What You Can Learn From O.J.


O.J. Simpson's latest legal troubles have dominated the news this week.

The truth about what happened may never be ascertained, because all of the evidence is circumstantial and it's a classic "he said, he said" story.

According to the police report, an acquaintance of Simpson's, auction house owner Tom Riccio, found out somehow that two Las Vegas sports memorabilia dealers had items that he believed belonged to Simpson, and he informed Simpson of this.

Simpson came to Las Vegas from his home in Florida last week for a wedding, so he decided to retrieve his items while he was there.

Conspiring with Simpson, Riccio lured the two dealers to a motel room last Thurs., Sept. 13, by saying he had a buyer looking to spend a lot of money on Simpson items. As they waited for the "buyer," Simpson burst into the room with several men, including two brandishing guns from the onset; upon entering the room, one of the armed men claimed to be a police officer. They frisked the two memorabilia dealers for weapons, then Simpson instructed his accomplices on what to take as he berated the two dealers for stealing from him.

(Neither the police report nor any of the news reports have made it clear why Riccio thought the items were Simpson's; why Simpson thought the items were his, other than based on the say-so of Riccio; or how the dealers allegedly stole the items, or from where or when.)

After Simpson and his accomplices left, the two dealers called the police and reported the incident.

The next day, Simpson was questioned in his hotel room by the police. He admitted the details of the incident, including taking what he estimated as $100,000 worth of memorabilia. But he asserted that he had not committed an armed robbery, but was just retrieving his own property that had been stolen from him.

Simpson also admitted to the Associated Press that day that he conducted his own "sting operation" the night before.

"Everybody knows this is stolen stuff," Simpson told the AP. "Not only wasn't there a break-in, but Riccio came to the lobby and escorted us up to the room. In any event, it's stolen stuff that's mine. Nobody was roughed up."

According to the victims, Simpson promised the victims that, after going through the items, he would leave anything he believed not to be his for them at the hotel's front desk, which tends to validate Simpson's version of the story.

In spite of Simpson's claims, he was charged with one misdemeanor and 10 felonies.

Even when he was arrested Sunday, Simpson continued talking to the police, and his demeanor with them, in the car driving to the jail, was described by them as "chatty and amicable."

(Simpson likely tried to retrieve the items himself, rather than going to police, because he lost a $30 million-plus civil judgment to the family of Ron Goldman, one of the two people he was acquitted of killing in his criminal trial. Almost all of that remains unpaid, and any of Simpson's income, aside from his pensions and residence, are supposed to be seized by the California court to help pay down the debt.)

It's understandable that many have little sympathy for Simpson, whom they believe (probably correctly) got away in 1995 with brutally killing two innocent people the previous year.

It's even more difficult to feel sorry for Simpson when it's so obvious that he's an arrogant, likely-sociopath with poor judgment and poor impulse control.

However, there are a number of lessons that this case illustrates about the nature of the state and its hegemonic relationship to its citizens.

(Hopefully you'll never need this advice; if you do, please understand that this is for general information and that I'm not an attorney, and you should consult with one for any personal legal problems.)

(Also, please understand that I am not advising anyone to break any law.)

1. It makes no difference whether you think you broke the law, nor does it matter what your reasons were for your conduct.

Prosecutors arbitrarily determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether any laws have been broken, what laws have been broken, whether to file charges, what charges to file, and how many charges to file.

While there are probably some fair prosecutors who truly believe they're pursing justice for victims, many prosecutors are corrupt.

You may have charges piled on you because the prosecutor has political ambitions; because he or she is having financial, medical or marital problems and needs someone to take it out on; or because he or she is just in a bad mood that day.

As Michael Nifong showed, some prosecutors will even go after people they know are innocent, if they think they can get away with it.

Prosecutors also often pile on as many charges as they can, because that makes it more likely that the defendant will accept a plea bargain, to have some charges dropped in exchange for pleading guilty to others. The vast majority of criminal cases in the U.S. end this way, never making it to a jury trial. For a great example of this, see Rudy Giuliani's despicable persecution of Michael Milken.

Over one incident, lasting probably two or three minutes, Simpson has been charged with one misdemeanor: conspiracy to commit a crime, and 10 felonies: conspiracy to commit kidnapping; conspiracy to commit robbery; first degree kidnapping with use of a deadly weapon; burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon; robbery with use of a deadly weapon; assault with a deadly weapon; and coercion with use of a deadly weapon (the total comes out to 10 because some charges have more than one count).

This is clearly a case of piling on charges, although it may not be unusual.

"Conspiracy" laws are ludicrous. Yes, every case has to be judged on its own, and there are mitigating factors, such as whether something was planned or committed in the heat of the moment.

But, in a free society, there should be only two standards for illegality: That someone's body or property has been violated, and that there's a victim (or his or her beneficiaries, in the case of murder) filing a complaint.

In theory, conspiracy laws make it possible for the government to prosecute people for planning crimes that never even occurred, and I'm sure that has happened.

But their main function is to allow prosecutors to double charges.

In reading the criminal complaint, the burglary charge involves entering a location with intent to steal, while robbery involves the actual stealing (and probably that the victims were present). So they're basically the same thing.

The kidnapping charges are quite serious, and it's not clear from either the criminal complaint or any news reports that either of the victims were forcibly removed anywhere. So these charges seem dubious.

According to the description of the assault with a deadly weapon charges, no actual assault took place; the intruders just made the victims fear that they might be assaulted.

The coercion with a deadly weapon charge involves forcing the victims to give up their property. So it's also hard to distinguish this from the actual robbery.

While I'm not accusing the DA of this, it's reasonable to wonder whether he piled these charges on Simpson because he, too, believes that Simpson got away with murder 12 years ago – and, since the constitution forbids double jeopardy, he's trying to put Simpson away for life as retribution for the state.

Of course, prosecuting this case will also make him a superstar.

2. You have nothing to gain, and a great deal to lose, by "cooperating" with the "authorities."

The government is not your friend, especially if you or someone you care about is being investigated for a possible crime. There are numerous points to make here:

A) If you think what's being investigated is too minor to worry about, re-read rule one. You won't decide whether charges will be filed, what those charges will be, or how many they will be; or what the sentence will be if you or your loved one is convicted. Something you admit to that you didn't think was illegal could turn out to be a severe misdemeanor; something you thought was a misdemeanor could turn out to be a felony – or five or ten.

B) If the police had enough evidence to arrest you or get a search warrant, you'd already be arrested or they'd already be searching. They're fishing for a confession or for you to lead them to evidence to obtain an arrest or search warrant. You can't be forced to talk without a subpoena, so volunteer nothing, shut the door in their faces and immediately call your attorney.

C) Don't think you have nothing to fear because you're innocent; the Duke lacrosse players were innocent, and they almost went to prison for life.

D) You will not gain "brownie points," such as reducing charges or your sentence, by cooperating. The best thing to do is to make it as hard as possible for the state to bring charges in the first place.

E) Don't believe the police if they make promises about what you'll be charged with or what your sentence will be, if only you'll cooperate. They have no say in such matters; they gather evidence and present it to the prosecutor, who determines whether to file charges, and if so, what charges to file. Upon conviction, the judge imposes sentence based on the sentencing guidelines enacted by the state legislature (or Congress, in the case of federal crimes).

F) If you are arrested, the advice is the same: Volunteer nothing and demand to speak to your attorney.

3. The state is a predator looking out for its own interests, not yours – even if you're the victim of a crime.

When someone is charged with a crime, they're being charged because they broke one of the state's laws, not because they violated someone's property rights. Today, of course, many crimes (like drug possession) have nothing to do with property rights; if anything, the state is the one violating the defendant's property rights (such as by confiscating drugs that the defendant paid for and owns).

That's not a trivial distinction. Generally, civil courts exist to avenge victims; criminal courts exist to avenge the state. Prosecutors even sometimes go forward with trials against the alleged victim's wishes.

The state likes to have as many laws as possible, to charge as many people as possible, so it can employ as many judges, prosecutors, social workers, police, guards, etc. as possible. This has nothing to do with justice or making the victim whole; it has only to do with justifying the state's existence and enriching those who work for it or with it.

It also "punishes" those it successfully convicts for its own purposes, so politicians can appear to be "tough on crime" and so it can continue to create jobs, make money and pay off political debts through expanding its prison-industrial complex.

In the Simpson case, he and his accomplices are alleged to have stolen about $100,000 worth of merchandise. It appears that the entire incident lasted a couple of minutes and that no one was physically assaulted. Assuming he's convicted of all 11 charges, Simpson will go to prison for at least 60 years (in other words, for the rest of his life).

While the victims will likely get at least some of the merchandise back, no rational, reasonable person could think this is a fitting punishment – not the least of which is due to the victims suffering the indignity of being forced to help pay with their tax dollars to feed, clothe and house their assailants for the rest of their assailants' lives.

In a system of competing, private courts, the one goal would be making the victims whole (in other words, satisfying their paying customers).

In a case like Simpson's, a private court would seek to determine who is the rightful owner of the property, and that the owner obtained it (or was compensated if it was missing or destroyed) and received any damages, and that the thief pay the bill. (While this is obvious with property crimes such as this, where the defendant would have to pay for what was stolen, damaged or destroyed, it could work for bodily crimes as well.)

Losing defendants who couldn't pay would have their wages garnished, through innovative market means of which we can't conceive, until their debts were paid. This would motivate them to work harder to regain their freedom, and it would literally be a system in which crime didn't pay.

(Yes, there are chronic violent criminals, like serial killers, who are not fit to be free among peaceful, civilized people. I don't know what innovations the market would come up with to handle such cases, but it couldn't work any worse than the current statist system. Besides, such cases are rare; while they're tragic, they don't justify the existence of the state.)

In contrast, the state strives to lock up as many people as possible for as long as possible, and for its own purposes – not for those of the victims (when there even are any).


Let me reiterate that this is not a defense of O.J. Simpson or his conduct. He may well be a double-murderer (and, if so, his trial is another example of a failure of the state). And, even if the items he retrieved in this latest incident were his, there's no question he went about things in a wrong and criminal way. And, again, he appears to be an all-around bad human being with poor judgment and anger control, and who probably has a sociopathic personality.

But that's not the point; the point is that this case is another reminder of how the state operates and treats people, and that it's a far more dangerous predator to peaceful, civilized people than O.J. Simpson and his ilk could ever hope to be.

September 21, 2007