OJ trial more about racial strife than double murder

FROM PHIL REEVES

in Los Angeles

Judge Lance Ito is not a happy man. Over the last few weeks, pundits across the United States have accused him of dithering, tantrums, and of losing control over the increasingly chaotic trial of OJ Simpson. And now matters seem even worse.

On Monday, he begins the arduous task of interviewing all 18 jurors and alternates in the case in an effort to establish if there is any truth to claims that they are now so racially divided that there have been physical confrontations between blacks and whites.

His investigation is the result of allegations by a recently ousted black juror which, if true, confirm the growing suspicion among many Americans that the so-called "trial of the century" now has less to do with double murder than deep racial differences.

On Wednesday, Judge Ito conducted a lengthy interview with the dismissed juror, Jeanette Harris, whom he threw off the panel for failing to disclose that she had been a victim of spousal abuse - a potentially important omission, as Simpson beat his ex-wife, Nicole. Hours after her departure, an evidently piqued Ms Harris appeared on television where she unloaded blistering allegations, including a suggestion that jurors may have been discussing the case.Understandably alarmed, and with predictions of a mistrial the judge issued a subpoena ordering her to appear in his chambers to tell him more.

Transcripts of their meeting show that she has now backed off her claims of possible misconduct. But she stood firm over her otherallegations. She described a jury that is fraught with racial divisions, and has split into bitterly antagonistic factions during the three months of being sequestered in an hotel. Whites and blacks even had separate video viewing rooms, and gyms, she said.

A group of white women had formed, which has had several show-downs with their black counterparts. At one point, she alleged, two of the women - a Latina and an Anglo-American - attacked a black juror, hitting him on the head. On another occasion, she and another black were kicked by a white woman. On a third, a Latina announced that she would not breathe the same air as a black juror.

The crisis was exacerbated by their guards from the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, whom she accused of giving preferential treatment to whites - whites getting first pick of movies, telephone privileges, and longer shopping trips.

In itself, all this contains nothing sufficiently momentous to justify Judge Ito calling a mistrial. But in racially super-sensitive Los Angeles, no one treats such issues lightly, and there is a growing sentiment that no verdict can be reached.

It may not even reach that point. The jury - which now comprises eight blacks, three whites and one Latino - has already lost six members in 12 weeks. If the tension is as bad as Ms Harris claims, then there is every reason to fear that the case will run out of jurors,

While Judge Ito struggles to unravel the latest glitch, there are some who have cause to celebrate. For five days, the defence has been skewering Dennis Fung, who gathered evidence at the scene of the murders. He has conceded a handful of damaging points, including admitting that a blanket taken from Nicole Brown's flat to cover her body could have contained Simpson's hair and clothing fibres. An increasingly moody Mr Fung has also given a contradictory account of what he did with a vial of the sport's star's blood - a mistake which the defence will use to fortify their claim that the LA police tried to frame Simpson by planting traces of his blood.

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