OJ's star fades as public shuns second trial

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Blood was the order of the day as Orenthal James Simpson's second trial unfolded in a Santa Monica courtroom. Mr Simpson's blood, dropping to the ground as he allegedly fled the murder scene. Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson's blood on his car, on his gloves, and the socks found in his bedroom.

Venturing bravely once more into DNA and fabric fibres, lawyers for the families of Mr Simpson's alleged victims, suing him for damages in a civil trial, sought to undo the havoc wrought by his Dream Team defence that ended in his acquittal last year. OJ Simpson's claim of a conspiracy, cover-up, or simple incompetence in the LAPD investigation, said attorney Daniel Petrocelli, was not backed by "one ounce of evidence, one ounce of proof, one ounce of truth", but was the last resort of a guilty man.

Sharply conflicting strategies emerged yesterday as lawyers for both sides led off their cases. Mr Petrocelli aimed a pre-emptive strike on Mr Simpson's charge of a racist conspiracy, ridiculing the idea that scores of Los Angeles police officers connived to plant blood evidence.

But Mr Simpson's lead attorney, Robert Baker, launched Mr Simpson's defence by assailing the image of his ex-wife Nicole. It was she who pursued Mr Simpson obsessively after "a love few people who have known" broke down, he said, even confiding in him when she aborted a child by another boyfriend.

"She would come over to his house day and night," said Mr Baker. "She would send cookies to him. She would show up at the Riviera Country Club where OJ Simpson was playing golf." She eventually destroyed their marriage because "she had to get her way", he said. For the Simpson junkies, a few new titbits emerged. Mr Petrocelli claimed fresh forensic evidence that cuts and gouges on Mr Simpson's left hand were caused by the clawing fingernails of his ex-wife and her friend as he stabbed them to death at the gate of her west Los Angeles home. A search of his bag after he led the LAPD in the famous slow motion chase produced not only a passport and a false goatee beard, but also a copy of Nicole Simpson's keys, which he could have used to enter her back gate, and which he denied possessing.

But the biggest surprise of the trial's first moments may have been that there were seats available. Though a phalanx of cameras greeted Mr Simpson's entrance and exit, and a second "Camp OJ by the Sea" of media trucks has formed outside, scarcely enough spectators turned up to fill the 20 public seats.

Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki, who early on established a no-nonsense reputation, has banned all broadcasts from the courtroom. In response Entertainment Television station, "E!", will today begin simulated reenactments of the hearings.

Inside the real court there was a marked absence of histrionics. Though Mr Petrocelli and his colleagues called OJ Simpson a cold-blooded killer, "large, powerful, strong, armed with a six-inch knife", his presentation was commonsensical and clear. He asked the jury to award a sum that "in your heart is just and appropriate". Ron Goldman's father wept as he heard of his son's "last few, furious moments of his life," dying with open eyes on his murderer.

But there was a curiously relaxed atmosphere in the court. Mr Simpson himself chatted amiably to black security guards and even a CNN pundit, showing as ever his formidable charm. A curious entourage now hangs around the case. Wheeling Simpson's mother, Eunice into the court was a retired magician, Ronald Berg, who claimed to have performed with Tommy Cooper and met Mr Simpson on a film set.

In a nearby hotel during the lunch-break, a man called Larry Green, sporting a video camera and a militia cap, yelled abuse at the defendant. "I'm Jewish, and he's a murderer," he said.

The jury members have been the source of much ribaldry in the press benches by claiming, in the selection process, to have few or no opinions on the case. They include just one black man and nine whites, a Jamaican immigrant and a Latina woman in her 40s.

One of eight substitute jurors, standing by in a trial expected to last at least until Christmas, is a medical lab worker of Serbian descent. He claimed to have been "too preoccupied with the disintegration of Yugoslavia" to pay attention to the criminal trial.