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CAN THE CHARMING, CHARISMATIC O.J. TALK HIS WAY OUT OF THIS?

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Those who knew O.J. Simpson best, including his slain ex-wife, used to say he could talk his way out of anything. Now he faces the toughest test of his legendary charisma - testifying in his wrongful death trial.

Plaintiff lawyers said they will call him as a hostile witness Friday, challenging him to explain incriminating evidence they have put before the jury.Simpson lost a bid to postpone his appearance until the end of a trial in neighboring Orange County over custody of his two children. Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fuji-saki ordered him to be available to testify in Santa Monica on Nov. 22, 25 and 26.

The order does not guarantee Simpson will testify then. The plaintiffs could change plans to call him at that time.

Lawyers in the case are forbidden by a judge's gag order to discuss strategy.

Legal experts questioned on the matter were split on the pros and cons of calling Simpson as a hostile witness.

"I would put him on the stand and ask him point-blank: `Did you kill Ron and Nicole?' and see his physical reaction," said veteran trial lawyer Al DeBlanc, who sat in on a recent court session.

But Loyola University Law School Dean Laurie Levenson said the plaintiffs may be risking disaster.

"Why give him a chance to use his guile and charm on the jury? Why make character an issue instead of physical evidence?" she asked.

Why indeed. The answer may have little to do with strategy and more to do with emotion. Fred Goldman, father of victim Ronald Goldman and chief plaintiff in the case, wants to see Simpson on the witness stand.

Plaintiff's lawyer Daniel Petrocelli tangled with Simpson during a 10-day deposition and may believe he can rattle the celebrity defendant.

But Petrocelli still has an array of options. He can call Simpson as planned, wait for the defense to call him and do a harsh cross-examination or even call him as a rebuttal witness.

No matter when it happens, Simpson's role is viewed as pivotal.

As a Heisman Award-winning, Hall of Fame football player, a TV sports commentator, an actor and a spokesman for Hertz rental cars, Simpson has been on the public stage almost since he was a teenager.

"He's got a million-dollar smile. He's got a very relaxed, personable manner. His history is he's always talked his way out of things before," Levenson said.

Simpson didn't take the stand when he was acquitted on criminal murder charges after a yearlong trial. But the standard of proof is different in civil court. To find him liable for the killings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Gold-man, jurors need only find "a preponderance of the evidence" points to him. There is no beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard. And only nine of 12 jurors need to agree on a verdict.

How long will Simpson testify? No one is saying.

As for legal limitations, civil litigator Douglas Mirell said the plaintiffs will have carte blanche with Simpson as a hostile witness.

"They can ask about anything at the trial," Mirell said. "They will be trying to get as much in the record as possible. It is not a no-risk strategy."

Ultimately, UCLA Law School professor Peter Arenella said, Simpson will make or break the case.

"The jurors' reaction to his testimony will be defining," Arenella said. "Their judgment will be made through the prism of Mr. Simpson's credibility."