LOS ANGELES -- At the Boulevard Cafe -- not far from the Coliseum where O. J. Simpson defined the famous Trojan ground game -- the verdict is in. And prosecutors have barely begun to present their case against the sportscaster and football Hall of Famer charged with two murders.
Here, at the northern border of the black neighborhoods that spill southeast to Watts, the table talk in this court of public opinion reflects many of the sentiments voiced by some blacks in Los Angeles last week.
Nearly all felt that pretrial publicity has seriously jeopardized Mr. Simpson's chances of getting a fair trial, and many questioned the solidity of the evidence against him.
* "You can't believe he did this -- flew to Chicago and then came back," says Naomi Buckins, sipping morning coffee at the popular eatery where she breakfasts most Fridays. "With his money, he could've got his own plane and left this raggedy old country. Why did he come back? Did the police even ask that?"
* ". . . the way the people were killed," Sharon Barkley says quietly of the stabbings of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald L. Goldman two miles from Mr. Simpson's Brentwood mansion. "It's not the hand of a black man. I'm not trying to be prejudiced. I could see if he beat her or shot her."
* "The media convicted him [already]," says a man wearing a "Cut the Juice Loose" T-shirt in between bites of his biscuits. "Instead of having sympathy for the man -- his wife has been murdered -- the press jumped on him with all fours. . . . If that had been Wayne Gretzsky's wife, would they have done the same to him? I don't think so," he says, asking that his name not be used because he works for the Los Angeles County criminal justice system holding Mr. Simpson.
From doctors' offices to street corners, from talk shows to newspapers, many African-Americans here say little about their doubts of his claim to innocence. Instead, they focus on the presumption of innocence -- suggesting that the press, police and prosecutors haven't treated him fairly.
O. J. Simpson left his poor, inner-city roots behind with his crazy-legged run across the gridiron to celebrity, and some here in black neighborhoods candidly suggest he left his interest in the black community behind, too.
Nonetheless they feel he is a part of their community and talk of a certain allegiance to him.
Many African-Americans here worry about the downfall of a successful black and the negative racial message it may send.
"I don't think the black community should be judged by what an athlete does," says Celes King III, the owner of a large bail bond company in Los Angeles. "O. J.'s matter is O. J.'s matter as far as the question of the deaths."
And more subtle is the way the issue of race is expressed in other ways: For some, the Simpson case is a chance to rail against a system they say undermines black men. Some resent Mr. Simpson's apparent preference for dating white women, while others contend that the case would have mattered less if the former Mrs. Simpson had been a black woman.
'Cut the Juice Loose'
The support for Mr. Simpson expressed by all races in homemade signs and banners appearing along Los Angeles freeways in that now-famous ride home before his arrest is still evident in black neighborhoods.
Youths peddle T-shirts showing Mr. Simpson's face and the slogan, "Cut the Juice Loose -- Not Guilty."
In one particularly volatile venue, a local black radio talk show host invites activist Dick Gregory to field calls from listeners angry about the relentless pursuit of the former running back and the misinformation swirling around the case.
"KLGH . . . Good morning, you are on the 'Front Page.' Where are you calling from?" disc jockey Carl Nelson says to introduce the callers to his pre-dawn radio show.
A caller asks Mr. Gregory what he thinks of the case against Mr. Simpson, and the activist launches into a long-winded speech involving the CIA.
"Black folk, when you can be duped, when you can be told, here's a man so dumb he leaves so much blood from the murder scene at his house. . . . All the cops in the world, they can't find the murder weapon. . . . Would you wear a ski cap in L.A.? . . . Everything is too pat," he says.
Not everyone, however, is as certain about Mr. Simpson's plight. For some, the case of the People vs. Orenthal James Simpson raises questions and conflicts.
"Though all the evidence [so far] is pointing to him . . . we don't really know what all the evidence is," says Adrianne Oberton as ** she purchases $20 worth of "Pray for O. J." T-shirts. "I feel bad for Nicole and Ron Goldman and their families. If he did it, then I think there's something wrong with him and he needs help."
And while Ms. Oberton's cousin Darren Warrick, visiting from Philadelphia, mourns the loss of two lives, he too is caught up in the spectacle surrounding the murders.
"I can't wait to go to his house . . . to videotape it," he says.
For 17-year-old Shaun Greene, Mr. Simpson's tragedy is a chance to get a head start on his summer job, selling T-shirts. And yet, he says he prays for the celebrity:
"O. J. needs God on his side right now. He is in a crisis in his life."
'Give this some balance'
Most days, Dr. James May shuttles between three medical offices, tending to his patients. But the week after Mr. Simpson's arrest, the 52-year-old physician joined several other prominent black businessmen in a news conference to raise concerns over the extensive publicity around the Simpson case and the negative image portrayed.
"It was my conclusion we need to give this some balance," says Dr. May.
Muhammad Nassaradeen, founder of Recycling Black Dollars, an association that promotes black-owned businesses, helped to organize the press conference.
He says Mr. Simpson may "have been the only black man any country club member ever ran into who didn't have a squeegee in their hand or a broom."
Mr. Nassaradeen and others fear that the Simpson case may only solidify stereotypes about the black male. The infamous Time magazine cover, which darkened Mr. Simpson's police mug shot, heightened their concerns.
"The only person that there was negative speculation about was O. J.," says Mr. Nassaradeen, suggesting that an investigation of the victims' backgrounds might point to other suspects.
The publicity surrounding the case -- especially the leaks of evidence linking Mr. Simpson to the crime -- also engendered support for him. At the same time, the accounts of bloody ski masks and the like, which later proved to be untrue, gave rise to conspiracy theories voiced by talk show callers and circulated -- throughout the community.
A sore back has brought Johnny Lovelace to Dr. May's clinic on South Broadway. While the 64-year-old retired custodian waits to see the doctor, he watches the televised hearing in Mr. Simpson's case. Robert L. Shapiro, Mr. Simpson's lawyer, is scoring points with the patients as he tries to discredit a knife store employee who sold his story of Mr. Simpson's purchase of a knife to a tabloid.
Mr. Lovelace says he doesn't believe O. J. is capable of the crime.
"You see that killing? That was the nastiest killing . . . slit someone's throat," he says, leaning on his cane. "Black people don't kill like that. That lady must have been involved in drugs."
Mr. Lovelace pauses before continuing.
"A black man's got no business marrying a white woman. . . ."
Black man, white woman
Back at the Boulevard Cafe on Martin Luther King Boulevard, Niki A. Fuller, a lingerie saleswoman, puts a different racial spin on the death of Mrs. Simpson.
"He's being lynched because he messed with Miss Ann [a white woman]," she says, referring to racial taboos about sex and violence. "You know it's rigged. They been leaking information out to discredit him."
jTC Sharon Barkley decided to eat breakfast at the Boulevard last Friday because it has a television -- she didn't want to miss the second day of the Simpson hearings. As her plate of eggs arrives, she asks the waitress if she can turn up the TV volume.
"It's amazing how they can take one little question and break it down," she says while buttering her toast. "What puzzles me -- I do feel for the victims -- everything that comes out about the victims is so pure. Nobody is so pure but God."
"I just hope he didn't do it," added Mrs. Barkley's mother, Bertha, who is visiting from Ohio.
While Naomi Buckins feels certain Mr. Simpson is not getting a fair shake, she says her daughter thinks otherwise.
"We don't discuss O. J. She definitely feels he's guilty," says Ms. Buckins, a waitress.
Ms. Buckins has written to the football star and told him "to pray and that the black community was praying for him."
'Never really involved'
Mr. King, the Los Angeles bail bondsman, finds the black community's support of Mr. Simpson interesting.
"O. J. never really involved himself in the problems of the black community," says Mr. King, 70.
"He is really getting a lot of support he has not worked for. But again, when it is put out that he is a role model, does he really fit that billing? It's an emotional judgment. I'm not opposed to the guy. I just think he ought to be realistically [portrayed]. It's not many miles but it's a long way from South Central to Brentwood.
"I wish him the best if he is not guilty. If he is guilty, we have to begin to look to who are the real victims."