O.J. THEN VERSUS NOW: SILENCE IS DEAFENING

The first time, O.J. never spoke.

This time, O.J. spoke, but no one listened.

He hemmed, and he hawed. He pleaded, in a tired, scratchy voice in a Las Vegas courtroom, that “in no way did I mean to hurt anybody.” He said the men in that hotel room had “eaten in my home. … I sung to their mothers when they were sick.”

He even said the words people had been desperate to hear many years ago. “I’m sorry … I’m sorry for all of it.”

He talked, nonstop, for just under five minutes.

And then the judge put him away.

Nine years in prison, minimum, which means he’d be 70 when he got out. Not only a dead man walking, but an old one, too.

Because let’s face it. In the 13 years between O.J. Simpson’s first courtroom verdict and this most recent one, he died before our eyes. He became a national zombie. He looked hollow. His eyes were ringed and red. His mouth was usually tight-lipped and drawn. He tried to project a free man’s image, walking a golf course, wearing a cap, but when the cameras caught him smiling, it seemed a skeleton smile, creepy, forced, the look, most suspected, of a guy who knew he got away with murder.

On Friday, he didn’t get away.

He was put away.

And the strange thing is, most people don’t even know what he did.

The trial of the century

That was not the case in 1994 and 1995. Back then, it was hard to find an American who didn’t know about the eyeglasses, the blood in the car, the gloves that didn’t fit, the limo driver. The names Kato Kaelin and Lance Ito and Johnnie Cochran were as well known to us as our neighbors’.

That was a murder case. A racial battlefield. And when his verdict came in – not guilty! – it set off a national earthquake. O.J. was a symbol of who we were as a society, how skin color separated us, how justice was perceived differently, how class and fame were still stones on the scales of justice. Simpson was the biggest news of the year.

But years pass. We have different symbols of who we are today. “For Sale” signs. Busted bank accounts. We’re out of work. We’re struggling. Nobody cares much if a once-great football player goes to jail, stays in jail or gets out of jail.

For the record, what Simpson did this time was storm into a hotel room with some thuggish buddies and threaten men who had his memorabilia. Guns were brandished. The memorabilia was seized.

And that was pretty much it. No one was killed. Blood was not an issue. The word “kidnapping” was part of the charges, but no one was kidnapped the way we usually think of that word.

“The potential for harm to occur in that room was tremendous,” the judge said in the televised sentencing.

The potential for harm? O.J. Simpson, who escaped prison when two people were stabbed to death, now goes behind bars for the damage he could have caused.

From fame to prison

And that puts a stamp on what many figured was a foregone conclusion: that Simpson would one day wind up in a prison cell.

It’s hard to remember that this guy was Tiger Woods before there was a Tiger Woods, a handsome, gifted athlete who cut across race. He acted in movies, did broadcasting work and filmed Hertz commercials.

That guy faded a long time ago. This guy has just been renting his body.

They say Simpson was convicted less because of this crime than the one he evaded 13 years ago. I say they are one and the same.

A guiltless O.J. Simpson doesn’t lose the civil case. A guiltless O.J. Simpson doesn’t lose his house, money and memorabilia. A guiltless O.J. Simpson doesn’t become so enraged over a stupid dispute that he gets a posse of gunmen to play tough guy.

“I wasn’t there to hurt anybody,” he said Friday. He might have said that in 1995. But he didn’t talk then. He goes away now, for at least nine years. But he hasn’t really been here, among the living, for a long time.

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