SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) _ A civil jury found O.J. Simpson liable Tuesday for the slashing deaths of his ex-wife and her friend, a moral victory for grieving relatives who felt the football great got away with murder.

The jury ordered Simpson to pay $8.5 million in compensatory damages and will return Thursday to hear arguments on whether to award millions more in punitive damages.

``Thank God for some justice for Ron and Nicole,'' said Fred Goldman, the aggrieved father who doggedly pursued Simpson to civil court after denouncing his acquittal. ``This is all we ever wanted. We have it.''

As the verdict was read, Simpson remained seated and stoic, staring straight ahead.

Across the courtroom, a whoop of joy went up from the relatives of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

``Yes!'' screamed sister Kim Goldman, in contrast to the way she sobbed openly when Simpson was acquitted of murder 16 months ago.

``This is justice!'' said Denise Brown, sister of Ms. Simpson.

Louis Brown, who sat stone still as the verdict was announced, stood and smiled afterward. ``I want to get outside and scream.''

The mostly white panel, forced to start deliberations anew last Friday after a juror was removed for misconduct, snatched away some of the vindication Simpson claimed when he was acquitted of murder by a mostly black jury in 1995. That televised murder trial divided the nation over issues of police racism, domestic violence and the quality of justice.

This civil jury, using the lesser standard of ``preponderance of evidence'' rather than ``beyond a reasonable doubt,'' was unanimous on all counts in blaming Simpson for the June 12, 1994, slayings.

``I think this gives a little bit of solace to each of the divided camps,'' said Alan Dershowitz, part of Simpson's defense team at his murder trial. ``Those who believe he did it will look to the civil verdict; those who believe he didn't do it will look to the criminal verdict.''

Dershowitz, an appeals specialist, said the late dismissal of the juror in the case raised ``serious appellate issues. We're a long way from being finished here.''

Simpson criminal trial attorney Johnnie Cochran, speaking on Court TV, shied away from a direct attack on the case, saying, ``Many people feel that there have been a number of mistakes in this case.''

The dramatic reading of the verdict was delayed more than three hours to allow the lawyers and families to get to the courthouse. Simpson's trip _ in a black Suburban escorted by police instead of a white Bronco chased by police _ was televised live nationally on a split screen just as President Clinton began his State of the Union address.

Later, Clinton said: ``We have to respect the jury verdicts that Americans bring in a situation like this.''

Simpson, wearing a dark suit, left the courthouse with his head bowed and showing no expression. A mix of boos and cheers greeted him as he as left the courthouse.

On his way home, he dashed into an ice cream shop to buy a cup of chocolate cookie dough ice cream for his 11-year-old daughter, Sydney.

Reached by telephone later at his home, Simpson told The Associated Press, ``I'm sitting with my kids right now,'' but he refused further comment.

The $8.5 million represented the value of Goldman's funeral and the loss of Goldman's companionship to his parents. Ms. Simpson's family did not seek compensatory damages.

Ms. Simpson's parents filed a suit on behalf of her estate and also demanded money from Simpson for fatally assaulting her. Any money awarded will go to the surviving Simpson children, Sydney and Justin, 8. The grandparents did not want to put the children in the position of suing their father for killing their mother.

The jury's findings of malice and oppression triggered the second phase to determine punitive damages _ money assessed to punish Simpson.

Already, the plaintiffs' attorneys have asked for and received Simpson's latest financial records in preparation for the punitive phase.

Christopher Darden, a prosecutor in Simpson's criminal trial, told CNBC: ``We said all along that O.J Simpson committed these crimes and all we asked ... was our day in court. ... That's been accomplished.''

The jury reached the verdict after 13 hours of deliberations over three days _ more than four times as long as the criminal jury deliberated.

That was on top of the 14 hours over three days that were interrupted Friday when the judge replaced the only black member for failing to disclose that her daughter was a secretary in the district attorney's office that prosecuted Simpson's murder trial.

The final six-man, six-woman jury consisted of nine whites, one Hispanic, one Asian and one of Asian and black heritage.

In its last day of deliberations, the jury spent three hours listening to readbacks of some 200 pages of testimony focusing on Simpson's opportunity and motive. It heard testimony about Simpson's alibi, a bruising argument with his ex-wife and a limousine driver's time line.

Jurors were particularly attentive when they heard the testimony of limo driver Allan Park, the only witness whose testimony the jury at Simpson's murder trial asked to hear again before it acquitted him.

A central issue in the case was whether Simpson would have had time to kill two people at Ms. Simpson's condo, dispose of a weapon and bloody clothes, and return home in time to meet the limousine at 11 p.m.

Park testified he didn't see Simpson's Bronco when he pulled up in his limo and got no answer when he repeatedly rang the buzzer at Simpson's gate.

Simpson maintained he was in bed, showering, chipping golf balls and taking his dog for a walk around the time of the slayings.

The wrongful death case brought by the victims' families was an abbreviated version of the criminal trial _ 41 days of testimony rather than 133 _ but with key rulings that took away the cameras and racial fireworks, and with the addition of startling new evidence.

Most incriminating for Simpson were 31 photos of him wearing the same style Bruno Magli shoes that left bloody footprints at the crime scene.

And for the first time before any jury, Simpson took the stand, testifying for four days that he never killed anyone, and never once hit, kicked or beat his ex-wife. He was not sure how he cut his hand, suggesting he nicked himself wrestling with his son.

But the main themes of his defense remained: Simpson was the victim of an elaborate frame-up, and physical evidence and witnesses couldn't be trusted.

When the first picture of him wearing the Bruno Magli shoes was produced, Simpson called it a fake. Later, confronted with 30 more pictures taken the same day, Simpson said he did not recall ever owning such shoes. His lawyer suggested they, too, were forgeries made to cash in on the case.

Among a series of rulings favorable to the plaintiffs, Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki allowed testimony about a lie-detector test Simpson flunked and blocked defense efforts to play the ``race card'' that many felt had turned the tide in the criminal case.

Notably absent was former police Detective Mark Fuhrman, branded by Simpson's lawyers in the first trial as a racist who planted a bloody glove at his Rockingham estate.

Plaintiffs in the civil trial moved quickly through the dreary detail of blood drops and DNA evidence, hitting hard on a possible motive _ a history of spousal abuse.

And as the trial drew to a close, plaintiff attorneys took direct aim at Simpson's character, angrily portraying him as a coward trying to ``deny the undeniable.'' Said attorney Daniel Petrocelli: ``There's a killer in this courtroom.''