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DAYS LATER, THE IMAGE lingers, haunting in its irony. Sixteen months ago, when TV news helicopters were shadowing O.J. Simpson and former football teammate Al Cowlings during their celebrated spin in a white Ford Bronco, millions of viewers watched in shock. How could this affable sports hero have butchered his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman? But last week, after a 474-day legal pageant that was alternately tedious, hypnotic, farcical and lurid, many Americans were even more stunned when a jury took less than four hours to find Simpson not guilty. Shortly after their verdict, TV cameras were airborne and once again tracking O.J. in a white vehicle creeping through L.A. traffic. But this time, of course, he was making a triumphal return to his Rockingham estate, chauffeured in a police van.

Almost immediately, the professional pundits began dissecting the O.J. Simpson trial as a gauge of racial divisions in the U.S., strengths and flaws the criminal justice system and the relentless tabloiding of America. But what of its impact on O.J. Simpson, the two young children he had with Nicole, the victims' anguished families and others connected to the case? While the country gets on with its life, they must get on with theirs, lives that in some instances were gutted by the crime at the heart of the case. As one close friend of Simpson's put it: "No one who had anything to do with O.J. and Nicole will ever be the same."

THE CHILDREN

The day was cool and overcast, but the scene along Monarch Bay Beach, in California, on Aug. 6—Justin Simpson's 7th birthday—was warmly Rockwellian. The scent of barbecued hot dogs and chicken filled the air as the guest of honor and his 9-year-old sister, Sydney, bodysurfed and played Frisbee with about 20 rambunctious friends and a convivial group of adults—including Jason and Arnelle Simpson, O.J.'s son and daughter from his first marriage; Al Cowlings; Nicole's sisters; and Louis and Juditha Brown, the grandparents who were granted guardianship of Justin and Sydney by Orange County superior court.

"That day, Justin and Sydney were probably the happiest I've seen them since Nicole died," says Ron Hardy, a Brown family friend who attended the gathering. "Those kids are exactly where they should be, with Nicole's parents."

Last week, with a shower of after-school kisses and embraces, Juditha Brown, 64, brought the youngsters the news of their father's acquittal. "The children were very happy—though Justin was happier than Sydney," says Jean Vaziri, a close friend of Juditha's. "She told them, 'You have two homes now.' " The next day O.J. slipped away from his Brentwood estate for his first meeting with his children in more than a year.

In a statement read by Jason after the verdict, O.J. had vowed that his children would be "raised the way that Nicole and I had always planned." According to Simpson confidant Robert Kardashian, the Browns will not oppose the return of the children to their father. The family has been scrupulous about not discussing the murders or poisoning Justin and Sydney against O.J. "We don't talk about Daddy being in jail," Nicole's sister Tanya Brown told PEOPLE on the eve of the verdict. "We just play jungle gym." At their private school, meanwhile, mention of the case has also been forbidden. Even the managers of Pavilions Place, their local supermarket, place cardboard over magazines that feature Simpson on the cover. Indeed, every effort has been made to keep the children's lives normal: Justin has taken karate lessons, and Sydney has continued with her dance classes.

But for father and children, some tough adjustments lie ahead. According to family friend Sheila Weller, author of Raging Heart, Simpson had originally explained his long absence by telling Sydney that he was away helping the police. But the little girl learned from a classmate that Simpson was in jail and for three months refused to talk to him—"until he leveled with her," says Weller. Then last spring, adds Weller, "she asked her grandmother if he was in jail because he was accused of killing her mother." After consulting a psychiatrist, the family finally told her about the case.

Experts agree that the stress on Justin and Sydney can be minimized if they are not cut off abruptly from the Brown family. Says Tim Cavell, a child therapist at Texas A&M University: "They need to know the Browns are good people and that they don't live one minute and die the next."

Interviewed with his daughter Denise by Geraldo Rivera on the night of the verdict, Lou Brown, 72, seemed remarkably conciliatory toward his former son-in-law. "I feel a friendly approach to custodianship is better for the children," he said. "I'm interested...in utilizing all the advantages of a bicultural upbringing so we can get away from this racial crap that came out at the trial."

Still, the Browns harbor a deep bitterness toward Simpson, and the courtroom photos of Nicole's battered face are not likely to be forgotten. Denise, whose emotional testimony about O.J.'s abuse of Nicole made for some of the trial's most enduring images, vows to press on with her work for the Nicole Brown Simpson Charitable Foundation, an advocacy group for abused women that she started in December 1994. "The jury made a decision, and we have to move on—and my life is getting on with [fighting] domestic violence," she told PEOPLE. "The public has to remember that O.J. is an accused batterer, and I'll fight to the end to get some justice somehow."

O.J.'s UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Now Simpson faces the Lizzie Borden dilemma: he was cleared of murder, but many people still think he's guilty. So how does a man who once lived off a carefully crafted genial image and who has paid more than $6 million in legal expenses go about supporting himself in the lifestyle to which he once was accustomed? Forget about Hertz Rent-a-Car, for which O.J. used to race through airports in TV commercials. "Our contract [for $550,000 per annum] with O.J. concluded at the end of '94," says Joe Russo, the company's vice president for public affairs. "And that's where it stays." And you can scratch all his other endorsements. "No manufacturer wants anyone controversial to plug their product; they don't want to turn off one buyer," says Jay Bernstein, a Hollywood manager. "Look at Michael Jackson and Pepsi."

During the past year, according to a longtime Simpson friend, "[O.J.] made more money in jail than he did out of jail. He earned a combined $3 million from his book [I Want to Tell You, the apologia published last year by Little, Brown, a division of Time Warner, which publishes PEOPLE] and for signing football cards and other collectibles." And now he could stand to make even more, according to speculation about a lucrative pay-per-view TV special on which Simpson would tell his story.

And, of course, O.J. could always advertise his $2.9 million Tudor-style home in Brentwood. "I could sell it over the phone without even showing it," says Elaine Young, the real estate broker who handled Simpson's purchase of the mansion. "It's the most famous house in the world. Like Graceland. Maybe bigger."

Simpson's personal life seems as unsettled as his finances. Persistent tabloid reports that he will sail away to Mexico with ex-flame Paula Barbieri seem unfounded. Supportive of Simpson by phone, the actress-lingerie model is now living with her family in Panama City, Fla., where she avoids the media and teaches Bible classes three times a week.

More than anything but his children, according to one friend, the jailed O.J. missed playing golf at his beloved Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades. But if some factions at the club have their way, Simpson could be ousted even though he was acquitted. Observed one clubber recently: "They can't throw him out because somebody accused him of murder. Now if I felt he was 100 percent guilty and he went free, I'd really have to think about it as far as playing golf with the guy."

BACK TO COURT?

For the family of murder victim Ron Goldman, the fight against Simpson isn't over. In May, Ron's father, Fred Goldman, 54, and daughter Kim, 23, filed a wrongful death suit against Simpson, seeking unspecified punitive damages. (Ron's mother, Sharon Rufo, who divorced Goldman in 1974 and who had long been estranged from her son, and Nicole's father, acting as executor of her estate, filed similar suits last year.)

Their chances of succeeding in the suit are good, since a determination of civil liability requires a lower standard of proof than does a finding of criminal guilt. The plaintiff must show only that a "preponderance of the evidence" points to the defendant's guilt rather than having to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. And the jury doesn't have to be unanimous in order to return a favorable verdict; a simple 9-to-3 vote can prevail. Moreover, O.J.'s acquittal on criminal charges would be irrelevant to a civil case. "I feel very confident that we will get a substantial judgment," attorney Robert Tourtelot, who represents the Goldmans, has said.

Most such cases are settled out of court, with the defendant paying an undisclosed amount of money and admitting no liability. Whether the Goldmans would consider settling, though, is another question. Fred, an advertising executive, who, friends say, sleeps poorly and is consumed by thoughts of his son's last moments, has vowed to "haunt the halls of justice." Kim seems equally determined. "It doesn't have anything to do with money," she has said. "If we can make him [Simpson] feel a quarter of the pain we feel, it's worth it."

MAKING BOOK

The end of the trial won't close the chapter on the O.J. frenzy in the publishing world. "We're in a little lull, but the second half starts soon," predicts Carol Publishing president Steven Schragis.

Already, some 36 Simpson-related works are on the shelves—including comic books, memoirs from dismissed jurors, Faye Resnick's bestselling Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted, and O.J.'s own I Want to Tell You, which sold 500,000 copies. Now publishers are girding for book proposals from key players like Judge Lance Ito (who could receive a $5 million advance), defense lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro and prosecutors Chris Darden and Marcia Clark. Simpson's first wife, Marquerite Thomas, already has a contract, as does Tourtelot, once Mark Fuhrman's lawyer and now the Goldmans'. Four journalistic works are also on the way, by novelist Dominick Dunne, Penthouse's Joseph Bosco, The New Yorker's, Jeffrey Toobin and crime writer Joe McGinniss (Fatal Vision).

There are signs, however, that some publishers are opting for restraint. Little, Brown, which published I Want to Tell You, reportedly rebuffed an offer from Simpson and collaborator Lawrence Schiller for a sequel. Michael Viner, president of Dove Books, who says he has been pitched by everyone "except the guy who sold O.J. cleats in the ninth grade," turned down tell-all proposals from Clark's and Cochran's former spouses and a UCLA professor who claimed to have had psychic experiences with Nicole's Akita, Kato. "It's the honest-to-God truth," says Viner. "[The deal] is, we sign a contract, the dog is willing to tell everything."

RICHARD JEROME and CYNTHIA SANZ
LORENZO BENET, LYNDON STAMBLER, TOM CUNNEFF; JOYCE WAGNER, ANNE-MARIE OTEY, JOHN HANNAH, LYNDA WRIGHT, DANELLE MORTON and SHELLEY LEVITT in Los Angeles and NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Joyce Wagner,
  • Anne-Marie Otey,
  • John Hannah,
  • Lynda Wright,
  • Danelle Morton,
  • Shelley Levitt,
  • Nancy Matsumoto.