OJ Simpson’s Petition for Habeas Corpus

OJ Simpson, the former football star, actor, and murder defendant, has petitioned a Nevada court to set aside his 2008 robbery conviction.

The robbery conviction was upheld on appeal by the Nevada Supreme Court in 2010. So if the conviction became final three years ago, how is it that Simpson is still able to challenge it in a Nevada state court? The answer is that a defendant can always file a “writ of habeas corpus” at any time after his conviction, to argue that the conviction should be set aside because the trial contained violations of the federal or state constitution.

A habeas petition typically addresses what was not done at trial, as opposed to an appeal, which argues that procedures or rulings at trial were erroneous and significant. The most common type of habeas writ raises the defense counsel’s failure to do a good job, by failing to call witnesses, investigate leads, or do other things that a competent lawyer would do. Simpson’s challenge to his conviction is based largely on the alleged ineffective advice and representation provided by his then-defense lawyer, Yale Galanter.

According to Simpson’s testimony at the hearing on the Writ of Habeas Corpus, Galanter never advised Simpson that the prosecutor was willing to agree to a sentence of two to five years in exchange for a guilty plea. (Simpson was sentenced to 33 years in prison after being found guilty, though he is eligible for parole in 2017.) Simpson’s conviction will almost certainly be set aside if the judge believes Simpson’s testimony. Not only did Galanter have an absolute duty to inform Simpson that a deal was on the table, but also last year the US Supreme Court ruled that plea bargaining is a crucial aspect of criminal proceedings for which defendants are constitutionally entitled to the effective assistance of counsel. Galanter, by the way, is scheduled to testify as well, and if he substantiates Simpson’s claim, at the cost of his own reputation and standing as a licensed attorney, the judge is extremely likely to toss out the conviction.

Simpson’s other contentions regarding Galanter’s effectiveness are less impressive. For example, Simpson claims that Galanter had a conflict of interest with Simpson because after consulting with Galanter before the robbery, Simpson was under the impression that his plan to regain personal items from a sports memorabilia dealer was legal. But as even most young children know, ignorance of the law is no excuse. Besides, Simpson’s plan as he allegedly related it to Galanter was different from what actually transpired in the hotel room where the robbery occurred.

Simpson’s challenge to his conviction is likely to continue even if the judge hearing the testimony denies Simpson’s petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus. Simpson can appeal the denial of the petition to the Nevada Supreme Court. And if he comes up empty again, he can start all over by filing a petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in federal court. After all, the right to effective assistance of counsel is protected both by state and federal constitutions.