LOVELOCK, Nev. (AP) — Barring any last-minute snafus, O.J. Simpson will walk out of prison a free man in about three months, having persuaded a Nevada parole board the bungled hotel-room heist he pulled nearly 10 years ago was a monumental error in judgment and one he will never repeat.
Although he still adamantly maintains he was trying to retrieve his personal property when he barged into a hotel room with five other men in September 2007, he acknowledged repeatedly Thursday that it was something he never should have done.
After a nationally televised hearing that clearly revealed the public’s fascination with Simpson continues, four parole commissioners voted unanimously to release him.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said quietly as he buried his head on his chest with relief.
Then, as he was led down a hall and back to prison, the Hall of Fame athlete and 1995 murder defendant raised his hands over his head in a victory gesture and said: “Oh, God, oh!”
Some two hours earlier, Simpson, gray-haired but looking trimmer than he has in recent years, had walked stiffly into a small hearing room of the Lovelock Correctional Center in rural Nevada dressed in jeans, a light-blue prison-issue shirt and sneakers.
He chuckled as parole board chairwoman Connie Bisbee began the hearing by mistakenly giving his age at 90 before quickly correcting herself.
“Feels like it though,” Simpson, 70, said as laughter erupted.
Bisbee and three other parole board commissioners were gathered in another hearing room about two hours away in Carson City, the state’s capital. They questioned Simpson via video.
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 a famous Ford Bronco chase over Southern California freeways that ended in Simpson’s arrest and again when a jury in his murder trial returned with its not guilty verdict.
During Thursday’s hearing, the charisma and charm that once made Simpson one of the most popular figures in American pop culture was clearly on display.
By turns remorseful, jovial and defensive, he heatedly insisted the items he and five others took during the armed robbery in a Las Vegas hotel room in September 2007 were “my stuff.”
“I could easily stay in Nevada, but I don’t think you guys want me here,” he joked.
At one point, he set off a storm of sarcasm and mockery on social media when, assuring commissioners he would stay out of trouble, he said: “I’ve basically spent a conflict-free life, you know.”
He also insisted he never meant to hurt anyone during the 2007 confrontation, never pointed a gun and didn’t make any threats during the holdup of two sports memorabilia dealers.
“These were friends of mine, actually guys who helped me move and store some of this stuff,” he said of the dealers, Bruce Fromong and the late Alfred Beardsley.
Fromong testified that was true, adding it was one of the men accompanying Simpson who pointed a gun at him.
“He is a good man. He made a mistake,” Fromong said of Simpson, adding that if Inmate No. 1027820 asks him for a ride from prison when he is released he will be there.
“I mean that,” he said turning to face Simpson.
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 murders he was acquitted of in Los Angeles in 1995, the stabbings of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.
Arnelle Simpson, at 48 the eldest of Simpson’s four children, told the board, “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.”
Simpson said he has spent his time in prison mentoring fellow inmates, often keeping them out of trouble, and that 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, he 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.
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 charming 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 a bloody glove that didn’t fit and stirred furious debate over racist police, celebrity justice and cameras in the courtroom.
Two years after his acquittal Simpson was found liable in civil court for the killings and ordered to pay $33.5 million to survivors, including his children and the Goldman family.
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.”
The long prison sentence that resulted from the hotel-room stickup brought a measure of satisfaction to some of those who thought Simpson got away with murder. Among them were Ron Goldman’s sister, Kim, and their father, Fred.
“The Goldmans are devastated,” family spokesman Michael Wright said of Thursday ruling.
Associated Press writers Scott Sonner in Carson City; John Rogers, John Antczak, Christopher Weber and Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles; and Terence Chea in Lovelock contributed to this report.