OJ puts up his fortune to clear name

THE American football hero, O J Simpson was arraigned yesterday on murder charges which he is preparing to fight with one of the toughest and most costly legal teams assembled for a criminal case in the United States. In a brief hearing, the former Buffalo Bill and part-time actor robustly told Los Angeles Superior Court that he was 'absolutely one hundred per cent not guilty' of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and an aspiring male model, Ronald Goldman.

The court appointed a supervising judge, Lance Ito, to preside over what is shaping up as one of the biggest murder trials in US history. Mr Ito, 43, presided over the 1991 trial of financier Charles Keating, whom he jailed for 10 years for swindling investors in the savings and loans scandal. No final hearing date was set, but it is becoming clear that Mr Simpson is willing to sacrifice his estimated dollars 10.8m ( pounds 7.06m) fortune in his quest to be acquitted. Few observers of what has become an American obsession believe that he will have much left when it ends.

The latest recruit to a cast of characters which is beginning to outclass Colombo and LA Law is Johnnie Cochran, LA's leading black lawyer. He recently made headlines when - at the request of Elizabeth Taylor - he helped broker the out-of-court settlement between her friend Michael Jackson and the 14-year-old boy who accused the entertainer of sex abuse.

Until recently, Mr Cochran was better known for representing black victims of police abuse, although he also acted for Reginald Denny, the white truck driver who was beaten by young blacks at the start of the LA riots, and Snoop Doggy Dogg, the black rapper accused of involvement in a killing.

A second new arrival to the O J camp is John McNally, who will head the crew of investigators hired to dig over the case in minute detail. Mr McNally is a gumshoe of some renown. In 1964, he successfully tracked down 'Murph the Surf', the jewel thief who stole the Star of India sapphire from New York's Museum of Natural History.

Fifteen years later, he was again in the public eye when federal prosecutors accused him of being part of the 'security department' surrounding the younger brother of the mobster, John Gotti. The sleuth dismissed the allegation as government 'paranoia'.

Mr McNally had close ties with the Simpson camp before he was drafted in, and has worked with Alan Dershowitz, one of America's most wily defence lawyers. Mr Dershowitz has represented the ex-world champion boxer Mike Tyson in his (failed) appeal against his rape conviction, fought on behalf of tax-dodging Leona Helmsley, and advised Angela Davis, the American Communist leader who was acquitted of murder in 1972. His most notable case - later made into the movie Reversal of Fortune - was that of Claus von Bulow, the aristocrat accused of murdering his rich wife by injecting her with insulin. Mr Dershowitz waged a fierce legal battle, in which Mr Von Bulow's conviction was overturned.

The public head of O J's legal team is Robert Shapiro. He, too, has an intriguing track record. He has successfully defended the porn star, Linda Lovelace, on drug charges, and negotiated a plea bargain for Marlon Brando's son, Christian, when he was accused of murder. He is being assisted by F Lee Bailey, the celebrated trial lawyer who defended the millionaire heiress Patty Hearst in the mid-1970s, although his role is believed to be fairly minor.

O J's team have already been hard at work, setting up a free phone number for tips which has been inundated with calls. It has not escaped the notice of some that O J's wealth has secured him services that almost no other defendants can afford.