Race issue comes to the fore in Simpson case: Not everyone in Los Angeles regards O J as hero this time around, writes Patrick Cockburn

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The Independent Online
'IF he had married a black lady this wouldn't have happened,' said Pamela Simpson, cousin of O J, as she struggled in the mill of reporters and camera crews in the lobby of the Los Angeles Criminal Courts building. 'It's because she was white that they have blown this all out of proportion.'

A few feet away a sombre looking Eugene Simpson said he did not think his brother O J would get a fair trial. 'How can he ? Not just because he's black but because of the media, because of the hype.'

A few moments later their superstar relative pleaded not guilty to the murder of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend, Ronald Goldman. The man, who, as a child in San Francisco was so poor that he had suffered from rickets, but had risen to become the most popular black athlete in the country, then headed back to his isolation cell in Los Angeles jail.

'It's as if the commmunal demons of the black community had risen up to strike him down,' said a lawyer. 'He was the quintessential black success story. His fall has deepened the anxiety and vulnerability felt even by the most successful blacks.' When Mr Simpson fled on Friday it was mainly blacks who gathered on bridges overlooking the freeway to shout 'Go, O J, go.'

Not that Mr Simpson is a hero to everybody. On the pavement outside the grey concrete court house where Mr Simpson was being arraigned, a local artist named Rodney Vanworth had spread an 8-foot-by-4 piece of paper and was handing out pens for people to write their comments. Most were mild and supportive such as 'O J not guilty' and 'Dear Nicole, I know you are in heaven', but somobody had also, in dark ink, written: 'Hit her again. Harder. Harder.'

'Who could have written a mean thing like that?' asked a black woman, staring down at the paper. It turned out that the author was Vanworth himself, who is white and wears a straw hat, but his intentions, were ironic. He said: 'People say O J is an American hero. He isn't. He's a sports hero. It's different. All this guy did was play football. In this society a convicted wife-beater is still looked up to. Remember her throat was cut right back to the spine.'

It is also true that, unlike, many black heroes, Mr Simpson was immensely popular among white blue-collar workers, though not everybody in Los Angeles is entirely absorbed in the affair. As Vanworth spoke, a man took one of his pencils and wrote: 'Maybe a big meteor will strike the earth . . . and it won't matter any more.'

But it clearly does matter to the people turning up at Mr Simpson's mansion on Rockingham Avenue, half an hour from the court and prison in central Los Angeles. Mr Simpson's initials, which stand for Orenthal James, also stand for orange juice and his supporters were placing bottles of orange juice outside the iron gates of his house as a symbol of support. A teenager, Teddy Karatz, who lived across the road, came with an orange juice bottle. He said he expected Mr Simpson would be found innocent 'because he's a celebrity. People here feel for celebrities'.

Mr Simpson will probably face a sympathetic jury which, if there is the slightest doubt about his guilt, will find him innocent or not responsible for his actions.

'You would need to find people from the far side of the Moon to make up a completely impartial jury,' said a lawyer. 'I can't believe there is a sentient being in this county who hasn't watched it all on television.' The prosecutors will want to keep the trial in mainly white Santa Monica rather than in central Los Angeles, with its large black population, because they want 'a jury pool with few minority members'.

Nobody doubts that the LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti is desperate to convict. He was elected because of his predecessor, Ira Reiner, failed in a series of celebrity cases, including the trial of the officers who beat Rodney King but then failed himself to win a conviction against the Menendez brothers. 'The DA's office is in a state of siege,' says an observer.

Mr Garcetti's aim in his frequent appearances on television is to sap the sympathy for Mr Simpson by focusing on the victims and brutality of the murder.

A visit to the condominium where Nicole Simpson lived until she was killed in the entrance way seems to show he is not having much success. In contrast with Mr Simpson's house, two miles away, there are no there are almost no visitors. In the 15 minutes I stood there the only other person to come by was a man who rushed up and demanded: 'Which house is it? I'm writing a book about it all.' After giving the scene of the crime a quick glance he then jumped back in his car and drove away.