Simpson's lawyer takes off his gloves: Even before the start of the O J murder trial, the police are taking a hammering, writes Phil Reeves from Los Angeles

EVERY DAY Robert Shapiro, the 51-year-old lawyer representing O J Simpson, tugs on a pair of boxing gloves and works off his tension by pounding away at a punch bag. At present, however, he seems to be saving his most aggressive sparring for the case itself.

Watched by a nation that is almost as obsessed with 'O J' as it still is with the death of Marilyn Monroe, Mr Shapiro and other members of the superstar's multi-million dollar defence team are embroiled in an extraordinarily intense - and at times highly questionable - battle to clear their client's name.

Their latest manoeuvre came earlier this week when Mr Simpson, who is due to be arraigned on murder charges in Los Angeles later today, offered a dollars 500,000 (pounds 330,000) reward for information leading to the 'real killer or killers' of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, an aspiring model.

His lawyers filed a court motion accusing Los Angeles police of ignoring numerous pieces of evidence - for instance, fingerprints at the scene - which they say point to the possibility of other suspects, rather than the former Buffalo Bill running back. And they have alleged the police lied to acquire a search warrant, mishandled evidence, and failed to protect the crime scene.

All this is fairly standard practice in a country where criminal lawyers regularly brawl toe-to-toe in public over cases long before they come to court. What is less common, and far more controversial, is the defence's treatment of Mark Fuhrman, the detective who found a bloody glove in the grounds of Mr Simpson's mansion.

Last week the Simpson camp tipped off several reporters that it believed that Mr Fuhrman may have removed one of the two bloody gloves found at the murder scene, and planted it at O J Simpson's Los Angeles mansion. This was accompanied with details from the detective's file, suggesting he has used violence against suspects, and has been inclined to racist and sexist views.

The implications were never fully spelt out, but they were hinted at heavily: that the officer framed O J because he wanted to improve his patchy record by heroically cracking a big case - or, perhaps even because he disliked African-Americans.

However, this tactic may have backfired. Many Angelenos - especially blacks and other ethnic groups - are highly sceptical about the police. Yet in this crime-frightened city even more people dislike the spectacle of a policeman's reputation being destroyed without sufficient proof. Much of the evidence against him was old, coming from reports compiled during a disability hearing 11 years ago. Moreover, the police pointed out that it would be almost impossible for Mr Fuhrman to remove evidence from the murder scene, as at least 14 officers were there before him.

The conduct of police and prosecutors has been just as dubious. The media has been drip-fed with unsubstantiated tit-bits - claims, for instance, that dollars 10,000 and a passport were found in the car which Mr Simpson used for his 60- mile, low-speed freeway chase. All this has fuelled a debate about pre-trial publicity, and the risk that an unbiased jury will be impossible to convene.

Surprisingly, there are some regulations. The US Supreme Court has ruled that lawyers must not say anything which poses 'a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing' a trial - a standard which is generally thought to be too vague. The American Bar Association also has rules restricting pre-trial comments - but California is the only state which has refused to adopt them.

(Photograph omitted)