OJ hopes for a jury of his fans

Surely the case of `The Juice' has been squeezed dry? Don't believe it, says Phil Reeves
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The Independent Online
To his many fans, OJ Simpson was primarily known as a sports star, a running back of unbelievable speed and agility. But now he must fall back on his second profession. It is his actor's charisma that will matter most as the curtain rises on the m ost closely watched criminal trial in history.

In recent weeks we have seen him go through the paces. In one court hearing after another, he has scowled, smiled and wept as aspects of his case were explored before millions of American viewers. But now he has an audience that really matters - a jury.

Guilty or innocent, he must summon up every ounce of his legendary charm if he is to convince the world that he was not responsible for stabbing to death his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and 25-year-old Ronald Goldman, outside her Los Angeles townhouse. The United States' most celebrated murder suspect faces what prosecutors claim is - and what seems undeniably to be - a "mountain" of circumstantial evidence.

Opening statements will begin within a week in a case that has driven America into a frenzy ever since 95 million television viewers watched in amazement as OJ Simpson fled along the freeways of Los Angeles last June. The trial has already generated sucha firestorm of publicity that it is difficult to imagine that it can yield anything new.

We have heard countless details of OJ's stormy and abusive relationship with Nicole, 35. We have heard, too, how a trail of blood led to his mansion; how a bloody glove was found in the grounds and another at the scene; how a chauffeur saw a black personentering OJ's home shortly after the slayings; how OJ's lawyers think there were two killers rather than one. Surely the case of the man they call "The Juice" has already been squeezed dry?

The answer is - almost certainly not. "I think we may hear something during opening statements which we have never heard before, if only to wake up the jury," says Erwin Chermininsky, law professor at the University of Southern California, who is monitoring the trial. The television companies seem to agree. Several American cable channels are planning to screen the entire trial, gavel-to-gavel.

It could last months. The Los Angeles District Attorney's office has a list of 216 prosecution witnesses (including two sports stars and a porno actress), 22,000 pages of transcripts, 1,800 photographs, 92 audio tapes and (intriguingly) 14 video tapes. The defence's file is even bulkier: 271 witnesses, including every passenger on a Los Angeles-Chicago flight on which OJ travelled on the night of the murders.

The case made headlines only this week when it was revealed in court that investigators had drilled into Nicole's safe deposit box, where they found photos of her bruised face, letters of apology from OJ and a journal in which she described numerous beatings. On one occasion she wrote that her husband "beat me so bad at home, tore my blue sweater and blue slacks completely off me". On another he allegedly grabbed her crotch in a bar and bellowed: "This belongs to me."

The predominance of blacks on the jury has been a matter of debate for months. The panel does not remotely reflect the demographics of Los Angeles (a multi-ethnic mix where 11 per cent of the population is black), let alone the prosperous enclave in the city's West Side where the killings happened. Eight jurors are African-Americans, two are Latino, one is a mixed-race American Indian and one is white.

On face value, this is good news for Simpson's legal team. "Trust me, OJ will certainly walk with that number of blacks on the jury," a frustrated government prosecutor confided to me just after the jury was chosen. "Race plays a role in every aspect of LA life - and this trial is no exception."

Simpson's "dream team" of lawyers - including several of the most prominent attorneys in America - have made clear that they intend to attack the police and coroner's officials involved in investigating the case. However, the picture is not as simple as that. The jurors mostly occupy blue-collar or low-grade white-collar jobs - there is a teacher, a clerk, a vendor, a flight attendant, a courier - which could not be farther from the world of show business in which Simpson moved. They may fe el the sports-star-turned-actor is too distanced by his Hollywood lifestyle and his $10.8m fortune to engender much race-related sympathy.

The eight women jurors - of whom six are black - may also prove critical. Legal experts claim that women tend to favour defendants more than men, but this case could be an exception. They may not be as impressed as most American males by Simpson's iconicstatus as a former Buffalo Bill. And they may not much like the notion of a black man marrying a white woman - a sensitive issue among African-American women.

Above all, their reaction to Simpson could depend greatly on how much they hear about his treatment of Nicole. The prosecutors want to introduce details of 44 alleged incidents of spousal abuse which they say happened over 17 years and included numerous beatings and threats. That OJ was a wife-beater is beyond dispute: in 1989 he pleaded "no contest" to charges that arose from a beating of Nicole. Then there is the question of the jury's education, or rather, lack of it. Only two of the panel have college degrees. This is not coincidental: Simpson's legal team systematically excluded candidates with advanced science qualifications, presumably in the hope that they can confuse jurors over potentially incriminating DNA evidence.

This is important, because the DNA tests could prove decisive. The murder weapon is missing; no eyewitnesses to the slayings have emerged. But the prosecution says it has managed to link Simpson to the scene through drops of blood which, according to DNAtests, match his blood type. They were found to the left of bloody footsteps leading from the bodies, a fact to which prosecutors attach considerable significance: Simpson was later discovered to have a cut on his left hand.

This week Newsweek claimed that DNA tests also showed that drops of blood matching Nicole Simpson, Goldman and OJ had been found mixed together in his Ford Bronco. If true, it will be a blow to the Simpson camp, although not necessarily a fatal one. OJ has his own expert DNA lawyer, who will lead an attack on every aspect of the prosecution's research - from the collecting of blood stains to the preservation of samples. It is sure to be a tough and brutal battle. But, if it fails, Simpson must hope thathis charm holds out.

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