(AP) — O.J. Simpson was granted parole Thursday after more than eight years in prison for a Las Vegas hotel-room heist, successfully making his case for freedom in a nationally televised hearing that reflected America’s enduring fascination with the former football star.
Simpson, 70, could be released as early as Oct. 1. By then, he will have served the minimum of his nine-to-33-year armed-robbery sentence for a bungled attempt to snatch sports memorabilia and other mementos he claimed had been stolen from him.
All four parole commissioners who conducted the hearing voted for his release after about a half-hour of deliberations. They cited, among other things, the low risk he might commit another crime, his community support and his release plans, which include moving to Florida.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Simpson said quietly as he buried his head on his chest with relief. As he rose from his seat to return to his prison cell, he exhaled deeply.
Then, as he was led down a hall, the Hall of Fame athlete and one-time murder defendant in the 1995 “Trial of the Century” raised his hands over his head in a victory gesture and said: “Oh, God, oh!”
Simpson’s sister, Shirley Baker, wept and hugged Simpson’s 48-year-old daughter Arnelle, who held a hand over her mouth.
During the more than hour-long hearing, Simpson forcefully insisted — as he has all along — that he was only trying to retrieve items that belonged to him and never meant to hurt anyone. He said he never pointed a gun at anyone nor made any threats during the holdup of two sports memorabilia dealers.
“I’m sorry it happened, I’m sorry, Nevada,” he told the board. “I thought I was glad to get my stuff back, but it just wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth it, and I’m sorry.”
Inmate No. 1027820 made his plea for freedom in a stark hearing room at the Lovelock Correctional Center in rural Nevada as the parole commissioners questioned him via video from Carson City, a two-hour drive away.
Gray-haired but looking trimmer than he has in recent years, Simpson walked briskly into the hearing room in jeans, a light-blue prison-issue shirt and sneakers. He chuckled at one point as the parole board chairwoman mistakenly gave his age as 90.
Simpson was widely expected to win parole, given similar cases and his good behavior behind bars. His defenders have argued, too, that his sentence was out of proportion to the crime and that he was being punished for the two murders he was acquitted of in Los Angeles in 1995, the stabbings of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.
Before the hearing concluded, one of the dealers Simpson robbed, Bruce Fromong, said the former football great never pointed a gun at him during the confrontation, adding that it was one of Simpson’s accomplices. Fromong said Simpson deserved to be released so he can be with his children.
“He is a good man. He made a mistake,” Fromong said, adding the two remain friends.
Arnelle Simpson, the eldest of Simpson’s four children, also testified on his behalf, saying, “We recognize that he is not the perfect man.” But she said he has been “a perfect inmate, following all the rules and making the best of the situation.”
“We just want him to come home, we really do,” she said.
Simpson said that he has spent his time in prison mentoring fellow inmates, often keeping them out of trouble, and believes he has become a better person during those years.
“I’ve done my time. I’ve done it as well and respectfully as I think anybody can,” he told the board.
Asked if he was confident he could stay out of trouble if released, Simpson replied that he learned a lot from an alternative-to-violence course he took in prison and that in any case he has always gotten along well with people.
“I’ve basically spent a conflict-free life, you know,” he said — a remark that lit up social media with sarcastic comments about the murder case and a raft of allegations he abused his wife.
Several major TV networks and cable channels — including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and ESPN — carried the proceedings live, just as some of them did two decades ago during the Ford Bronco chase that ended in Simpson’s arrest, and again when the jury in the murder case came back with its verdict.
Simpson said if released he plans to return to Florida, where he was living before his incarceration.
“I could easily stay in Nevada, but I don’t think you guys want me here,” he joked at one point.
“No comment, sir,” one of the parole board members said.
Authorities must still work out the details of Simpson’s release, including where he will live and what rules he must follow.
An electrifying running back dubbed “The Juice,” Simpson won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best college football player in 1968 and went on to become one of the NFL’s all-time greats.
The handsome and charismatic athlete was also a “Monday Night Football” commentator, sprinted through airports in Hertz rental-car commercials and built a Hollywood career with roles in the “Naked Gun” comedies and other movies.
All of that came crashing down with his arrest in the 1994 slayings and his trial, a gavel-to-gavel live-TV sensation that transfixed viewers with its testimony about the bloody glove that didn’t fit and stirred furious debate over racist police, celebrity justice and cameras in the courtroom.
Last year, the case proved to be compelling TV all over again with the ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America” and the award-winning FX miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”
In 1997, Simpson was found liable in civil court for the two killings and ordered to pay $33.5 million to survivors, including his children and the Goldman family.
Then a decade later, he and five accomplices — two with guns — stormed a hotel room and seized photos, plaques and signed balls, some of which never belonged to Simpson.
Simpson was convicted in 2008, and the long prison sentence brought a measure of satisfaction to some of those who thought he got away with murder.