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- September 26, 1994
- Vol. 42
- No. 13
Awaiting Trial in a 6-by-9 cell, O.J. Endures the Tedium and Isolation of Life Behind Bars
Since his arrest on charges of murdering his former wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman, Simpson has been held without bail in this jail in downtown L.A., and he will remain here until his trial is completed. Although prosecutors have decided not to seek the death penalty, he faces a life sentence without parole if convicted of the double murder. This week he will mark his 100th day behind bars, coping with a world largely unknown to his fans or his friends—and totally unknown to his two young children.
Earlier this month, Simpson signed an agreement surrendering temporary custody of his son Justin, 6, and daughter Sydney, 8, to Louis and Juditha Brown, his ex-wife's parents, who live near Laguna Beach, Calif. The children, who have not seen their father, have been with their maternal grandparents since the killings. A friend of Nicole's says the children "don't know O.J.'s in jail. They think their dad is away helping the police [find the murderer], so he can't see them." Since the killings, the children have enrolled in a new private school where they are protected by their teachers. "They love it," says this friend.
Meanwhile, Simpson's legal team was forced back into damage control when an attorney for Jennifer Peace, a 23-year-old porn film star and companion of Simpson's close friend Al Cowlings, confirmed that she had been talking to prosecutors. Peace reportedly testified before a grand jury that Cowlings told her he had helped dispose of the murder weapon and that his bizarre freeway odyssey with O.J. five days after the slaying was, in fact, an attempt to flee to Mexico. Lawyers for O.J. and Cowlings dismiss her tale.
That journey in Simpson's white Bronco ended when police spotted the vehicle on the freeway and followed it to Simpson's Brentwood home, where O.J. finally surrendered. Taken to county jail, he was given a red wristband identifying him as a special-care inmate, and during his first week he was on a constant suicide watch, with guards checking on him four times an hour through the window in his cell door. Sometime during that first night, Simpson's only neighbor in the hallway, inmate BK1878449, communicated a greeting through the food tray slot in his own cell door nearby. "Hey, O.J.," said Erik Menendez. "I'm Erik. Down here. Next to you."
Such encounters between the famous are not unusual in the special wing of the L.A. County Jail known as the Penthouse or Celebrity Row. Kelsey Grammer (in 1990 for failing to attend an alcohol abuse program), Sean Penn (in 1987 for reckless driving) and Marlon Brando's son Christian (in 1990 before his trial for killing his sister's boyfriend) have all spent time there, isolated from the facility's 6,000 other inmates. Each prisoner is escorted by deputies whenever he leaves his cell—mostly as protection from other inmates who might seek notoriety by attacking a celebrity. Because conversations between prisoners can be introduced as evidence in court, jail spokesman George Ducoulombier says the solitude helps preserve "an atmosphere of confidentiality." Still, a source says, Simpson and Erik Menendez did communicate a few times, and Erik once managed to pass along a note. After five days, authorities put a stop to the conversations by moving Menendez to another wing.
Simpson spent six weeks in that first cell, a room smaller than the bathrooms in his Brentwood home. He could read, he could spend up to 2 hours a day making collect calls from a nearby pay phone, and, by peering through the opening in his cell door, he could watch game shows, sports, news and sitcoms—but no violence—on a communal TV in the passageway outside his cell.
According to other prisoners, those first days in jail are the worst. "It's almost like you're a disembodied spirit. You're just going through a robotic type motion," says Rickey Ross, a former L.A. Sheriffs Department detective who spent 82 days in the Penthouse in 1989 before multiple murder charges against him were dropped. "You can see it happening, but you can't really believe this is happening to you." After a while, though, Ross adds, the cell becomes something of a refuge. "You begin to understand why the inmates say 'my house' about their cell. Rather than the world keeping you in, the cell helps you keep the world out. Then you learn to live within yourself."
On Aug. 5, O.J. was transferred to another so-called high-power unit, a place for celebrities and gang members. There he was put into a more traditional barred cell on row G that is just 9 feet by 6 feet. He has a stainless-steel sink, a single chair and a toilet that he must scrub himself. His bed has a foam mattress—less than an inch thick—with a plastic cover, a blanket and a bed sheet, along with the orthopedic cervical pillow ordered by the court to help relieve an old football neck injury. A TV sits in the hall on a cart close enough for Simpson to turn it on and off. A pay phone is mounted on another cart within his reach.
O.J.'s attorney Robert Shapiro insists his celebrity client is not getting a softer ride than any other prisoner. "He has no fresh air; he sees no light other than when he is briefly in the car and brought to the courthouse," Shapiro says. "He eats the same food. He sleeps in the same conditions as the other inmates in that overcrowded institution. There are probably greater restrictions on him than on other inmates. It's not preferential [treatment], but it's different, and generally worse."
Sometimes "different" treatment carries a hefty price tag. On Aug. 11, Simpson was taken to L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai hospital for a biopsy of swollen lymph nodes in his right armpit. (The swelling was found to be nonmalignant.) Ordinarily, prisoners at the jail are treated at nearby USC Medical Center, but Simpson obtained a court order allowing him to choose his own hospital. In order to be transported there, he had to pay more than $2,000 to cover the cost of three unmarked cars with tinted windows, plus the services of five sheriff's deputies and a police lieutenant for security who remained at the hospital during the 3-hour stay.
The move to a new section of the jail didn't end O.J.'s isolation; he is still the only prisoner on his eight-cell row. Outside his barred door, a 36-foot-long corridor with a wall containing a coated-glass one-way window allows deputies to observe prisoners from a walkway without being seen themselves. "The deputies [also] have a video camera that pans the row while they watch him on monitors in a control booth," says a source familiar with security measures. "It's hard for O.J.—extremely hard," says a jail insider. "Twenty-four hours goes by like 48."
The official reason for the move was to cut down on overtime. It had cost $70,000 for an extra deputy to watch over Simpson at all times, considerably more than the $40 a day the county usually spends to house inmates. For that price, amenities are few. Each week the county provides a jail uniform—a blue shirt and trousers, a pair of briefs, a T-shirt, a pair of white socks and a towel. Like all inmates, Simpson is permitted to have four personal pairs of undershorts brought in each week. Other than his own comb, toothbrush and toothpaste, he has few other possessions in the cell.
Curiously, Simpson, who worked out often before his arrest, has shown little enthusiasm for exercise in jail. Though he has daily access to a rooftop workout area and a stationary bike in the prison hallway, he prefers the sanctuary of his cell.
As it happens, the only chance O.J. has for contact with any of the jail's other inmates is when he passes them on his way to see visitors or to meet with his attorneys. Those short trips are tightly choreographed. Whenever he is escorted down a corridor, the other prisoners are told to stand and face the wall, making conversation all but impossible. Following standard procedure, when Simpson leaves his cell for a shower—he is allowed two a week, plus additional showers on days when he appears in court—guards cuff his wrists to a chain around his waist. The chains are removed for the shower. And, unlike more dangerous prisoners, he is not required to wear leg manacles. "The leg shackles are not a hard-and-fast rule," says a jail source. "O.J. is not a threat to the officers. It's a judgment call."
Simpson is allowed unlimited visits with his lawyers. On weekdays he confers with Shapiro and other members of his legal team, including F. Lee Bailey and Johnnie Cochran Jr. Often accompanying the lawyers are his children from his first marriage, son Jason, 24, and daughter Arnelle, 25, who may both be called as witnesses at his trial. Some of the meetings, which often last for hours, take place in a special visiting room, remodeled at a cost of $3,000 to allow O.J. access to as many as four lawyers at once. Court papers are passed to Simpson only after a sheriff's deputy inspects them for prohibited materials like staples or paper clips.
Following jail procedures, Thursdays through Sundays are for visits from relatives and close friends. Nicole Pulvers, an assistant to Simpson's legal team, has been assigned the full-time duty of screening potential callers. These meetings take place in the regular visiting room with O.J. on one side of a pane of bulletproof glass and his visitor on the other. They talk on telephone headsets for about 30 minutes. "It makes me sick every time I go down there," says his most frequent visitor, Robert Kardashian, 50, a former business partner and close friend. (It was Kardashian's house from which Simpson disappeared on June 17.) "We can't have any contact. I want to hug him, I want to show him I care. But it's very difficult."
Other friends, including football buddies Marcus Allen, a fellow USC alumnus who now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Bob Chandler, his onetime teammate on the Buffalo Bills, have dropped by. O.J. meets with both his psychiatrist, Dr. Saul Faerstein, and his physician, Dr. Robert Huizenga. In his jailhouse conversations, friends say, O.J. repeatedly denies any involvement in the killings with which he is charged.
Some Simpson intimates have yet to turn up at the men's facility, including his ailing 72-year-old mother, Eunice, who remains at home in San Francisco. But he did receive an unwelcome visitor recently when a representative for Sharon Rufo, Ron Goldman's mother, served Simpson with papers naming him in a wrongful-death suit.
Simpson has met several times with Cowlings, his pal and former Buffalo Bills teammate who is himself being investigated by a grand jury in the case. When Cowlings asked O.J. what to do about big money offers from the tabloids to tell his tale, Simpson was noncommittal. "O.J. told him to do what he had to do," a Cowlings friend says.
In jail, Simpson doesn't lack for activity. He spent several days fulfilling what is believed to be a $100,000 contract, signed with Signature Rookies Trading Cards before the murders, by autographing 2,500 picture cards of himself in a Buffalo Bills uniform. The prizes are to be randomly distributed in $5 packs of trading cards featuring rookies in various sports. "I wouldn't pay big money for a card signed in these circumstances. I think it's distasteful," says Tom Mortenson, editor of Sports Collectors Digest, a consumer magazine for trading cards.
In his cell, Simpson has plenty of reading material: legal papers, golf magazines and a copy of Clive Cussler's Inca Gold, a gift from Kardashian. Several times a week, Kardashian gives Simpson a sampling of the many letters he receives each day. (At one point he was getting up to 2,000 letters daily.) The vast majority are written by women who believe he is innocent—"I can't seem to get you out of my mind," wrote one woman from The Bronx—and many include donations to help with legal bills. "It's mind-boggling," says Kardashian. "They come from all ages. Some are from children who send in their allowances."
As in any jail, routine is the norm. On most days, Simpson rises at 5:30 a.m. An hour later a sheriff's deputy brings him breakfast—invariably pancakes or oatmeal, along with fruit and coffee. Lunch is served around 11 a.m. and dinner between 4 and 6. Gourmet fare is not on the menu. On Aug. 19, for example, Simpson dined on lasagna, salad, Jell-O and Kool-Aid for lunch and beef stew with vegetables, rice, coleslaw, pudding and coffee for dinner. "O.J. is not thrilled about the food," says a friend. At 10 p.m., lights go out.
On court days, Simpson is awakened an hour earlier so he can shower, then shave with a disposable razor issued by a watching deputy. At 7:30 he is escorted to a van for the 10-minute ride to superior court, where he changes into a suit and tie brought by his defense team. After court he changes back into his blue uniform and returns to jail in the van, usually escorted by two unmarked police cars.
Raymond Buckey, who spent five years at the men's facility before being exonerated of most charges in the McMartin Preschool child-molestation case, bitterly complained that Simpson has been getting "curbside service" for his court appearances. "We used to sit chained and shackled in the courthouse lockup until 10 or 11 at night until we got a ride back," he said. The lockup—where prisoners are held before and after court appearances—is a dismal place, observes former prisoner Rickey Ross. "It's a big, huge, filthy, stinking, urine-smelling, fecal-matter-smelling room with all kinds of obscene writing on the wall," he says. "It's right behind those courtroom doors. On the other side of those doors is hell."
Though Simpson's fame may bring him some privileges, his future hardly seems enviable. His trial is expected to last until Christmas, and his next residence will be up to the jury. If convicted, he will be transferred to a state penitentiary, possibly Northern California's super-tough and isolated Pelican Bay facility. If the jury deadlocks, he will stay, like the Menendez brothers, to await a new trial. If he is acquitted, he may have a celebratory destination already in mind. Simpson jokingly told associates he planned to be on the beach in Baja California within a few months.
LORENZO BENET, LYNDON STAMBLER and TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles
- Lorenzo Benet,
- Lyndon Stambler,
- Tom Cunneff.
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