Peter Pringle's America: Star on the run from reality

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THE psychobabble came pouring out the minute the man was arrested. If OJ Simpson, the United States' most famous football star, had indeed slit the throat of his wife and stabbed another man to death, as the prosecutors in Los Angeles claimed, then he was a victim - of society, of his childhood, of his fame and his fortune.

Over the weekend, the fans called into the talk shows to defend their star. A man like 'OJ', they said, who had experienced the American dream, should not be held responsible; America had driven him to act the way he did. As Gil Garcetti, the California state prosecutor spoke of seeking the death penalty, a woman from Texas suggested that if convicted, OJ should be required to do community service.

The US was in denial, as it so often is about famous people. It denied the evidence of the bloodied glove in Mr Simpson's house that matched the one at the murder scene, the blood on his driveway and the fact that there were no witnesses to his claim that he was at home alone at the time of the murders. And it conveniently forgot that Mr Simpson had been convicted five years ago of beating his ex-wife.

A black ghetto kid who climbed to the dizzy heights of national stardom, OJ, said his fans, deserved reverence and special treatment. He had overcome rickets as a child to become a football star. Then, in the Seventies, he appeared on billboards across the nation, racing through airports and leaping down escalators in rent-a-car ads. He was a movie actor who built his own house in Los Angeles. He was a handsome black man, who had married a beautiful blonde woman and had two children, and he still said he owed his whole life to his mother.

Once again confusing film stars and sports celebrities with real heroes, Americans clung to their fantasies. You could see how it happened.

On Friday at noon, five days after the murders, Mr Simpson agreed to give himself up, then slipped away in a mad flight from justice. When the police found him, in a car on the highway, they gave chase and pretty soon, the whole city of Los Angeles knew where OJ was. Drivers got out of their cars as the police followed OJ, and rooted for him just like they used to at the football stadium: 'Go, OJ, go OJ, go'.

Courtesy of a hovering helicopter, millions of television viewers watched the amazing event that no Hollywood producer could have scripted. Game shows, soap operas and sports finals were interrupted to 'go live' to this real- life drama. OJ was holding a gun to his head, reported the non-stop commentary; the police were not closing in for fear he might shoot himself, and others. Now and then the cameras would shift to OJ's house where signs had been hung on the gate: 'We love you OJ'; 'Hang in there, man'.

Mr Simpson turned off the highway and went home, but it was another hour before he surrendered. He went inside, the police said, to wash, phone his mother and have a glass of orange juice, before being taken to jail.

What the anchors described as the most dramatic television in the history of the medium had only just begun. Over the next 24 hours, a stream of police, forensic experts, former football pals of OJ's, sociologists, psychiatrists and sports commentators answered the questions of a populace perplexed by the blurred line between life and reality presented in television docudramas.

Mr Garcetti, the prosecutor, a silver-haired Los Angeles attorney, was talking openly about whether he might call for the death penalty for Mr Simpson, or whether the American star might be able to plea-bargain his way to a lesser sentence. Mr Garcetti then asked viewers to remember who the real victims were: the mother of OJ's two children and the relatives of the other man. He was talking about OJ, the wife-beater, not OJ the sports star.

Five years ago, Mr Simpson beat up his wife so badly that she had to go to hospital. When the police arrived at the couple's house, Mrs Simpson ran out of the bushes yelling: 'He's going to kill me; he's going to kill me.' It was the ninth time she had called the police for protection, and Mr Simpson pleaded no contest to the charge of spousal abuse.

He got off lightly - with 120 hours community service, a dollars 200 fine and an order to give dollars 500 to a home for battered women. He was also ordered to have psychiatric help but was allowed to chose his own psychiatrists - to accommodate his busy schedule. The sentence was a 'joke, a terrible joke,' said Mr Garcetti. 'It sure seems like he got special treatment.' So, will it happen again?

Now that his wife is dead, will people believe Mr Simpson's outrageous claim to have been a 'battered husband'? Will he persuade a jury that he is a victim of society, like the Menendez brothers, who killed their parents but have so far gone unpunished? And will the prosecutor be persuaded by Mr Simpson's celebrity status not to ask in court for the death penalty?

Even if the death penalty is sought, Mr Simpson is most unlikely to receive it. California juries tend to condemn only malevolent people who have killed strangers, not Sunday superstars.