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Murder ruling strikes blow at OJ's defence

The lawyers defending OJ Simpson suffered yet another blow yesterday, when Judge Lance Ito ruled that jurors may convict the former US football star of second-degree murder rather than only first-degree murder. In effect, this means that the jury will not need as much evidence to convict him of murder.

Mr Simpson is accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman on 12 June 1994, in one of the nation's most highly publicised cases. After hearing almost nine months of testimony and 100 witnesses, the longest-suffering jury in Californian history will soon be required to make up their minds.

The defence told Judge Ito yesterday that it had no further witnesses and would formally rest its case today. Closing arguments are scheduled to begin on Tuesday, exactly a year to the day after jury selection started.

The defence has been prevented from bringing before the jury the full extent of the racism and past misdeeds of the retired detective Mark Fuhrman, a leading prosecution witness. It is still searching for an explosive finish to the trial.

The defence contends the Los Angeles police were corrupt and out to frame Mr Simpson. But their legal manouevres have been thwarted by procedural obstacles and Judge Ito's hurry to get the case to the jury.

The trial's recent events have taken a heavy toll on its participants. The court has been subjected to often pointlessly exhaustive evidence, mystery witnesses, rambling side-issues and procedural chaos. In a fit of pique, Judge Ito has stormed off the bench and called the case "a mind- numbing experience". The jurors have been close to mutiny.

The case, which was expected to last four months, has now heard its last significant defence witnesses, two mob informers, Larry and Craig "The Animal" Fiato. They were called to discredit the chief detective in the case, Philip Vannatter, and show he had labelled Mr Simpson a suspect before there was any evidence.

Instead the court heard that the policeman was sensitive towards Mr Simpson. In another disappointment for the defence, Judge Ito rejected an attempt to discredit the FBI laboratory that conducted many of the DNA blood tests.

The jury has heard experts recalled to testify about the bloody gloves found at the crime scene and on Mr Simpson's estate on the night of the murders. Besides the blood evidence, which the defence says was planted in a conspiracy to frame Mr Simpson, the gloves remain the strongest evidence linking him to the killings.

To establish that the gloves belonged to Mr Simpson, the prosecution called their manufacturer to testify that he was certain those worn by Mr Simpson in photographs taken at American football games in 1991- 93 were the same as those found by Mr Fuhrman. Mr Simpson's lawyers then countered with their own expert who tried to prove that they were not Mr Simpson's gloves.