IN the end, the 12 jurors in the O.J Simpson trial sent prosecutors a stinging message: All the fancy scientific evidence in the world could not outweigh the credibility problems of the Los Angeles police.
By finding Mr. Simpson not guilty on double murder charges, jury members in America's ''trial of the century'' showed themselves utterly unswayed by the prosecution's attempts to frame the case as the tragic outcome of domestic violence. They spurned the circumstantial evidence amassed by prosecutors - and focused instead on defense attacks on police motives and competence.
The prosecution's case may have been doomed when a key witness, detective Mark Fuhrman, was exposed during the trial as a lying racist.
''They found a sufficient number of holes in the case generally, including those connected to Mark Fuhrman, that they found reasonable doubt,'' says Robert Pugsley, a professor of law at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles.
The question now is whether the verdict will exacerbate a racial divide in American society as a whole. Opinion polls have continually shown a black-white split in public perceptions of Mr. Simpson, with a majority of whites judging him guilty, and blacks tending to believe in his innocence.
''This case is a template for racial relations,'' says Katherine Newman, a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, a social service research center, in New York.
One thing is certain: This was a jury that knew its mind. Members deliberated for under four hours, when many legal experts thought they would chew over the facts of the case for days.
''I'm shocked. This is just astonishing,'' says Abbe Smith, a director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard University Law School. Dr. Smith says the jury decision to acquit reflects more ''social commentary than the facts of the case.''
Others thought the justice system worked properly.
''Clearly, they saw a reasonable doubt that they felt was sufficient - or even overwhelming,'' says Norman Garland, a criminal law expert at Southwestern School of Law. ''And they obviously felt it so strongly that they didn't have to deliberate.''
Mr. Garland says the defense in the O.J. Simpson trial did what a strong defense does in any case, that is to poke enough holes in the prosecution case.
''Much of the criticism is that which is always leveled by those who believe they know that someone is guilty before even seeing any evidence,'' says Garland.
Whatever its future effect, it is clear that a sensational page in recent American cultural history has now been turned.
The events of the O.J. Simpson double murder and subsequent trial have been everywhere in the media, inescapable for more than a year. As a news story it has outlasted the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, outshone the Republican takeover of Congress, and, in one estimate, cost the US economy $40 billion in work time lost to O.J. discussion.
The Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) slow-motion chase of Mr. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco was one of the most-watched and bizarre events in TV news history. According to a recent NBC story, Americans may be more likely to be able to identify Simpson houseguest Kato Kaelin than Vice President Al Gore.
It was easy to transform the case's victims, defendant, and witnesses into characters in a modern-day Greek tragedy.
To prosecutors, the framework for the case was domestic violence. Nicole Brown Simpson, they said, was a battered wife; Ron Goldman was an unfortunate bystander. Mr. Simpson, affable on the outside, was in fact an explosive, abusive husband, prosecutors said.
Blood found in Mr. Simpson's Bronco, his socks, and his home linked him to the crime, said prosecutors. So did a bloody glove found outside his home. Crucially, O.J. had no alibi for a window of time large enough to enable him to commit the crime, return home, and change for a business flight to Chicago.
Defense lawyers framed their case in terms of race. Mark Fuhrman - a detective exposed as a lying racist during the case - planted the infamous bloody glove, according to the defense. Blood drawn from Simpson's arm during the LAPD's investigation was also planted in his house, they claimed.
Defense lawyers told jurors to consider these questions, among others: Why was the bloody glove still moist when found, long after the crime? Why were spots of blood in the house so small? ''If it doesn't fit, you must acquit,'' rhymed Johnnie Cochran in his summation to the jury.
''This [verdict] is totally consistent with the way the case was presented. The system has been well-served by this trial,'' professor Garland says.
''We saw the way a trial works. I believe the defense did what a reasonable defense does in any case, which is to fight as hard as they can to raise a reasonable doubt,'' Garland says.
While many analysts expected a guilty verdict based on the short deliberation period, Garland says ''much of the criticism leveled is that which is always leveled by those who believe they know that someone is guilty before even seeing any evidence. If you want an indictment of the system, you won't get one from me.''
Legal experts say instructions from Judge Lance Ito, at the request of the jury, asking that the press and the lawyers in the case not talk with members of the jury is very unusual. In most high-profile cases, the jury loves to talk with the lawyers after the case. ]
The crowd of several hundred gathered outside the courthouse greeted the news of the verdict with cheers and applause.
In the hours leading up to the verdict, helicopters buzzed over the courthouse, police cars cruised the streets and barricades blocked traffic in front of the Criminal Courts Building
Across from the courthouse, television lights bathed ''Camp O.J.'' as national TV correspondents analyzed and waited for the decision to be announced.
Radio station KFI broadcast live from across the street. ''Oh, this is exciting!'' bellowed KFI talk show host Bill Handel.
Hundreds of people pressing against a barricade made a dash at dawn to get a place in the line for a chance to get one of the courtroom seats.
''I've been wanting to be here for the longest time,'' said Laura Gaynor of the Los Angeles suburb of Downey, who left home at 2 a.m. for a chance to be in the courtroom. ''My husband told me I was crazy.
''At least we'll be here even if we don't make it in.''
The news media outnumbered citizen spectators 2-to-1 in the bright morning sunshine. The temperature was expected to peak at 100 degrees.
Sports stars Steve Garvey and Bruce Jenner and their wives passed through he courthouse media phalanx before the arrival of Simpson's lawyers.
In Brentwood, Simpson's mother, adult children and sisters climbed into black stretch limousines at Simpson's estate shortly after 8 a.m. for the 15-mile ride to the courthouse. They were grim-faced and the procession looked like a funeral cortege.
On the way, the limos passed District Attorney Gil Garcetti's Brentwood home.
At Nicole Brown Simpson's favorite Starbucks coffee shop, regulars sat in the morning sun before the verdict was read, sipping latte and cappuccino.
Two TV station trucks sat outside and a clutch of reporters accosted customers.
Jeff Goldstein headed to his home across with street with a take-out coffee and pastry, called the attention, ''a tremendous annoyance.''
Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies restricted access to the areas around the murder scene and Simpson's home, turning away anyone who didn't have a reason to be there.''Things are very calm, police Commander Tim McBride said. ''We expect them to stay calm.''
The LAPD bomb squad did a security sweep of the courthouse at dawn. Explosives-sniffing dogs examined mailboxes, bushes and other potential hiding places.
Vendors sold Simpson-themed wares: T-shirts, watches, buttons and the like.