OJ steps out into an uncertain future

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

DAVID USBORNE

New York

The freshly acquitted OJ Simpson returned one last time to Los Angeles County Jail, to collect his personal items, undergo a quick formal check of his record - and walk into a future that is completely uncertain.

Technically the former football star is free, but he is unlikely to quickly shake off the case which for more than 15 months has transfixed and polarised America. His personal life surely will remain in almost unbearable turmoil.

Civil lawsuits for "wrongful death" are outstanding from the families of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and of Ronald Goldman, while he must confront the fraught matter of custody of Sidney, 10, and Justin, 7, his two children by Nicole. They are presently being cared for by Nicole's family, which is convinced their mother was murdered by their father.

Whether the suits go forward remains to be seen. But if they do, the problems for Simpson will be considerable. A civil case requires only that "a preponderance of the evidence" proves his involvement in the murders, instead of the stricter "beyond a reasonable doubt" that state prosecutors Marcia Clark and Chris Darden failed to demonstrate in the trial which ended yesterday.

Defending civil suits, and meeting the heavy damages which might result, would be expensive - even for a man once worth $10m (pounds 6m) and now stands to make millions more by telling his side of the story.

Professionally, Simpson's days as a football commentator and commercial pitchman for Hertz rental cars - or any other product - are surely done. Whatever the court verdict, polls show 65 per cent of the country, and an even higher percentage of whites, believe he is a murderer.

At least though he is not destined for the poor house. Although the cost of his all-star defence team is reckoned to have consumed his fortune, other income sources beckon. One possibility, already studied by advisers, is a pay-per-view TV show in which Simpson expounds his innocence. Another book may be in the works.

From a San Francisco slum to the pinnacle of sporting success, Simpson's journey made him the perfect American hero. So dazzling were his accomplishments and so flawless his public image, little notice was taken of the traumas that marked his private life. Not until 13 June 1994, that is.

Born on 9 July 1947 in the working-class Portero Hill section of San Francisco, Orenthal James Simpson had a difficult childhood. His parents split when he was tiny and by his teens he was running with a gang called the "Persian Warriors". Because of a calcium deficiency, he was forced to wear leg braces. His nickname then was not the "Juice", but "Pencil Pins".

At the University of South California, Simpson became the first college football player to make it to the cover of Sports Illustrated. At 15st and 6ft 1in, he was snapped up by the Buffalo Bills where, as a running back, he won the affection of all of America with his astonishing power and ability to dodge tackles. For black Americans especially he became a new kind of sporting role model.

And Simpson, with his good looks, ready smile and effusive sense of humour, seemed impossibly nice. He was the one who would visit kids in hospital or shake hands in the crowd.

After his retirement, he acted in 10 films, starting with the Towering Inferno in 1974 and including three Naked Gun comedies. After his retirement from the field in 1984, he became an NBC sportscaster.

His personal life was less smooth, however. In 1979 he was divorced from Marguerite, who complained that she had been "shoved out of the way" by her husband's new-found fame. Shortly before the divorce was completed, tragedy struck the couple when their 23-month-old daughter, Aaren, died after drowning in a swimming pool.

Simpson began dating Nicole in 1977, when she was still a schoolgirl, and lavished her with a luxurious lifestyle of west and east coast homes and extravagant holidays. They married in 1985, later having the two children.

As his trial has revealed, however, the marriage was marred by quarrels, intense jealousy and occasional domestic violence. In the early hours of 1 January 1989, police went to the Simpsons' Brentwood home after an emergency call. They found Nicole running out of the bushes, shouting, "He's going to kill me, he's going to kill me." Her face was badly beaten. Simpson pleaded "no contest" to charges of battery and was fined $700 (pounds 400) and ordered to do 120 hours of community service.

Nicole filed for divorce from OJ in 1992. She never quite succeeded, however, in fully disentangling herself from the man that she - and most of America - had once so deeply loved.

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