LOS ANGELES -- The emotions, spilled single-space across five pages of ruled yellow paper, are heartfelt, almost raw. The earnestness borders on the desperate.
"Never . . . have I felt so much empathy for anyone in my life," begins the letter, one of tens of thousands sent to O. J. Simpson as he sits in a Los Angeles County jail cell. "I pray God will let this letter reach you."
Typical of the personal, even intimate, tone of many of the letters, the 48-year-old Vermont woman matter-of-factly refers to her 13 years as a battered wife and describes the happiness she found with her fourth husband, her childhood sweetheart. She tells the former football player and movie actor about her four children, one of whom once finished third in a beauty contest, and her two surgeries for cancer.
She invites Mr. Simpson to visit when he is out of jail and to bring his children. "You will feel loved and unencumbered," the letter says.
Although Mr. Simpson hasn't yet seen that letter, his attorneys have been delivering a fraction of his mail each day to his cell, where he is awaiting trial in the killing of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald L. Goldman.
Since the killings more than a month ago, millions of Americans have been caught up in the drama of a charismatic sports hero.
The letters reveal the emotional depth those events have plumbed in the psyches of people ranging from a convict in a Florida prison who addresses Mr. Simpson as "brother" to a New York nun who sent the wealthy former athlete a $10 check to help cover legal bills; from a 6-year-old Pasadena boy who said he prayed for police to find the true killer to a Miami woman who wrote that "even if you did commit the crime I am still in support of you."
Some, mostly from men, urge Mr. Simpson to confess. Most of the letters are from women. Some proselytize. In one, the writer wonders if Mr. Simpson recalls running into him when the writer was getting off the No. 15 bus on Kearney Street in San Francisco in the late 1970s. Most reveal profound feelings of loneliness, sadness, religious zeal and love.
With the permission of Mr. Simpson's defense lawyer, the Los Angeles Times was allowed to read several hundred letters at random from a small mountain of mail that included 25 cardboard boxes and nine large-size garbage bags -- only a part of what has come in. The mail has included Bibles, inspirational books, videotapes, cassettes, photographs, drawings, a set of pressed cotton handkerchiefs and birthday cards from this country and abroad.
The post office is receiving between 1,500 and 2,000 pieces a day for Mr. Simpson, requiring extra clerks for processing, a spokesman said. The volume is so great that jail officials turn all of the mail over to Robert L. Shapiro, Mr. Simpson's attorney, rather than delivering it to him in his 7-foot by 9-foot cell.
Looking for clues
Some letters, Mr. Shapiro said, are from investigators, attorneys and even experts in dog behavior who want to help in the defense effort. Others purport to offer evidence in the case.
The mail has to be sorted, he said, because "there might be one person who saw something who is writing a letter" that might provide helpful evidence.
Five law students have been enlisted to help with that task, after which all but the small percentage of letters that attack Mr. Simpson are given to him a few at a time to read.
Some of the letters, such as one that was unsigned without a return address, urge Mr. Simpson to "Be a Real Man. Tell the Truth." One demands the death penalty if he is found guilty. Some are obscene. A few attack Mr. Shapiro for his aggressive advocacy.
One letter sent from Arizona recounted a dream in which the writer saw a "mean-looking white man" with a "dirty, stubbly face" fighting with Ms. Simpson.
The bulk of the letters are written as if to an old friend. Some are tinged with hopes of romance.
"It's me again," starts a letter from a woman in Montgomery, Ala., who enclosed blank paper and an envelope in hopes of receiving a reply. She asks Mr. Simpson, at his next court appearance, to "show me your beautiful smile a little more . . . or a wink at the camera would be even better."
Halford Fairchild, a social psychologist who teaches at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., said that most people who write such letters are troubled.
"Because our own lives are, for the most part, comparatively empty, without direction and meaningless, we obtain gratification . . . vicariously," by reaching out to celebrities, he said. "How can any rational person expect O. J. to come visit them?"
The response is particularly strong in the case of Mr. Simpson, he said, because he has projected a positive image during his various careers as athlete, actor, sports commentator and pitchman.
"When we see O. J. going through these very troubling times . . . we see ourselves, just regular folks, going through some troubling times" as well, Mr. Fairchild said.
In one four-page handwritten letter, a mother from Stamford, Conn., describes how her son was arrested for beating his wife. "The problem," the mother writes, "was that he was too sensitive and too kind to her. That was his only crime."
Most letters positive
Dr. Edward Stainbrook, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at University of Southern California and an expert in the cultural influences on behavior, said the letters to Mr. Simpson are overwhelmingly positive because those who are moved to write identify with him.
"All of us have . . . an unspoken sin in our lives . . . and so we tend to identify with someone who has been apprehended for something sinful or wrongful," he said.
Another aspect of it, he said, is that "this is somebody who is getting a raw deal . . . and therefore you are going to help" by writing.
That comes through in the way the various characters are portrayed in the letters. The prosecutors are condemned. Mr. Simpson and his attorneys are beloved, as is Al Cowlings, Mr. Simpson's friend who was accused of abetting his escape the day he was arrested.
A letter from Boston written on July 4 is one paragraph long and includes a crisp $5 bill: "Your Independence is closer than you might think. On the Day You Are set free, Please have a beer on me."
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has established this address: O. J. Simpson, No. 4013970, Los Angeles County Jail, P.O. Box 86164, Los Angeles, Calif., 90086-0164.