HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Charles Dickens' somber novel ''Bleak House'' opens with the interminable Chancery trial of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The trial drags ever onward, the arguments as murky as the London fog outside the windows.
Month after month and year after year, the case drains away first the resources and then the hopes of its principals. When they die it attaches itself leechlike to their luckless heirs and assigns. These too are doomed. As the voices drone on and the pens of the clerks complete page after unread page of transcript, only the bewigged barristers and judges flourish and endure.
Jarndyce and Jarndyce was of course a bitter fictional caricature of 19-century British justice, and it would be inaccurate, as well as disrespectful and improper, to suggest that there are similarities to the ongoing murder trial of O.J. Simpson.
The Simpson trial, as we should try to remind ourselves from time to time, isn't actually fiction. It is an authentic American criminal proceeding. Outside the courthouse, the California sun shines brightly. The judge is wigless, as most of the lawyers appear to be as well. And, perhaps the biggest distinction of all, this case doesn't render everyone it touches poor and miserable. It makes them rich and famous.
When Mr. Simpson is eventually acquitted, as seems likely, he will be faced with some very difficult decisions. Should he release his book immediately, or do it simultaneously with the film? Should he insist on playing himself in the movie?
And how, in working out the story line, should he deal with the question of his own guilt or innocence in the murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman? This is an important marketing consideration, and no doubt the best business minds in Hollywood are grappling with it at this moment.
Once he has been tried and found not guilty, the Constitution protects a defendant from further prosecution for the same offense. So if he chose to do so, Mr. Simpson should be able to explain with impunity, in graphic detail, what he was doing on that fateful night.
Many states nowadays prevent convicted criminals from profiting from published accounts of their crimes, but the law says nothing about those who are acquitted.
If the Simpson jury sets the famous defendant free, it will also leave him free to make a bundle. Opportunities go well beyond the merely literary. There are board games, action toys and the sale of both genuine and replicated memorabilia. For example, he might produce and auction off the missing murder weapon, and then sell to collectors a few thousand limited-edition copies, each one numbered and signed.
Mr. Simpson would have to proceed in these enterprises with some caution, however, for our constitutional protections against double jeopardy have been greatly eroded in recent years. The four Los Angeles police officers found innocent in the California courts of assaulting that estimable motorist, Rodney King, could be consulted about that. The federal government brought them to trial all over again.
As the current Justice Department jumps whenever it's pricked by politics, it might try to indict The Juice for conspiring to deprive the former Mrs. Simpson and Mr. Goldman of their civil rights. But probably not. It's one thing to trample on the Fifth Amendment rights of four unpopular cops, quite another to tackle a celebrity defendant backed up by a dream team of lawyers.
It's also possible that, once acquitted, Mr. Simpson would elect to maintain his innocence. This would be the legally more conservative course. But it would offer fewer dramatic and commercial possibilities, unless of course it also provided a solution to the murders.
In the pre-trial skirmishing, defense lawyers floated the theory that the murders were in some way drug-related, and suggested that the killers might have been four mysterious masked men seen in Nicole Brown Simpson's neighborhood on the night of the crime. No evidence supporting the theory has yet been produced.
But when the O.J. movie is eventually made -- perhaps by Oliver Stone -- the four-killers theory could be resurrected, and gently massaged for greater impact. The masked men who killed Nicole and Ron could be identified as white Republicans, perhaps militia-group members or talk-radio hosts.
Their motives? The usual right-wing plot to bring down democracy, enhance corporate profits, and establish white racial hegemony. Then in the end, after a car chase or two, these conspirators could be brought to justice, and O.J. would be awarded the Medal of Freedom. It would make a heck of a story, much less depressing than ''Bleak House.''
4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.