America agonises over its OJ obsession

IN A serious blow to the defence of O J Simpson, Judge Kathleen Kennedy Powell decided at the preliminary hearing in Los Angeles late yesterday that evidence gathered by police at his home before a search warrant was obtained is admissible. This decision makes it near inevitable that Mr Simpson will stand trial. Unless the defence can get the ruling on the search warrant thrown out by a superior court, it will be difficult for him to win his case in the face of such strong forensic evidence.

IN A body-blow to the defence of O J Simpson, Judge Kathleen Kennedy Powell decided at the preliminary hearing in Los Angeles late yesterday that evidence gathered by police at his home before a search warrant was obtained is admissible. This decision makes it near inevitable that Mr Simpson will stand trial for the murder of his former wife and her male friend. Unless the defence can get the ruling on the search warrant thrown out by a superior court, it will be difficult for him to win his case in the face of such strong forensic evidence.

The ruling comes at a time when Americans seem a little guilty about the degree to which they are obsessed by the O J Simpson saga. A CBS poll shows 72 per cent of people think media coverage is excessive but nine out of ten admit to watching it closely. Mr Simpson's pursuit on the freeways of Los Angeles on 17 June was seen by 95 million people.

Nothing else can compete with O J for interest. Last week the report on the suicide of White House counsellor Vince Foster - previously a matter of intense speculation - sank without trace. Few know that President Clinton has gone to Europe.

The main television networks are covering the preliminary hearings in Los Angeles live. Three times as many people are watching CNN as a month ago. Ratings show that - despite the tedium of much of the court proceedings - viewers have an endless appetite for more on O J Simpson.

Some papers have flayed the media for obsessive and inaccurate coverage. Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post says: 'The worst sins of American journalism seem to be on display.' He quotes Leo Wolinsky, the metro editor of the Los Angeles Times as saying: 'It looks like we're a bunch of vultures, just trying to tear this story apart piece by piece.'

Yet the sins of the prosecutors are probably worse - and certainly more calculated - than those of the media. From the beginning the Los Angeles District Attorney, Gil Garcetti, has known his political life is on the line. Elected because his predecessor lost a series of celebrity cases, he has since presided over the failed prosecution of the police officers who beat Rodney King, and of the Menendez brothers. If he does not convict O J Simpson, his political career is over.

Ever since the bodies of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman were discovered on 13 June, the prosecutors have known they would probably have to put on trial one of America's most popular men. They needed to damage his image and did so by producing a gory leak every day linking him to the crime. Mr Garcetti first expressed dismay over the turning over to the media of the emergency calls made by Nicole Simpson to the police. It subsequently emerged his office knew about and encouraged their release.

Leaks by the prosecution have proved an effective antidote to initial sympathy for Mr Simpson. Here was a man capable of extreme violence. For instance, a police report of an incident on 1 January 1989 records how police found Nicole Simpson hiding in bushes near her home. Her face was 'badly beaten, with a cut lip, swollen and blackened eye and cheek.' She kept repeating: 'He's going to kill me.'

Mike Royko of the Chicago Tribune says it is absurd to blame the media for obsession with the story, since O JSimpson is the most famous American to be accused of carrying out a killing this century. To find a parallel you have to go back to 1804, when the vice-president, Aaron Burr, shot dead Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers, in a duel. In no other recent celebrity trial - not even that of heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson - was the defendant as well known as Mr Simpson.

Even the most tasteless questions can be justified. The so- called 'Should O J fry?' question asked by a television anchor will become increasingly relevant when the full trial begins.

Given the brutality of the murders, prosecutors can scarcely avoid asking for the death penalty should Mr Simpson be convicted, but experts predict he will not be executed. 'We reserve the death penalty for people we hate,' says celebrated defence attorney Roy Black. Sympathy for O J Simpson may be ebbing across America but they do not hate him yet.

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