tense public hearing broadcast live by news networks.
An emotional Simpson, who bowed his head and mouthed “thank you” to the parole commissioners, could walk free as early as October 1.
“I’ve done my time, you know?” he told the parole board, which deliberated in private for just 30 minutes before announcing its decision. “I’ve done it as well and as respectfully as I think anybody can.”
Simpson was found not guilty in 1995 of the grisly murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a male companion, Ron Goldman, in a racially charged case that transfixed America and became known as the “Trial of the Century.”
But the former National Football League running back and actor was sent to prison in 2008 for his role in an armed robbery the previous year of two sports memorabilia dealers at a Las Vegas resort.
Simpson claimed at his trial that he was just seeking to recover personal items from the dealers and he repeated that explanation on Thursday.
“It was my property,” he said. “I wasn’t there to steal from anybody.”
Simpson initially did not express any remorse for his actions but eventually offered to the parole board that he was “sorry that things turned out the way they did.”
“I had no intent to commit a crime,” he said. “If I would have made a better judgment back then, none of this would have never happened.”
Simpson appeared before the parole board by videoconference from Lovelock Correctional Center, the medium-security prison where he has been serving his sentence.
Seated behind a plain wooden table, he was wearing standard-issue blue jeans, a light blue button-down shirt, a white T-shirt and white sneakers.
Simpson walked stiffly — the legacy of his years on the football field — but appeared to have lost weight and looked healthier than during his last parole board appearance four years ago.
“I’ve spent nine years making no excuses about anything,” Simpson said. “My commitment to change is to be a better person.
“Right now I’m at a point in my life where all I want to do is spend time, as much time as I can, with my children and my friends,” he said, before adding jokingly, “believe it or not I do have some real friends.”
Simpson said he intended to settle in Florida upon his release.
Also present at Lovelock was Simpson’s eldest daughter Arnelle, who said she just wants her father to “come home” and held her hand over her mouth as the commissioners voted one-by-one for his release.
Simpson’s sister Shirley wept openly.
Simpson was convicted in October 2008 of armed robbery, assault, kidnapping and other offenses after he and five associates — two of whom were armed — ambushed the two sports memorabilia dealers in a casino hotel room.
He was sentenced to a minimum of nine years in prison and a maximum of 33 years.
Bruce Fromong, one of the dealers, testified on Simpson’s behalf on Thursday, saying his “friend of almost 27 years” deserved a second chance.
“I’m here to say that I’ve known O.J. for a long time,” Fromong said. “I don’t feel that he’s a threat to anyone out there. He’s a good man.”
The other dealer, Alfred Beardsley, died in November 2015.
Speaking to reporters following the decision, Simpson’s attorney, Malcolm LaVergne, said he had not been entirely confident going into the hearing that his client would receive parole.
“Mr. Simpson is obviously a very polarizing figure,” he said. “He’s very, very well loved. But also he’s held in contempt by a lot of people.”
Fall from grace
Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson shot to fame in the 1970s with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills after winning the prestigious Heisman Trophy — the award for the best player in American collegiate football — as a running back at the University of Southern California.
He retired from football in 1979 after setting numerous rushing records and went on to become an advertising pitchman and actor (“The Towering Inferno,” “The Naked Gun”).
In June 1994, Simpson’s 35-year-old ex-wife, Brown Simpson, and Goldman were found stabbed to death outside her Los Angeles home.
Simpson was arrested after a low-speed car chase through Los Angeles that was broadcast live by television stations and watched by millions.
He was acquitted in October 1995 after a nine-month trial, a verdict that was greeted with disbelief by many Americans.
Public views on the African-American athlete’s guilt or innocence divided sharply along racial lines.
Simpson was subsequently found liable for the deaths in a 1997 civil suit and was ordered to pay damages totaling $33.5 million to the families of the victims.
Simpson has been out of the limelight while behind bars, but fascination with his story lives on.
“O.J.: Made in America,” a nearly eight-hour documentary about his murder trial, won the best documentary Oscar in February.
And a television mini-series, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” starring Cuba Gooding Jr as the former NFL star, won nine Emmy awards. AFP