LOS ANGELES (AP) _ O.J. Simpson was acquitted today of murdering his ex-wife and her friend, a suspense-filled climax to the courtroom saga that obsessed the nation. With two words, ``not guilty,'' the jury freed the fallen sports legend to try to rebuild a life thrown into disgrace.

Simpson looked toward the jury and mouthed, ``Thank you,'' after the panel was dismissed. He turned to his family and punched a fist into the air. He then hugged his lead defense attorney, Johnnie Cochran Jr., and his friend and attorney Robert Kardashian.

``He's going to start his life all over again,'' Cochran told reporters later.

In the audience, the sister of victim Ronald Goldman broke out in sobs. Her father sat back in his seat in disbelief, then embraced his daughter.

Simpson's relatives smiled and wiped away tears. His son Jason sat in his seat, his face in his hands, shaking and sobbing. Prosecutor Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden sat stone-faced.

The judge thanked the jury and cautioned panelists that reporters would seek them out. Jurors said they didn't want to talk to attorneys or the media.

Later, Simpson's lawyers and relatives addressed reporters in the courtroom.

``Me and my family want to thank God, without whom, I don't know where we'd be,'' Jason Simpson said. He then read a statement from Simpson:

``I'm relieved that this incredible part of this nightmare of June 12, 1994, is over. My first obligation is to my young children, who will be raised the way Nicole and I had always planned.

``When things have settled a bit, I will pursue as my primary goal in life the killer or killers that have slaughtered Nicole and Mr. Goldman. They are out there somewhere.''

The jury of nine blacks, two whites and a Hispanic cleared Simpson of the June 12, 1994, murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and her 25-year-old friend. Had he been convicted, Simpson had faced life in prison without possible parole.

Instead, Judge Lance Ito ordered him taken to the sheriff's department and released ``forthwith.''

``I feel awful. I just feel awful,'' a sobbing Kathleen Bell, who testified about Detective Mark Fuhrman's racist comments, said in a television interview. ``I think this is very hard to take. I think to hear the Goldman family cry was very difficult.'''

``Oh God!'' Ms. Simpson's friend Faye Resnick screamed. ``Nicole was right. She said he was going to kill her and get away with it. He always said he was above the law.'

Outside the courthouse, a throng of spectators erupted in cheers.

The curious and an army of media began arriving early today, while police went on tactical alert to brace for possible trouble in the streets.

News helicopters roared outside. Barricades blocked the street. In the courthouse lobby, hundreds of people vied for the few precious public seats in the courtroom. As their lottery numbers were pulled, the lucky few cheered.

They came to take their place in history, to experience the verdict of the century.

It came Monday without warning. As the judge brought in the jury, two-thirds of the hottest seats in town were empty, two of the leading attorneys in the case weren't even present, and most of the media _ not expecting such a swift verdict _ were upstairs in the press room.

``Is that correct?'' Ito asked the forewoman, a black woman in her early 50s who was chosen by her colleagues last week after just three minutes.

``Yes,'' she said.

Jaws dropped. There were gasps in the courtroom. Simpson appeared stunned, as did his attorney, Carl Douglas, a second-stringer on the legal team assigned the mundane task of sitting next to Simpson while testimony was reread.

Ito suggested jurors use their time before the verdict's announcement to pack and bid farewell to nearly nine months of sequestration.

Jurors spent about an hour of their brief deliberations listening to a court reporter read back testimony from a limousine driver who gave Simpson a ride to the airport on the night Simpson's ex-wife and her friend were slain.

The jurors heard only testimony that prosecutors suggested they review: Allan Park's descriptions of phone calls he made to his boss and mother and his efforts to summon a response from Simpson by ringing a bell at the gate to his Rockingham Avenue estate.

The verdict capped a legal journey as surreal _ and at times as slow _ as Simpson's bizarre Bronco flight from justice.

As the case moved onto one side street after another, it often seemed irrelevant that two young people were slashed to death one June night in Brentwood more than a year ago.

The case wasn't just about murder. It was about fame and wealth, love and hate, fragile egos and misdirected power. It was about the judicial system, the media, domestic violence, racism, sexism and crass opportunism.

It was Greek tragedy, afternoon soap opera and circus sideshow, all televised live and nationwide. It had heroes, villains and freaks, plot twists, suspense and anticlimaxes.

America couldn't get enough if it.

The star, of course, was Orenthal James Simpson, who made it from the housing projects of San Francisco to the mansions of Brentwood with charm, good looks and a pair of feet that could run like the wind.

His public life was the object of envy: glory on the football field at the University of Southern California and for the Buffalo Bills, fame as a commercial pitchman for Hertz, pop culture status for his ``Naked Gun'' movie roles.

His private life, however, was something else. Prosecutors said Simpson was a man whose outward strength of body and personality hid psychological weakness. He was, they said, racked by jealousy, plagued with anger, bent on control in every situation. He was a time bomb.

The bomb exploded, according to prosecutors, on June 12, 1994.

There was never any testimony about where Simpson was for 78 critical minutes that night, from when his house guest Brian ``Kato'' Kaelin last saw him to when he was next seen by the limousine driver.

Simpson's defense rested on the simple premise that the one place he wasn't that night was 875 S. Bundy Drive a few miles away, where the throats of Ms. Simpson and Goldman were slashed.

A neighbor was led to the bodies by Ms. Simpson's dog, Kato, named after Kaelin, the trial's first 15-minute celebrity. Police arrived, and soon so did the media, which pitched Camp O.J. and never left.

The evidence against Simpson mounted. At the crime scene were bloody footprints in his shoe size, 12, and blood drops bearing his genetic markers. Near the bodies was a glove in his size _ and of a style identical to that of gloves his ex-wife bought him which he wore at televised football games.

At Simpson's house was the glove's apparent mate, smeared with incriminating evidence: blood with the genetic markers of him and the two victims. Also on it was a hair similar to Ms. Simpson's and fibers almost identical to those in the carpeting of Simpson's Bronco.

There was Simpson's blood on his driveway, Simpson's blood in the foyer, and a pair of bloody socks in his bedroom. The sock blood contained Ms. Simpson's genetic markers, as well as Simpson's.

In the Bronco, there was more blood: on the steering wheel, the door, the center console and the carpeting.

Much of the evidence was leaked to the world in the hours and days after the slayings. Simpson's family and friends flocked to his home. The victims were buried.

By the end of the week, a nation was riveted to the TV screen, watching Al ``A.C.'' Cowlings creep along the Southern California freeways in his white Bronco, with Simpson in the backseat, gun to his head. Crowds cheered. The Juice was running again.

Eventually, Simpson surrendered without a struggle, turning himself in to police at his house under the roar of news helicopters.

That was the last time Simpson did anything without a struggle.

The trial spanned more than a year from jury selection to closing arguments. Jurors were locked down in a hotel to protect them from media contamination, corruption and compromise.

The prosecution case consumed nearly six months. Without a known eyewitness or a murder weapon, prosecutors spun a circumstantial evidence case built on the theory that Simpson had the motive and opportunity to kill, and left a literal trail of blood from the crime scene to his house.

The defense was simple: O.J. didn't do it.

Just who did do it _ and why so much of the evidence pointed to Simpson _ were more problematic for the Simpson camp, which crafted a two-prong defense: Simpson was a victim of a combination police frame-up and police bungle-up.

The defense argued that the glove at Simpson's house was planted by a racist rogue cop named Mark Fuhrman, who has wanted to nail Simpson since 1985, when Fuhrman _ an alleged hater of interracial couples _ responded to a domestic violence call between Simpson, who is black, and Ms. Simpson, who was white.

It all boiled down to a classic reasonable doubt defense, with a racial spin. The jury was urged to acquit Simpson to send a message that police corruption and racism would not be tolerated.