Tensions of OJ trial spill over the state line sepa

FROM PHIL REEVES

in Los Angeles

Perhaps the most telling recent episode in the double-murder trial of OJ Simpson happened not in the Los Angeles courtroom where the drama is being played out, but hundreds of miles away in Texas.

After four weeks, a mock jury which had been monitoring the trial for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram disbanded in chaos. Tempers became so frayed that the newspaper sent them home, concluding it could no longer assure their personal safety.

The 10 panellists - who included two blacks - were volunteers. There is no reason to assume that their views are shared by Mr Simpson's mostly black jury. But their divisions typify the emotions, many of them race- related, that the case is generating.

This week, anger flared in the courtroom. Christopher Darden, a public prosecutor, has long balked at Mr Simpson's lawyers, almost jeeringly characterising himself as a "blue-collar" attorney slugging it out with "dream-team" millionaires.

But when Johnnie Cochran, Simpson's lead counsel, suggested that the prosecution "obviously didn't know how to try" the case, he flew off the handle, engaging in a rapid-fire exchange with Judge Lance Ito which led to him being cited for contempt of court. The judge only relented after Mr Darden grudgingly apologised.

Tensions are so high that Judge Ito has decided to shorten the daily hearings. But it is surprising they are most keenly felt by prosecutors, for Mr Cochran must surely reflect that his plan has not gone as smoothly as he would have wished.

The first setback involves Rosa Lopez, a maid who worked next door to Mr Simpson's mansion and claims she saw Mr Simpson's Bronco parked outside his estate at the time he was allegedly out murdering his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman.

Yesterday, Ms Lopez appeared in court and tearfully described how she had been harassed by the media. She said she intended to leave the country immediately for her native El Salvador, a move that the defence is expected to contest.

The defence also once hoped to produce Mary Anne Gerchas, a jeweller, who claimed to have seen four men running from the murder scene on the night of the killings. But Ms Gerchas, who has dozens of outstanding lawsuits against her, has been arrested on unrelated fraud charges and is unlikely to appear.

Such blows must alarm Mr Simpson's lawyers, who continue to hammer the police and coroner's officials over blunders in the investigation. But the trial has a long way to go, and the chances of a hung jury remain high - as the Texans proved.

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