LEADING ARTICLE:Creating a case for reasonable doubt

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It was OJ Simpson's 48th birthday yesterday, an anniversary which he surely found unexpectedly gratifying, even though he remains in jail. Five months after America started gorging herself on every detail of his murder trial, prosecutors have rested their case. As his lawyers prepare to launch his defence later today, Mr Simpson can now happily reflect that the trial is far from the open-and-shut affair it once seemed to be.

Every cub reporter knows it is impossible to second-guess a jury - especially in California - but it is none the less true that few Americans expect Mr Simpson to be convicted, despite what appears to be a stack of incriminating circumstantial evidence. And they blame the Los Angeles District Attorney's office - the same outfit that failed to secure convictions in the first trial of the police officers who beat up Rodney King, triggering the devastating 1992 Los Angeles riots.

The prosecution certainly left much to be desired. Its worst mistake was to invite Mr Simpson to try on the infamous blood-soaked gloves, one found at the murder scene, the other on his estate. It is hard to imagine that the jury, after slogging through day after day of unrelieved tedium, was not impressed by the sight of the former Buffalo Bill grimacing theatrically as he struggled to squeeze them on. The prosecution overlooked the possibility that the gloves might have shrunk.

But there were other strategic blunders. Why did they fail to highlight his flight along LA's freeways, in a car carrying a disguise and thousands of dollars? Where was the promised testimony showing that he beat and stalked his ex-wife and alleged victim, Nicole Brown, for years? Several of the 58 witnesses were ill-prepared, while others were in the box for far too long to produce the kind of coherent, gripping storyline that jurors need. (Was it really necessary to listen to the LA coroner droning on for nine days?)

To be fair, the prosecution was under great pressure, much of it caused by the defence's determination to rush the case to court; it also lived up to its promise to produce a mountain of scientific evidence linking Mr Simpson to blood, fibres, shoe-prints and hairs found at the scene. But as one prominent LA lawyer, Harland Braun, has pointed out, it "basically took a case that was overwhelming and created reasonable doubt". Little was done to strip bare his silk-suited celebrity gloss, a factor which, in star-struck Los Angeles, could be decisive.

Now the ball is in the court of Mr Simpson and his bevy of millionaire attorneys. Perhaps they will produce a surprise -proof that he did not knife anyone to death, and that there is an innocent explanation for the trail of blood from the murder scene to his mansion. If they don't, and Mr Simpson walks free, America's disaffection with the institutions of government will only grow deeper.