Lack of jurors may lead to OJ mistrial

If heads carry on rolling at the current rate, the OJ Simpson trial will run out of jurors long before it is expected to end, strongly increasing the likelihood that America's favourite courtroom soap opera will turn out to have been an expensive farce.

Fears that the case will fizzle into a mistrial were heightened Thursday with the dismissal of a white woman, the eighth person in five months to leave the pool, which is down to 16: 12 jurors and four alternates.

No official reason was given for the ousting of the woman, a 38-year- old telephone company worker, who was replaced by a 71-year-old black retired cleaning worker. Her departure appeared to anger prosecutors, almost certainly because she was believed to favour convicting Mr Simpson, who is accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole, and her waiter friend, Ronald Goldman. The dismissed woman was one of the jury's small minority of whites, thought to be less sympathetic to the former American footballer than are the black jurors.

The prosecution may also have considered her as a potentially powerful influence in the jury room. Last month she led a jury protest in which 13 of the panel turned up in court wearing black after the dismissal of three of their police guards following complaints by a dismissed black juror, Jeanette Harris, that they had been preferential to whites.

If the number of jurors drops below 12, the case can still proceed if both sides agree, although neither will want to do so if it suspects a looming defeat. Otherwise the case would end in a mistrial, an outcome which seems increasingly probable as the trial is expected to run for another four months. "This bodes very badly for the future of this trial," said Robert Pugsley, a law professor. "I don't see realistically how they're going to make it.''

As jurors pack up and leave, Judge Lance Ito has withheld the reason for their departures, beyond citing "good cause", although some details have trickled out. For example, Michael Knox has revealed that he was kicked out for failing to reveal that he was once arrested on suspicion of kidnapping his girlfriend. This titbit is the fruit of the latest effort by the publishing industry to cash in on the Simpson case, this time with a book by Mr Knox about his jury experiences.

It remains to be seen whether his memoirs will shed any further light on the stress within the jury room, now occupied by eight blacks, two Hispanics and two whites - of whom nine are women. When Ms Harris's allegations surfaced, there were widespread predictions that the jury was too deeply divided to reach a verdict. But since then the panel has made several flamboyant demonstrations of unity - and have appeared clad in T-shirts from a pizza restaurant bearing the words: "14 ethnically diverse cultures peacefully co-existing on a thin, delicious crust."

But it is the jury's thinning numbers that Judge Ito is worrying about as he struggles to prevent the trial from collapsing. His task has not been helped by another book, based on tape-recordings with Kato Kaelin, who lived in guest quarters at Simpson's house. It has not escaped the notice of prosecutors that the book contains information which Mr Kaelin did not mention on the witness stand.