Pressure grows for OJ to take the stand

As the OJ Simpson trial limps onwards with its shrinking pool of jurors, the corps of legal experts who now make an excellent living by analysing the case for public consumption in the United States has switched its attention to fresh territory.

The question which now absorbs them concerns what could prove to be the trial's most gripping and decisive moment: will the 47-year-old former football star, who claims to have been too crippled by arthritis to have committed two murders, shuffle into the witness box and tell his side of the story?

Legal experts yesterday claimed that pressure was mounting on Mr Simpson to take the stand, not least because he is an accomplished and articulate performer in public.

This has intensified following a ruling by Judge Ito, the result of an accidental blunder committed in court by a prosecution witness last week. As the jury listened to yet more evidence about DNA, Collin Yamauchi, a criminalist, volunteered the view that he had not expected blood to show up while testing blood-stained items because he had heard that the sports icon had an "air tight" alibi.

Simpson's "Dream Team" of attorneys immediately pounced. They argued that this throw-away remark had opened the door for them to introduce a statement made by OJ Simpson to the police only hours after Nicole Brown, his ex-wife, and Ronald Goldman, a waiter, were found stabbed to death outside her Los Angeles town house on 12 June last year. If Mr Yamauchi knew about the alibi, they said, he may have had inside information from the police about the statement - thus, bringing it into play in court.

After a fierce tussle, in which prosecutors argued that the defence was merely using Mr Yamauchi's slip of the tongue to allow it to bring in Simpson's statement without subjecting him to hostile cross-examination, Judge Ito concluded that it could not be introduced. So Simpson, who plays a key role in his team's strategy decisions, must therefore decide whether he should take the stand.

The consensus among analysts appears to be in favour of the move, even though it carries considerable risks. It has long been clear that OJ Simpson has a hot temper and a short fuse - scarcely desirable characteristics for a man certain to face a relentless grilling from the prosecution. But he is articulate and persuasive and a national celebrity.

"I think in order for the defence to win an acquittal, Simpson must take the stand," said Robert Pugsley, a professor at the Southwestern University School of Law. Several others agreed. Jurors tend to expect an explanation even though the law does not require the defendant to provide one, said Paul Bergman, law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "If a person is innocent, people like to hear the person get up and say, 'I'm innocent."

In the end, the issue may not arise. Los Angeles was seething with rumours yesterday that yet another juror was about to be dismissed from the case, although the day's hearing opened without any change to the panel. Unconfirmed reports said that a 28-year-old Hispanic woman is under investigation for misconduct and may be kicked out for passing a note.