June 12, 1994: A jealous husband -- a handsome football hero whose exploits won him the Heisman Trophy -- kills his estranged wife after months of threatening and abusing her, or so millions have come to believe. The wife and a male friend are hacked to death outside the home she shares with her two children, who sleep through it all. Apparently intent on suicide, the distraught husband flees with a gun. Finally, he surrenders to police.

June 5, 1999: A jealous husband -- a handsome war veteran whose exploits won him numerous decorations -- kills his estranged wife after months of threatening and abusing her. He shoots her to death in front of their home as their two young children watch the whole grisly thing. Fleeing the scene of the crime with a gun, the husband shoots himself to death as police approach.

Five years apart, these seemingly similar crimes occurred with vastly dissimilar outcomes. Had O.J. Simpson done in Brentwood what Jeremy Akers, killer of romance novelist Nancy Richards-Akers, did in Washington -- shot himself dead at the height of the drama -- America might be a different place.

We all might be a tiny bit less bitter. A tad less cynical. And a lot dumber.

Who could have foreseen all we'd learn from the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and the resultant trials? What can be determined from Richards-Akers's slaying by a controlling spouse that we didn't learn from that earlier crime?

The Juice's decision not to blow out his brains in the aftermath of the Brentwood murders did more than save his skin. It threw open a primer on race, gender, abuse and justice whose lessons Americans are still learning.

Before Nicole's death, did we really believe that the most affable celebrity could also be a woman-beater? Did most white Americans realize their black fellow citizens were bruised and angry enough to cheer an apparent killer's acquittal? Did many blacks understand how quickly their sense of a man's worth could change, based solely on white people's "persecution" of him?

Think of how O.J. was regarded before that tragic night. Many whites admired the sports hero unequivocally -- remember the cheers as he whizzed by in the white Bronco? Early on during the first trial, I heard a psychologist marvel at the spectacle of white Americans "pulling O.J. out of their chests," evicting him from their hearts.

Before June 12, 1994, many blacks admired O.J.'s easygoing athleticism, too -- but disliked his seeming rejection of them through his white wife, friends and world.

Five years later, Simpson is among the most controversial living Americans. More blacks wish him well than whites, many of whom despise him. He still inspires arguments over his guilt or innocence, the life he deserves.

Few would deny that the slaying of Richards-Akers, like those of Nicole Simpson and Goldman, was horrific. But most people will tuck the novelist's killing away in their minds because it ended so . . . tidily.

The bad guy is gone. Maybe he didn't suffer enough for executing his wife in front of their terrified children, but at least he's dead. We don't have to endure his trial and possible acquittal. We'll never see him hale, hearty and living an enviable life: caring for his kids in luxury; golfing; squiring a sweetheart who looks eerily like his slain wife.

Now maybe O.J. didn't kill that poor, doomed pair. I believe he must have, but this is America, where inept prosecutors, careless police and a terrific defense team can add up to reasonable doubt. I didn't cheer his "victory" in his first trial, but the judicial system worked. It worked again in the civil trial, which declared Simpson's probable guilt.

Despite all that Nicole Simpson's tragic killing suggests about race -- would whites still be in such a snit if she'd been black, or blacks as embracing if O.J. were white? -- her death, like Richards-Akers's, appears to have been about something else: power.

Friends describe the romance novelist, 45, as a confident self-starter. Nicole Simpson -- a decade younger and under a strong man's spell since age 18 -- seemed anything but. Yet both fell for men they saw as larger-than-life, who saw themselves that way, too. Men who'd proved their manliness in macho arenas -- the football field, combat -- whose toughness both thrilled and frightened them.

Men who didn't take it lightly when their once-adoring mates decided they wanted out.

Such attractions aren't unusual. Recently, I attended a middle school graduation where girls in bright dresses and ringleted hair looked as fresh as the June sky. After the ceremony, I noticed how many of them flocked to have pictures taken with the toughest-looking guys. Already, teachers tell me, some are offering sexual favors to these macho boys -- boys who later ignore them, or tattle to their friends.

Some lessons we'll need more than five years to learn.