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Another Sticky Mess for O.J.

Surely by now O.J. Simpson has spent more time in courtrooms than he ever did on gridirons.

The Juice is under the gavel again, standing trial for kidnapping and (yawn) armed robbery. Prosecutors say he led gunmen into a Vegas hotel room last year to rob a sports memorabilia dealer. The defense insists the former NFL running back was just trying to retrieve stuff that belonged to him, including photos of his children. Those would be the kids who were asleep inside their mother’s Brentwood condominium in 1994 while she and a friend were being stabbed to death just outside. Acquitted of the gruesome murders in a criminal trial, but found liable for the deaths in a civil trial, Simpson swore he’d spend the rest of his life hunting down the “real” killer of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.

For a while, O.J. appeared to be scouring the world’s finest golf courses in search of the outlaw. Then last year he wrote the cheeky tell-all If I Did It, explaining how he would have slaughtered his ex-wife, if he were the type of guy to do that sort of thing. A judge awarded book rights to Goldman’s family as restitution, and the stomach-turning tome has sold more than 100,000 copies.

From the beginning, the story of O.J.’s dive from celebrated football great to despised prison evader has been marked by mind-boggling idiocy. Not only his — but my own.

I was a young reporter working at the Brentwood News when word of the double homicide spread through the tiny Los Angeles suburb. My editor sent me to Nicole’s condo for some on-the-scene reporting, and the news was so fresh that I found myself alone there.

Police tape was strewn around the Bundy Drive lawn where the victims had fallen. Their bodies were gone, but patches of dark, sticky blood still marked the walkway. I was too green — both inexperienced and, now, queasy — to translate these disturbing observations into a compelling or meaningful story. I stood stupidly with my blank notepad, staring at the gooey and irrefutable evidence of the previous night’s violence … and wondering why I hadn’t gotten a job at some cushy advertising firm like the rest of my friends.

By the next day, of course, the surrounding sidewalks were shoulder-to-shoulder with international news crews and rubber-necking L.A. residents. You couldn’t get within 50 feet of the crime scene, but my editor (whose staffing instincts clearly needed sharpening) sent me back to cover the “media frenzy.” I was parking my car when a misinformed radio announcer shrieked, “They’re taking a body out of the house right now!” I flung off my platform shoes and began sprinting toward the action, only to trip on the hem of my palazzo pants (hey, it was 1994) and slide face-down across the asphalt, tearing my clothes. Bleeding and barefoot, I hobbled toward the crowd with my camera aimed at the throngs of sweaty thrill-seekers who had swarmed the once quiet neighborhood.

I didn’t get any photos. Because it turned out I hadn’t brought any film. In fact, the best scoop I got all day was a dip into the office freezer, grabbing ice for my throbbing knee. But I did wind up on the cover of the L.A. Times the next day. Their photographer, equipped with film, snapped a terrific crowd shot with a wounded cub reporter in the center, looking bewildered. Bungling that assignment is one of my greatest professional regrets. I missed the story of a lifetime. Twice.

But regret is what makes us better. I’m smarter now. More experienced. Less intimidated by things I don’t immediately understand. And I’m not afraid to ask questions. Like this one: Why hasn’t regret taught O.J. a damn thing?

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