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Police damned by own evidence in OJ case

Ever since the knife-slashed bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found sprawled on a Los Angeles pavement, everyone has known that the Los Angeles Police Department was in for a hammering in the OJ Simpson double murder trial.

For months, the former American footballer's lawyers have made it clear they believe he is the victim of a conspiracy - including an allegedly racist detective whom they accuse of planting a bloody glove - and of astonishing police incompetence. But the trial has unveiled a rather different picture.

The first few witnesses have shed light on an unhealthily cosy relationship between police officers and the multi-millionaire sportsman-turned-actor. Millions of OJ-addicted American television viewers have been ushered into a world of discreet mutual favours and star-struck cops - raising critical questions about the relationship between the police and celebrities in the global capital of entertainment.

For the LAPD, this is a blow on a well-battered bruise. The world still remembers the videotape of its officers pummelling and kicking Rodney King in March 1991. Nor has it forgotten the inquiry, headed by Warren Christopher (now Secretary of State), which found evidence of widespread racism and brutality in the force. And in Los Angeles, many still resent the police's incompetent handling of the 1992 riots.

Now, yet again, the knives are out. When Willie Williams, the LAPD's chief, lamented recently that his force could take years to recover from the devastating impact of the Simpson trial, he was referring to the defence's allegations. But the worst damagemay be from the prosecution's witnesses.

The most damaging testimony probably came from Ron Shipp, a friend of the Simpson's and an ex-police officer. Mr Shipp told the jury that over the years he took about 40 fellow officers to Simpson's lavish mansion on Los Angeles' West Side. Sometimes, the footballer-turned-actor would sign autographs for them. "If I was on patrol, I would just take people over there. I used to get a kick out of not telling them where I was going and ringing the doorbell, and have OJ come out and greet them."

By his account, he became something of a gofer to the superstar. If Simpson saw a suspicious-looking car near his house, Shipp would run an unauthorised licence plate check for him. Nor, it seems, was he the only police officer who enjoyed basking in thestar's reflected glory.

According to prosecutors, officers from the LAPD's West Los Angeles Division frequently visited Simpson's home to use the tennis court and swimming pool. Even LA's former police chief Daryl Gates - normally a dogged defender of his former minions - has said that hobnobbing with stars on duty is "highly improper".

These chummy relationships may have paid dividends when Simpson was finally charged with spousal abuse, after beating up his ex-wife early on New Year's Day in 1989. Last week LAPD detective John Edwards described to the court how he allowed Simpson to go back into his mansion unaccompanied to get dressed before going to the station - he had been anxious about "repercussions" if he had taken in a celebrity in his underwear.

Instead Simpson fled in his Bentley. It is hard to imagine that jurors did not reflect that had he been a penniless black from South Central LA the police would have led him away in handcuffs - clothes or no clothes. And on his escape, he would have beenpursued with helicopters and dogs. As it was, Simpson got away with pleading "no contest" to a misdemeanour.

Despite his previous record, the police allowed him to turn himself in voluntarily to be charged with the murders last June - a decision they bitterly regretted when he took off, launching the infamous slow-speed freeway chase. And, as he cruised slowly around southern California, he was cradling a gun which was licensed to a LAPD lieutenant. Little wonder, the prosecution argues, that Nicole Brown Simpson believed that the police would never offer her protection from the wild rages of her husband.

How much of an impact this evidence made on the jury remains to be seen, but it poses a formidable challenge for Simpson's `Dream Team' of super-rich lawyers. Their mission is to convince the jury that Simpson was framed by the police. The fact that mostof the panel is black and drawn from central Los Angeles - an area where fans of the police are limited in number - could help. But, at this stage, this fame-intoxicated force does not look as if it was out to get `The Juice'.