My friend Kirk stopped me in the hall and whispered in a conspiratorial tone: "Have you looked at the dog yet? Somebody's got to go out to California and get the dog's story."
I blinked at him. "You want me to interview Nicole Simpson's dog?"
"The dog is the key," insisted Kirk.
"You think the dog is responsible for the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman?"
Suddenly, Kirk stopped. "Wait a minute! Good grief! I'm not saying you should talk to the dog. I'm saying, focus on the dog. The dog is the key to the case."
"Ohhh!" I said, vastly relieved.
In California, O.J. Simpson's preliminary hearing on two counts of first-degree murder was scheduled to enter its fifth day of testimony today. Meanwhile, in Baltimore, everyone I know seems to be playing detective.
Most of my acquaintances -- especially those who are black -- believe the football hero and fallen star is innocent of the murder of his former wife, Nicole, and her friend.
In this, my friends are in accord with a national poll done over the weekend, showing that opinions on the case are divided along racial lines. While 60 percent of blacks believe Mr. Simpson to be innocent, 68 percent of whites think him guilty as charged. And while nearly two-thirds of blacks predict that Mr. Simpson would not receive a fair trial, a majority of whites expect him to be treated fairly in the courtroom.
Those findings measure the historical distrust between the black community and the criminal justice system and news media -- a distrust those institutions reinforce daily in this and many other cases. And before we dismiss that distrust out of hand, remember the role race played in blinding Boston police to the obvious suspect in 1989 when Charles Stuart falsely charged that his pregnant wife had been murdered by a black man with big lips. Many people believe that Los Angeles authorities have fastened on Mr. Simpson as a suspect because he is black.
Notes my friend Saundra: "I didn't appreciate the way prosecutors and police tried to convict O.J. in the media. That behavior alone makes me suspicious of their motives."
Ah, but how to explain the mound of circumstantial evidence that is slowly accumulating against Mr. Simpson in Los Angeles Municipal Court? That's where the conspiracy theories come in.
For instance, Kirk argues that the behavior of Nicole Simpson's dog on the night of the murders suggests that another person was in her house at the time. Last Friday, neighbors testified that they heard the dog barking hysterically early on the evening of June 12. Later, they found the dog wandering the streets with blood on its paws.
"Why didn't the dog defend its master?" demanded Kirk. "Because it was locked in the house while Nicole was being murdered outside. That means somebody had to have been in the house to let it out."
"And that somebody?"
"It could have been the murderer or it could have been a material witness."
I group the conspiracy theorists into three broad categories: Those who believe Mr. Simpson is taking the fall for a family member or friend; those who believe Ms. Simpson was "hit" by organized crime, perhaps as a way of intimidating Mr. Simpson for some reason; and those who believe Mr. Simpson is being framed by the real murderer, with the complicity of the law enforcement community. Everyone has his or her own pet theory and can marshal an impressive array of "evidence" in support of the conspiracy of choice.
"What do you think?" demanded a friend during a party this weekend. Finding myself briefly in the center of attention, I knitted my brow and stroked my chin thoughtfully.
"A lot of things trouble me about this case," I intoned gravely. "There are gaping holes in the prosecution case and huge gaps in O.J.'s alibi. I'm afraid I need more information before I make up my mind."
Somebody groaned. "You're not going to tell us to wait until the trial before we make up our minds, are you?"
I nodded, enjoying my role as party-pooper. "Sorry, my friends, but that's the way the system works. Any speculation before then amounts to nothing more than a parlor game."