OJ's guilt is a black and white choice

Mistrial feared as race issue hangs over jury's task

SCOTT TUROW, the novelist whose courtroom thrillers have been made into Hollywood blockbusters, said last week that there was a Shakespearian dimension to the OJ Simpson trial. The author of Presumed Innocent, presuming guilt, described Mr Simpson as a 20th- century Othello.

If the jury, who begin their final deliberations tomorrow, find the black All-American hero guilty of murdering his white wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, they will have concluded that he succumbed to the oldest tragic flaw in the book, the green-eyed monster of jealousy.

Mr Turow makes a nice point. But the tragedy extends far wider. Now that the trial has run its nine-month course, the terrible truth that has been laid bare is how intractably flawed race relations remain in America, how divided the worlds inhabited by blacks and whites. A poll conducted on Friday, when concluding argument ended and the prosecution finally rested its case, confirmed a pattern of segregated perceptions established last Junethe day Mr Simpson was arrested and charged. Whereas 77 per cent of whites believe he is guilty, 72 per cent of blacks believe he is not. The statistics are so stark that even President Bill Clinton was unable to disguise his involvement in the great national obsession, remarking on Thursday night that he was alarmed at the manner in which the trial had heightened racial tensions in America.

The black verdict in the case has been that the real criminal is Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles detective who a few years ago unwisely spat into a tape-recorder the word most Americans cannot bring themselves to utter, "nigger": "the N-word". It is conceivable that Mr Fuhrman could end up in jail and Mr Simpson, against whom the prosecution believe they have an open and shut case, will go free

The trail of evidence, coldly assessed, leads compellingly to Mr Simpson. But it was Mr Fuhrman who collected some of the most critical clues, providing defence lawyers with the window of "reasonable doubt" they desperately needed. They have fixed the idea in many black American minds - perhaps including those of the nine black jurors - that Mr Fuhrman's hatred of blacks prompted him to plant the evidence, that Mr Simpson was the victim of a conspiracy within the LA Police Department.

Johnnie Cochran, the lawyer who led Mr Simpson's highly paid defence "dream team", squeezed every drop out of the insinuation in his impassioned concluding arguments to the jury last week. Seeking to convert a murder trial into a civil rights cause celebre, Mr Cochran, who is black, said that Mr Fuhrman, whom he compared to Hitler, represented "the greatest evil the world has ever known". Sounding more like a preacher or a presidential candidate than a lawyer, he ended his address to the jury with a quote from the Bible. "False witness, the Book of Proverbs says, shall not go unpunished."

If all this melodrama struck a chord among black Americans, historically predisposed as so many are to believe that the white establishment is out to get them, the white American response was to brand Mr Cochran a demagogic phoney. What remains to be seen now is whether the jurors, insulated from public opinion in a hotel for nine months, will be sentimentally swayed the other way by a factor that will emerge as one of the more intriguing sub-plots in the epidemic of books the trial is expected to spawn.

The establishment in this trial was not all white. No 2 in the People's team, the man who shared the concluding arguments with the lead prosecutor, Marcia Clark, was Chris Darden, who is black. It fell to him to explain the motive behind the murders, to describe Mr Simpson as "a ticking time- bomb" with a well-documented history of beating and terrorising his wife. It was Mr Darden, the victim of a stream of Uncle Tom insinuations from Mr Cochran, who reminded the jurors during Friday's summation that a not guilty verdict would not solve the problem of racism in the LAPD. "The evidence is there," he said. "You just have to find your way through the smoke."

Put differently, the thousands of hours of testimony boil down to one question: was Mr Simpson framed? Because if he was not, he is guilty. Ms Clark who on Friday afternoon sought to focus the jurors' minds on an accumulation of circumstantial evidence which she said could lead to only one possible verdict: drops of Mr Simpson's blood found at the scene of the crime; a woollen cap found at the feet of the victims containing nine of Mr Simpson's hairs; footprints at the murder scene matching Mr Simpson's size 12 shoe; blood samples in his Ford Bronco matched by DNA evidence to the blood of the two victims; the blood of Nicole Brown found on pair of socks in the bathroom of his home; and a bloody glove, found by Mr Fuhrman, which matched a glove found at the murder scene and contained blood and hairs of both victims.

Even in the implausible event that Mr Simpson had been the victim of a miraculously executed police conspiracy, Ms Clark argued, how did the defence explain the most glaring omission in their case, their inability to explain Mr Simpson's whereabouts at the time of the murders? If he had an alibi, he had not wished to share it with the court.

Clear-cut as Ms Clark believes her case to be, she knows the impact the defence's race card made on the jury, and she will not be holding her breath for the verdict. It could be days or it could be weeks. The safe bet of most of the legal pundits, is that the jury will prove unable to come up with a unanimous decision. All it takes for a mistrial is for one juror to cast a dissenting vote - whereupon Mr Simpson will remain in jail to await a second trial, wondering perhaps, having spent more than $8m (pounds 5m) on his first defence, whether he will be able to afford another - or the same - star-studded cast of defence lawyers,facing another - or the same - prosecution team.

But his problem would be as nothing compared to that of the US justice system in assembling 12 new jurors unfamiliar with the facts of the case. US commentators have said the last comparable national drama, in terms of the obsessiveness of the debate, was the Vietnam war.

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