After one year, three months and 20 days, OJ Simpson walks free

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The Independent Online

Los Angeles

The case that began with a slow-motion televised chase down southern California's freeways ended yesterday with another convoy, as a fleet of police cars and media helicopters shadowed the bus carrying OJ Simpson from the courtroom to the jail, then tailed the white van taking him home a free man.

Orenthal James Simpson was acquitted by a jury of the brutal murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman. He walked into his Los Angeles estate to be embraced by his friend and fellow football player, Al Cowlings, who last June was accused of trying to drive a fleeing Simpson across the Mexican border.

In a case that has come to capture the racial divides in America, where most whites firmly believed in Simpson's guilt, TV audiences of mostly black Californians, watching the denouement in churches and high schools, erupted in roars of delight.

"The prosecution had a lot of loopholes in their side of the case. I think the jury did a fine job," said Danny Bakewell of Brotherhood Crusade, a black community group.

There were gasps and weeping in the courtroom and outside it as the verdict was read. Simpson hugged his lead attorney, Johnnie Cochran, and returned for a last visit to LA County jail to be discharged.

Simpson's 71-year-old wheelchair-bound mother Eunice lifted her hands as if in prayer when he was cleared of both first- and second-degree murder counts by a unanimous vote. "I knew that my son was innocent," she said later. "I kept the faith and I had confidence in his representation."

Kim Goldman, young sister of the murder victim who was in court every day of the case and was dubbed the conscience of the trial of the century, sobbed uncontrollably. Her father Fred, who had publicly labelled Simpson a murderer, seemed to gasp for breath.

The Los Angeles Police Department went on tactical alert with marksmen on rooftops around the courthouse and helicopters buzzing. Crowds lined the streets around the courtroom, but quickly dispersed.

In a statement read by his older son Jason, Simpson pledged to "pursue as my primary goal in life the killers" of his ex-wife. "They are out there somewhere. Whatever it takes to bring them in ... I will find them somehow."

Simpson, who did not testify in his own defence but said early on he was "100 per cent" not guilty, said: "I am relieved that this part of the incredible nightmare that occurred is over. My first obligation is to my young children who will be raised in the way that Nicole and I had planned ... I would not, could not, and did not kill anyone." Sydney, nine, and Justin, seven, are currently in the care of Nicole Brown's parents.

President Bill Clinton said: "The jury heard the evidence and rendered its verdict. Our system of justice requires respect for their decision. At this moment our thoughts and prayers should be with the families of the victims." Mr Cochran said Simpson was "ecstatic and wants to get on with his life". In his closing statements to the jury Mr Cochran was blamed for inflaming the race issue that threatened to explode throughout the trial, but he turned the post-trial focus on the prosecution's chronology for the murders. The defence argued that Simpson simply did not have time to commit them.

But asked whether race had overcome the facts, Mr Coch-ran said: "Race plays a part in everything in America and we need to understand that ... This was a real heck of a trial."

The aftermath of a case that was fought out for the TV cameras saw a series of duelling news conferences. While the defence "dream team" began with a prayer of thanks and at one point burst into laughter, prosecutors looked blank and grim.

District Attorney Gil Garcetti, up for re-election in 1996, said he was profoundly disappointed and angry, and suggested that the jury's snap decision was "based on emotions that overcame the reason".

The deliberations of the jury of eight black women, two white women and one Hispanic and one black man, who had been poker-faced through the trial, remained a mystery. They asked Judge Lance Ito to preserve their anonymity, and asked not to speak to either press or the attorneys.

Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Darden, who in the courtroom had appeared bitterly offended by the defence's playing the race card, said he accepted the jury's verdict but added: "We came here in search of justice. You will have to be the judge of whether any of us found it today."

Simpson, 48, faced a possible life prison term without parole if convicted of first-degree murder in the 12 June 1994 killings. It may not be long now before he attempts to cash in on his acquittal. Even before yesterday's verdicts, intermediaries for Simpson had filed formal patent requests with the US government to use the OJ Simpson name on products including calendars, children's toys, place mats and, above all, a new line of OJ Simpson clothing.

Simpson is also rumoured to be considering giving a post-trial interview to pay-per-view television in the US with CNN's star interviewer Larry King. The former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, following his release from prison this summer after being convicted of rape, staged a comeback fight on pay-per-view that netted him an instant $25m.