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Echoes of OJ as judge lets footballer go free

There were shades of the OJ Simpson trial: a millionaire black American football player on trial for murdering his cousin.

The similarities appeared to end when a jury found Brian Blades guilty of shooting dead Charles Blades after a drinking bout in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last year. But then, two days later, came the bombshell.

Expecting to be sentenced for up to 10 years, Brian Blades, a 30-year- old with a $4.5m (pounds 3m) three-year contract as a "wide receiver" for the Seattle Seahawks, showed up to be told how long he would be jailed for. Two minutes later he was as free as OJ and the comparisons and controversy returned.

Within those two minutes, Circuit Court judge Susan Lebow announced that she, as "a reasonable person", had concluded the prosecution had not come up with enough evidence. In effect, she declared the jury's decision to be irrelevant, since the jurors had got the answer wrong. Judge Lebow was almost into her chambers before the defence lawyers realised what had happened, Blades shouted "hallelujah" and his relatives erupted in cheers.

Most of Florida, however, was stunned, saying the ruling showed bias because of Blades' Florida background, fame and fortune, and would encourage youths - especially in Miami's crime-ridden black ghettos - to settle disputes with guns. "An outrageous ruling," screamed a Miami Herald editorial. "Surely it will be reversed" . The judge is nicknamed "Let 'Em Go Lebow" because of her lenient decisions.

The court had heard the footballer's chauffeur describe how, after an apparent drunken argument with his cousin, Brian Blades came back to his waiting limousine outside the relative's home to get a gun and return to the house.

In a call to emergency services afterwards, and in testimony, Brian Blades said the gun had gone off by accident.