Judge Lance Ito handed opposing sides in the O.J. Simpson case a split decision.

Prosecutors will not be able to hear the possibly incriminating remark Simpson shouted to a minister, Roosevelt Grier, Ito ruled Monday. But the judge rejected a defense motion to meld a hearing on the admissibility of DNA evidence into the trial itself.Ito's decision to keep the Simpson-Grier conversation private was a rare victory for the defense in the case, which has seen the judge allow a variety of disputed materials into evidence.

But Simpson's statement to Grier last November - its contents have never been disclosed - would have been gravy for the prosecution; its case never really hinged on it.

The DNA ruling seemed to promise a prolonged and tedious hearing into how definitively scientists believe people can be singled out by blood samples, a potentially crucial issue in a case with no eyewitness testimony.

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While Ito directed the jury to return Jan. 18, the complexity of the scientific discussion to come makes it seems unlikely that testimony will start anywhere near that date.

In court Friday, the judge acknowledged that he had helped arrange for Simpson and his visitors to meet in the place where the conversation was overheard - a place used when the jail's regular visiting facility is closed - and that he had assured defense lawyers that whatever they discussed there would be private.

Grier, a former defensive lineman for the New York Giants who was ordained as a minister in 1986, testified on Dec. 9 that he had visited Simpson a month earlier to "share the word" and to tell him that however bleak things looked, there were reasons for him to carry on. A man's life, he said he told Simpson, "could be changed through the power of God."

The only published account of the conversation appeared in last week's issue of The National Enquirer. Attributing its report to an unnamed jail guard, it stated that Grier told Simpson, who was clutching a Bible at the time, that he could not expect mercy and salvation unless he was honest with God and admitted his failings. At that point, the guard told the publication, Simpson exclaimed, "I did it!"

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