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Rich Man, Poor Man: O.J. Jury Hears Two Sides Simpson Worth $15.7 Million, Say Plaintiffs, Who Count Future Earnings

Depending on which side is doing the counting, O.J. Simpson is either extraordinarily rich or hopelessly poor.

According to the plaintiffs, Simpson’s net worth at the end of 1996 was $15.7 million. The defense says he was $880,000 in debt and that counting the $8.5 million in compensatory damages the civil court jury awarded Tuesday, his financial standing plunges to $9.4 million in the red.

The jury, which found him responsible for the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, heard the starkly contrasting portraits of Simpson’s net worth Thursday when the case resumed, after a one-day break, for the final, punitive stage of the trial.

Daniel Petrocelli, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, explained that the $8.5 million was to compensate Goldman’s parents for their loss and that punitive damages were intended to punish and set an example. “It takes a lot more to punish a rich man than to punish a poor man,” Petrocelli said.

John Q. Kelly, the attorney for Nicole Simpson’s family, told the jury that while the Browns had not sought compensatory damages, they are seeking punitive damages for her estate, which would be inherited by the two children she had with Simpson - Sydney, 11, and Justin, 8. “This is going to be your one and only opportunity to act … for the benefit of her two small children and provide some measure of punishment and deterrence to the man who murdered their mother,” Kelly said.

First on the witness stand was Neill Freeman, a forensic accountant who traces assets in legal disputes. On cross examination Freeman acknowledged that a major factor in reaching the $15.7 million figure was Simpson’s future earning capability, which the plaintiffs claim is worth $25 million over the balance of his lifetime.

Mark Roesler, chairman and chief executive officer of CMG, a company that represents and manages celebrity sports and entertainment figures, dead and alive, testified that Simpson could expect to generate $2 million to $3 million a year from the sale of his name and image - up to $1.5 million annually just from signing autographs and another million dollars or so from books and audio tapes, movies, endorsements and advertisements.

But Simpson’s lead lawyer, Robert Baker, confronted Roesler with a newspaper article quoting him as saying that Simpson’s “visibility as a commercial endorser will be diminished to virtually zero.” Roesler stood by his figures, noting that statement referred only to endorsements.

But Simpson’s longtime lawyer, Leroy “Skip” Taft, testified that Simpson was broke and that his prospects were bleak. “He can’t pay his bills,” Taft said.