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LEADING ARTICLE:Nicole's killer is still free

On the night of Sunday 12 June 1994 in Brentwood, California someone murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Yesterday, when the "not guilty" verdict was read to the courtroom in Los Angeles and OJ Simpson, Nicole's ex-husband, walked free to the cheers of a large crowd, the sound of sobbing could be heard. The grief belonged to Nicole's family, deprived of a judgment that might have ended their suffering.

Many will shake their heads at the verdict, believing that justice has signally failed to be done. They may wonder what - short of video evidence - it would have taken to convict Simpson of the killings. Such feelings must be tempered by two considerations. The first is that only the jury can really know whether the weight of the evidence presented allowed conviction "beyond reasonable doubt". The rest of us are left to speculate.

The second concerns race. When the history of the trial comes to be written it is quite probable that its chroniclers will fix on Detective Mark Fuhrman as the man who swung the case. Fuhrman's testimony was central to the prosecution's case. It was important that he should be accepted by the jury as being above reproach; a conscientious and honest policeman doing his best for justice. And at first that was how he appeared. Then a jury, consisting of nine black people - all of whom will have experienced racism in a city scarred by race - were confronted with compelling evidence that Detective Fuhrman was a liar, a bigot and a racist.

Even before the Fuhrman revelations surfaced, the racial character of the trial had been established in polls showing that a preponderance of white Americans thought him guilty, while blacks believed that he was probably innocent. To whites it was literally inconceivable that a complex plot could have been hatched amongst Californian law-enforcers to falsely convict a popular sportsman and TV personality. Blacks, with the Rodney King case fresh in their minds, had no such difficulty. With Fuhrman's exposure, any claim that the Los Angeles Police Department could make to putting justice first collapsed in rubble.

So what emerges from all this? There must be some deep misgivings about the nature of the adversarial system of justice, relying as it does on the seeking out of weak points in an argument, rather than in a quest for truth. Then there is the shared but slightly guilty voyeurism, slaked only by the misfortunes of others, and in which the American tabloid press has played a particularly unpleasant and demeaning role.

Many would add the televising of the trial on the debit side of the balance sheet. And it is true that a terrible trivialisation of the deaths of two innocent human beings did result from the theatricality of the process. But would the unreconstructed racism of the LAPD have come to light, had the case not been played out before the cameras? Almost certainly not.

Above all, however, the significance of the OJ trial is the terrifying polarisation in US society between Americans of different colours and backgrounds. Whether the jury's verdict is right or wrong, Nicole Simpson's relatives must know that whoever killed her is probably still free because of the racism of the Los Angeles police.