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Millions stop, look and listen As moment nears, people gather around radios, television sets; THE O. J. SIMPSON VERDICT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As V-hour approached, an odd silence fell across the country. No matter how far away you were -- in a hospital waiting room in Baltimore, on a train speeding to New York, at a bait shop in the Outer Banks -- you could hear the papery rustle of an envelope being opened in a courtroom in Los Angeles.

"How hard can opening an envelope be?" someone messaged on America Online as the rustling seemed to go on for hours. "Let me do it!"

Plugged in to Judge Lance A. Ito's courtroom via television, radio and computer, a transfixed nation held its collective breath. And then exhaled in a rush of pent-up emotions.

Some wept. Some cheered. Some fell into stunned speechlessness.

President Clinton was moved to hand-write a statement.

Many were drawn to public places, positioning themselves near a news outlet shortly before the scheduled 1 p.m. EST announcement, for an event that seemed far too intense to experience alone.

The stomach-clenching wait, the still new surprise of the so-quick verdict after a so-long trial.

About 300 people crammed inside the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. merchandise store in downtown Baltimore's Charles Center; some 250 students and faculty gathered to watch in an Anne Arundel Community College auditorium; nearly 200 packed the bar in the lobby of Stouffer Harborplace Hotel; scores more flocked to restaurants, barber shops, student unions and hospital waiting rooms.

Even if you hadn't planned your day around the announcement, you were inevitably drawn in: Heads popped out of office windows to pass the news down to the street: "Not Guilty."

"Not guilty," strangers said to strangers who looked like they might not have heard.

It was both solemn and circus-like, a shared experience unlike any other in memory. For one thing, there was the prior warning, unlike the Challenger explosion or the JFK assassination, for example. And yet, for all the anticipation of the verdict, it still shocked.

Joy at the jail

At the Baltimore Detention Center, visiting hours had just ended and family, friends and lovers of the incarcerated men ran to their cars parked under the trees along East Eager Street, threw open the doors and switched on their radios.

The verdict came booming from 17 sets of car speakers: "Not guilty."

And the jail erupted.

"OJ! OJ! OJ!"

At Towson State University, dozens of students inhaled pizza and french fries in the campus Rathskeller.

At the University of Maryland Law School, a professor gave in -- "I'm bowing to reality" -- and delayed his 1 p.m. class, knowing his students would be more interested in the news than his wisdom.

The scene at Venable, Baetjer and Howard was perhaps typical of offices in downtowns all across America -- nearly 35 attorneys and others gathered in front of a TV set in a conference room in the law firm's offices at the Mercantile Bank & Trust Building.

Silence of the lawyers

The verdict accomplished what Judge Ito often failed to do during the most intense moments of the case: silence the lawyers. The conference room fell completely still.

The nearest television set beckoned. Goitom Gebre-Ab was running an errand in Northwest Baltimore, realized he wouldn't make it back to his Erdman Avenue home in time, so he stopped in at Sinai Hospital's emergency room.

About a dozen other spectators were already gathered around the two TVs in the ER waiting room, and they fell silent. A loud cheer went up as the first not-guilty verdict was read. Another cheer greeted the second verdict.

"This reminds me of the day of the Oklahoma bombing," said BGE customer representative Dora Bielut, as people huddled around the 65 televisions, ranging from nine-inch portables to monster-sized 52-inch projection models, at the Charles Center store.

Curiously, another 50 onlookers watched from outside the building, peering at the screens through the window. "We can't hear the sound, but we'll be able to see OJ's face. That'll tell the whole story," said insurance salesman Dan Glenn.

Even Washington slowed its endless churning to watch: At the White House, the phones in the upper and the lower press offices were uncharacteristically silent and the cafeteria was swamped at 12:45 p.m., as aides rushed to get their lunches before scurrying back to their TVs.

In press secretary Mike McCurry's office, officials Rahm Emanuel and Evelyn Lieberman joined several secretaries and young female aides to watch the announcement.

There was stunned silence until Mr. Emanuel finally stated the obvious: "That really surprises me." The women were more bitter. "I guess this means you can get away with anything if you have enough money," said one.

President Clinton took a break from his work in the Oval Office, which has no television, adjourning at 12:58 p.m. to watch the TV in his secretary's anteroom.

Anticipating being asked about it, Mr. Clinton wrote, in his own hand, the following statement: "The jury heard the evidence and rendered its verdict. Our system of justice requires respect for their decision. At this moment our thoughts and prayers should be with the families of the victims of this terrible crime."

Over at the highest court in the land, television sets were on as well. But the viewers did not include the nine Supreme Court justices; when the verdict came, they were eight minutes into a hearing.

Young aides, however, were spotted passing a note soon after )) the verdict was announced, and the message was passed down the bench. The court would not confirm that it was interested.

Few pretend to lack interest

Seemingly everyone else, though, wore their interest on their sleeves.

* Aboard Metroliner Train 112 from Baltimore to New York, passengers gathered around a man with a radio. The train rumbled. The windows rattled. But Judge Ito's voice could be clearly heard.

Ellen Glaser, a psychologist from Los Angeles, sat on an armrest with her 4 1/2 -year-old son Daniel propped on her knee.

At the words "not guilty," Ms. Glaser exclaimed, "Wow! That's outrageous." Overcome, she began to tremble and her eyes filled with tears as she walked toward her seat. "I'm just outraged. I knew he wouldn't be convicted. It was too quick a verdict. It's so outrageous."

"Who's not guilty?" young Daniel asked.

* A couple that had been fishing in splendid isolation on the Outer Banks for the past four days were surprised to hear a live broadcast of the verdict when they stopped in Dillon's Corner in Buxton, N.C., for more bait. "People come here to get away from the news," said Ollie Jarvis, proprietor of the fish and tackle shop.

* Waitresses stopped taking lunch orders at the Busy Bee in Roundup, Mont., as they joined their customers in staring at the restaurant's TV set.

The verdict confirmed what the local folk knew all along: The pundits were wrong. "All your professional people in the country who think they know so much about the law and human nature, were shot down," concluded customer Bruce Hoiland.

It all happened so fast, and so intensely -- "I definitely need a Xanax now," an on-liner sighed -- and then it was over. AT&T; says telephone use plummeted at the time of the announcement -- down to 58 percent less than normal from 1:05 p.m. to 1:10 p.m. EST. Five minutes later, though, phone traffic was back to normal.

The world didn't end after all. Nor did the course of justice.

Inside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore, Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe had another jury on her mind. She made sure her own jurors were back from lunch before 1 p.m.

"For very obvious reasons, I would think it might affect them," Judge Bothe said. "I told them just stay away from the news."

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