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O J case threatens to tear open US racial wounds

WHEN O J Simpson was arrested after a car chase through Los Angeles watched by 95 million Americans, one thing at least was clear: his case may have been about domestic violence, the pressures of stardom, the effects of wealth, but it did not have much to do with the colour of his skin.

Commentators were quick to observe that the former football idol and movie actor was what marketing executives call 'race neutral' - a celebrity whose popularity spanned America's racial divide and whose riches long ago had eradicated any knee-jerk prejudice. One month on, however, the picture has clouded considerably.

Signs are growing that race relations are becoming subtly entwined in the trial of Simpson, who on Friday told Los Angeles Superior Court that he was '100 per cent not guilty' of stabbing to death his ex-wife, Nicole, and a young man, Ronald Goldman. The issue is no small matter in Los Angeles, where memories of the Rodney King affair and the subsequent riots in 1992, are still raw.

It has been fuelled by opinion polls, which have shown that significantly fewer blacks than whites are inclined to believe that O J is guilty. The margin of difference at the last count, by the California Field Poll, was 24 per cent. Among whites, 62 per cent thought that O J was 'very likely or somewhat likely' to be guilty; only 38 per cent of blacks agreed.

These figures may prove nothing more than that blacks in the United States are generally more distrustful of the police than other groups. But it bolsters the view of some that white institutions - the police, judiciary and media - are intent on putting down prominent and successful blacks.

This position was encapsulated by the black-run Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper's observation on the Simpson saga. 'A black man in legal trouble, no matter how famous, (is) treated like another nigger,' it raged. A touch hyperbolic perhaps, but the widespread existence of this perception was confirmed by detailed investigations by Sam Fulwood, of the Los Angeles Times.

'In interview after interview,' he wrote, 'black Americans cited the unproven accusations against singer Michael Jackson, the rape conviction of former boxing champion Mike Tyson, the stiff jail sentence given to former Washington Mayor Marion Barry for smoking crack, and the Senate hearings into alleged sexual harassment by then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas to support their belief that the nation's white power elites act in concert to maintain white supremacy.' Not everyone sees the O J case this way. For example, Joe Hicks of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of LA's vocal black groups, is adamant that the affair is primarily about wealth, not pigmentation.

To what extent race will ultimately influence the case remains unclear; that depends on the strength of evidence against Simpson and the outcome of his trial. But the players are in place. Last week, a delegation of black leaders met the District Attorney, Gil Garcetti, to plead with him to ensure a fair trial, and not to seek the death penalty. The ex-footballer, meanwhile, added to his defence team a leading black trial lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, who has a long track record of race-related civil rights cases.

But the most disturbing suggestion that the shadow of racial conflict has fallen over the affair came this week, when O J's defence team privately encouraged reporters to believe that a police detective on the case had racist inclinations, and might have tried to frame the star by planting evidence - namely, a bloody glove.

To date, the team has supplied no convincing evidence to support this claim, which was part of its elaborate campaign to influence potential jurors. Predictably, O J's chief counsel, Robert Shapiro, has publicly denied any intention to introduce race into the case.

But the seed has undoubtedly been planted, in a city which can well do without any further tribal conflicts.

(Photograph omitted)