American Judicial System Is Also on Trial As Simpson Case Nears Opening Arguments

WITH opening statements scheduled this week in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, world attention at last shifts from seven months of eye-glazing legal maneuvering to two different versions of what happened on that now-infamous night of June 12, 1994, when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were killed in a fashionable neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Which story the jury eventually buys - after what is expected to be several months of competing evidence and testimony - will have consequences reaching far beyond the fate of one celebrity defendant. Besides Mr. Simpson's guilt or innocence, the trial highlights several major issues:

* The varied uses and handling of the genetic substance DNA as a means of identifying criminals.

* Centuries-old common laws regarding how much of a defendant's past bears on present deeds.

* The impact of sequestering jurors for extended periods of time.

* Perhaps the greatest test yet of whether a fair trial is possible amid the glare of unprecedented public interest.

``This trial will be the stuff of legal scrutiny on all these fronts for years to come,'' says Myrna Raeder of the American Bar Association's Committee on Federal Rules of Procedure and Evidence. ``Trial watchers need to be constantly reminded that more is at stake than just the details of whodunit.''

Advancing earlier contentions that there has probably never been a bigger opportunity for Americans to learn the intricacies of the legal system, analysts say the formal trial will also spotlight the legal skills of both prosecution and defense.

``Both sides have some of the highest-paid, most capable lawyers available fighting the trial of their lives at the peak of their careers,'' says Robert Pugsley, a professor at the Southwestern School of Law here. Though pre-trial infighting on the defense team has complicated its efforts at a critical stage, most feel such problems can be surmounted.

Partly because of the stakes in such a high-profile trial, the outcome will have an influence on public trust in the legal system.

``If the public comes up with a different verdict than the jury, widespread cynicism could ensue with devastating consequences,'' says Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of Southern California. ``But if the two agree, confidence is greatly enhanced.''

Analysts will focus on how opening statements by the lead prosecutor, Marcia Clark, reconstruct the events that led to the two deaths. She and key colleagues William Hodgman and Christopher Darden are expected to present motive, lay out physical evidence, and identify key testifiers. And for the first time, jurors and public alike will hear exactly what DNA lab tests have shown. ``There very well may be bombshells dropped on Simpson in opening statements,'' says Ms. Raeder. Some press reports contend the DNA of Simpson and the two who were killed have been found mixed together in Simpson's White Ford Bronco.

`IF they've got the goods, this is when they'll release them,'' contends Raeder.

As limited by Judge Lance Ito's ruling this week on how much of Simpson's past behavior is admissible, prosecutors will contend that Simpson's murder of his ex-wife, Nicole, fits a pattern of abuse going back several years.

Defense attorneys will contend that the murders were committed by someone other than Simpson. Prosecutors and police fingered Simpson in a ``rush to judgment,'' they will say, and did not follow other possible leads, and they bungled procedures of evidence-gathering and analysis.

As led by chief courtroom attorney Johnny Cochran, the defense team may lay out an alternative scenario. Newsweek magazine has reported they will offer evidence that Nicole and her friend Faye Resnick were drug users while Ms. Resnick was living at Nicole's condo and that the murders could have resulted from a drug deal gone bad.

The two main events to watch, say analysts, are the battles among experts over physical samples, including blood and hair, that prosecutors say link Simpson to the crime scene, and whether Simpson himself will take the stand during the trial. The latter may depend on Judge Ito's ruling on which evidence of domestic violence is allowable in court, and whether the defense wants to gamble that Simpson can refute it with his storied charm.

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