O.J. Simpson appeared in a Las Vegas courtroom Thursday for a hearing on whether state prosecutors have enough evidence to send him to trial, and the outcome may depend on a cast of witnesses with less than pristine pasts.
Prosecutors don't have to show much at the preliminary hearing, which may last several days. They just have to show enough to persuade the judge of "probable cause" — sufficient evidence to reasonably believe that Simpson and his two co-defendants committed the crimes they've been charged with in the alleged theft of sports memorabilia from a Las Vegas hotel room.
The first witness on Thursday was Bruce Fromong, one of the two memorabilia dealers Simpson is accused of robbing.
He testified that Simpson and several other men, one of whom had a gun, burst into his hotel room at the Palace Station Hotel and Casino on Sept. 13. Prosecutors say Simpson and five other men allegedly stormed into room 1203 at the hotel to confront Fromong and Alfred Beardsley about autographed footballs and other collectibles that Simpson claims were stolen from him.
Fromong said he thought he was meeting an anonymous buyer who was interested in the memorabilia. When he came in, Simpson was yelling, "I thought you were a friend ... You stole from me," Fromong testified.
According to police reports, two of the men were carrying guns and held Fromong and Beardsley at bay while Simpson and his alleged accomplices carried the memorabilia away in pillow cases. Fromong has said the memorabilia belong to him and estimated its value at between $80,000 and $100,000.
Fromong testified that some of the stolen items, such as Joe Montana lithographs, had nothing to do with Simpson.
Beardsley reported the alleged heist almost immediately, and over the next five days, Las Vegas police arrested Simpson and the alleged accomplices — Charles Cashmore, Alexander, Michael McClinton, Clarence Stewart and Charles Ehrlich.
Las Vegas District Attorney David Roger and his colleagues may try to make their case through witnesses, such as Cashmore, with criminal backgrounds and questionable credibility. The possible witnesses include three former defendants who agreed to cooperate with the prosecution in exchange for having the charges against them reduced.
One of the more controversial figures in the case is the man who allegedly set up the operation: Thomas Riccio, a California auctioneer and former business associate of Simpson.
On Thursday, Riccio's lawyer told ABC News that Riccio had signed a deal with Phoenix Books to write a book about the incident, tentatively titled, "Why I Did It" -- a play off the name of Simpson's book, released earlier this year, "If I Did It."
Cashmore, has a 1996 guilty plea to theft on his record. O.J.'s golf buddy Walter Alexander pleaded guilty in 1998 to a drug possession charge, according to the New York Daily News.
Prosecutors may not call all of the potential witnesses to the stand at the preliminary hearing, which may continue through Friday and into Saturday. But if they do, defense lawyers will be allowed to cross-examine the witnesses, and it's possible that these past transgressions will come up in the questioning.
Whether the witnesses prove vulnerable on the stand "depends on how well they perform, how sincere they come across," said Louis Palazzo, a criminal defense lawyer in Las Vegas. "I think it can go either way whether [the judge] will embrace their testimony or hold it against the prosecutor."
Cashmore, Alexander and McClinton cut deals with the prosecution, and are awaiting sentencing. The others were charged with 11 felonies and one gross misdemeanor, including robbery, burglary and first-degree kidnapping with a deadly weapon. The kidnapping charge carries a possible sentence of 10 years to life in prison.
Prosecutors will try to show at today's hearing that there is probable cause to believe that the defendants committed those crimes.
Riccio has said that Fromong contacted him about Beardsley's interest in selling the Simpson memorabilia, and that Fromong then talked to Simpson about helping the former football great get back what he believed were stolen items.
About three weeks before the alleged hotel room heist, Riccio told the FBI in Los Angeles about his plan to confront a man who had Simpson's memorabilia, and to film the confrontation. The agents advised Riccio to consult a lawyer about the plan's legality. It's unclear how this revelation may affect the case, but Palazzo and other defense lawyers believe that it may support Simpson's defense.
"I think it speaks to what [Simpson's] intent was," said Palazzo, who added that it gives "some degree of credence and veracity to his claim that he was trying to take goods that were taken from him unlawfully."
Riccio, who has been granted immunity in exchange for his cooperation, and may be an important witness for the prosecution, also has a criminal past. According to public records, he has been convicted of at least three felonies, including arson, felony grand theft and receipt of stolen property.
He also planted a recording device in the hotel room where the alleged heist occurred, and then sold the recordings to media outlets. Several hours of the recordings were turned over to the police, and prosecutors may play a portion of them during the preliminary hearing.
If the judge finds probable cause at the hearing, then the case will be bound over for trial to Las Vegas District Court. Within a week or two, the District Court judge will hold an arraignment, at which Simpson and the two other defendants will plead guilty or not guilty to the charges.
After the arraignment, defense lawyers will probably file a writ of habeas corpus — a last-ditch attempt to argue that the defendants should be released because prosecutors failed to show probable cause. The writ is unlikely to be granted.
If the defendants plead not guilty, the judge will set a trial date. The defense will probably waive its right to go to trial within 60 days, because it will want more time to prepare its case.
With reporting by Lauren Pearle and Scott Michels