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Will duo hurt — or help — O.J.'s case?

LOS ANGELES — Two men who cut plea deals Monday in a Las Vegas heist that authorities say O.J. Simpson masterminded could hamper the former football star's defense, but the men's dubious backgrounds could give prosecutors problems.

The question will be whether prosecutors can build a strong enough case against Simpson on the words of his cohorts or whether the testimony will be eroded through contradictions and cross-examination targeting the unsavory background of his co-defendants.

"It's a defense lawyer's dream to cross-examine these witnesses," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former federal prosecutor. "You can put someone up before a firing squad and the squad members can start shooting at each other."

At this point, prosecutors appear to have the upper hand. Two of Simpson's co-defendants, one a former friend, agreed to testify against him in return for drastically reduced charges.

"It's always a prosecutor's strategy to go after the little fish to get to the big fish," said lawyer Edward Miley, who represents defendant Charles Cashmore. "In this, it seems to be that O.J. Simpson is the big fish."

A lawyer for Walter Alexander, a former golf buddy of Simpson's who plans to testify against him, said he hasn't been in trouble in a decade.

But he and Cashmore have histories of run-ins with the law.

Cashmore, 40, who said he will plead guilty to being an accessory to robbery, was charged with felony theft in a 1996 embezzlement case in Provo, Utah, pleaded guilty and bargained the charge to a misdemeanor and probation.

Alexander, 46, said he will plead guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery. He was arrested in Los Angeles in 1987 for kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon, but the charges were dismissed because a witness refused to identify the culprit, court records show.

Charges against Simpson and three others include kidnapping, armed robbery, assault, burglary and conspiracy. A preliminary hearing for them is scheduled Nov. 8 and 9.

Cashmore and Alexander waived their right to a preliminary hearing.

Their brushes with the law will be fodder for cross-examination, as will their roles in the Sept. 13 confrontation in a Las Vegas hotel room where Simpson has said he went to retrieve items that belonged to him from a group of memorabilia peddlers.

Simpson's Las Vegas attorney, Gabriel Grasso, said he wasn't surprised that some of Simpson's co-defendants are getting reduced charges to testify against the athlete-turned-actor.

"I never thought this would be anything but an O.J. case and only O.J.," he said.

Grasso said he expects the prosecution to argue that, "In a den of thieves, you have thieves as witnesses." But he stressed, "That does not include O.J."

Some of the other men in the room had felony convictions, including Tom Riccio, the man who set up the meeting and taped it but was granted immunity and not charged. He is expected to be a key witness.

Prosecutor David Roger has not outlined his strategy and declined comment on it outside court Monday.

Defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr., who represented acquitted defendants Michael Jackson and Robert Blake in cases that turned on witness credibility, said the move by co-defendants to plead out and testify to save themselves shows the prosecution's motive is to get Simpson.

"This might feed into the idea of a setup," he said. "They set him up in the hotel room and tape recorded it and now they're setting him up in court."

Simpson's celebrity and the fact that many feel he was wrongly acquitted in 1995 of murdering his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, could weigh heavily against him and may emerge as the dominant theme in the case.

"All the others are getting a good deal and Simpson, the one without a conviction, doesn't? It's all about who he is," Mesereau said. "They probably wouldn't have brought charges if it wasn't for who he was."

Defense attorney Harland Braun, another of Blake's original attorneys, said the critical factor is whether Simpson knew anyone in the group had a gun and whether he intended for anyone to use a gun that night.

Simpson told The Associated Press he saw no guns.

"The underlying fact is he was trying to get back property he thought was his," Braun said. "He could say he was yelling at them to give him his property and didn't see any guns. It's an unusual case."