Fact-checking Episode 4 of The People v. O.J. Simpson

Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark (left) and Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden. Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX

FX’s new limited series, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, takes us through the 1994–1995 criminal trial assessing football star turned Hollywood icon O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence in the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. We’re walking through all ten episodes with author, magazine editor, and UCLA communication studies professor Jim Newton — who was the Los Angeles Times’ lead reporter for the duration of Simpson’s arrest and trial — in an effort to identify what People v. O.J. handles with care versus when it deviates from documented fact and common perception. The intention here is less to debunk an explicitly dramatized version of true events than to help viewers piece together a holistic picture of the circumstances surrounding Nicole and Goldman’s murders and O.J.’s eventual acquittal. In other words, these weekly digests are best considered supplements to American Crime Story, rather than counterarguments.

Below are Newton’s insights into the veracity and potency of events and characterizations presented in “100% Not Guilty” (read his take on episode three, “The Dream Team,” here).

What They Got Right

Robert Shapiro had some tricks up his sleeve.
“Shapiro was always considered a clever negotiator,” reasons Newton. “And I think you see that in the conversation with [F. Lee] Bailey, where he does sort of head-fake him.”

Bailey and Robert Kardashian quickly aligned with Johnnie Cochran.
“The balance of power within the defense team right around the holidays moved from Shapiro to Cochran, and part of that was that the loyalty of Bailey and Kardashian and others — and the emergence of Carl Douglas and Shawn [Chapman]. All of them coming onto the scene and moving into the Cochran camp was instrumental in the way the defense approached this case. Shapiro’s offices were in Century City, and Johnnie’s were on Wilshire Boulevard, and I remember I stopped going to one place and started going to the other. Meetings that once happened further west started happening at Johnnie’s office.”

Lance Ito’s earnestness would be his undoing.
“I do think, at least the way he came off, was that he did see this as a big opportunity and responsibility, and that he was determined to do a very thorough job of it,” Newton begins. “As it turns out, that determination led him to give everything too much credence. There was a moment — and we haven’t gotten to it in the show — where Cochran made a motion to let Simpson make an opening statement, and Ito took it under advisement overnight. And I remember turning to my colleague and saying, ‘Oh my God, we’re gonna be in this for a long time.’ Because the idea of a defendant getting to address the jury, that’s the easiest thing to say no to in history for a judge. I think that was earnestness on his part. It was important to him to take this seriously and do the right thing. Sometimes that caused him to entertain outlandish possibilities and let things go on and on, and ultimately, that turned out to be his undoing. The show does a good job capturing that early on. It’s a nice human quality you see on display with him, but it may not have been one that helped him through this case.”

Ito’s wife creates conflict in the case.
“It is true that her relationship with Ito and her knowledge of Fuhrman both became contested questions,” confirms Newton. But far as her signing a pre-trial form attesting no conflict with Fuhrman, Newton says, “I just don’t know whether there was an actual document that memorialized that.”

The sleazy distraction of Faye Resnick’s book.
“The show does a good job of reminding me, tragically, what a piece of junk that book was, and what an exploitative attempt it was to capture the limelight of that trial,” Newton recalls. “Ito allowed it to become a bigger deal than it should have been. It should have been treated like a National Enquirer story, instead of something that could substantively derail a murder trial. Everybody overreacted to it, and the show does a very good job of capturing everybody’s overreaction to it. It’s both theatrical and true, and a reminder that the trial itself at this stage was sort of theatrical.”

Ronald Goldman was the forgotten victim.
“There’s no more tragic figure in this case in a certain way than Ron Goldman,” asserts Newton. “I remember the day of the verdict, being in the courtroom, and watching the Goldmans react to it. They have such a sad place in this whole awful episode — the whole conversation of the case, not just the trial, is all about Nicole and O.J. And Ron feels, as the character playing [Ron’s] father [Fred] says here, as sort of a footnote. He’s the Pentagon in the Twin Towers moment. It’s horrible and tragic, and he’s dead, and because the case is about the relationship between Nicole and O.J., he’s just kind of the guy on the periphery. I think the show makes a stab at trying to bring that idea to the forefront.”

What They May Have Taken Liberties With

Shapiro as riot-preventer.
“This idea that he was sculpting the defense to protect L.A. from another riot, which emerges at one point, is silly and, if true, malpractice,” Newton explains. “It’s not Bob Shapiro’s job to keep L.A. from having another riot, and what an enormous and self-aggrandizing responsibility he would have taken upon himself. I can’t imagine that Shapiro was sitting down at night and thinking about how his defense might affect the safety of L.A.”

Christopher Darden was more than just the right black man.
“I feel bad for Darden in some ways in this portrayal, although I think he’s been portrayed well throughout,” says Newton. “Darden brought more to this case than just being a black man. As the show points out, he understood Cochran better than anyone else on the team. He understood the racial dimensions of this case far better than anyone on the team. So he brought strength to it other than the hated word optics. But let’s be honest with ourselves, too: Once this case took on a racial dimension, the idea of an all-white prosecution team trying this against Johnnie Cochran was not gonna feel good to a jury, so I think [Garcetti] did his demographics, [and they] also probably influenced his decision to put him on the team, even though there were other good reasons to put him on the team.”

Clarke taking Cochran too lightly.
“I was surprised to see that,” Newton concedes. “Not only was he a formidable figure in the Los Angeles legal community, he’d also been a formidable figure in the D.A.’s office. I’d completely understand at this stage in the case that she and the D.A.’s office generally felt they had very strong evidence and a bulletproof case. But the notion that they were going up against a lightweight — maybe they could feel that with respect to Shapiro — but I would be really surprised if any of them thought Cochran was going to be a pushover. The show portrays it as Darden is the one who convinces her that she has to take him seriously. I have no doubt that it’s true that Darden understood that better than she did, but the idea that she didn’t understand it at all is a little hard to believe.”

The pre-trial hearings timeline.
“There’s a lot of compression around the pre-trial jockeying, some of which I think is misleading,” says Newton. “Here’s the chronology of, in particular, the [Mark] Fuhrman piece of this. The prelim hearing is in late June, early July [Ed. note: The hearing commenced June 30 and concluded July 8] of ’94. Fuhrman testifies at the prelim, not in front of Ito, who doesn’t supervise the prelim. [Ed. note: The judge throughout the preliminary hearings was Kathleen Kennedy-Powell, though the show cast a male actor in the part.] Then [Toobin’s] New Yorker piece comes out on July 25, the piece in which Toobin lays out Fuhrman as the potential linchpin witness. Then we move from that into jury selection. That’s all kind of scrambled in the presentation here. In the show, we never really saw Fuhrman on the stand. The important point of that is only that the reason Fuhrman was an issue at all is that he had been such a prominent figure in the prelim, and allowed to be the officer who stood for the department, which was obviously, in retrospect, a tactical error on the prosecution’s part. In this show, it short-circuits all of that. It felt to me like they’re compressing to the point of distorting Furhman’s role in all this in a way, I’m not really sure why.”

Articulating Fred Goldman’s rage.
“It felt to me like it did it in sort of a ham-handed way,” Newton suggests. “And actually compounded the problem rather than making it better, because the portrayal is so oafish and clumsy, when in fact he’s lost his son and it’s a terribly sad thing. It was very hard at the time for the Goldman family to draw attention to how much suffering they were dealing with, and I feel for them mainly. He just feels sort of cartoony, and as I say, that compounds the underlying problem here, which is they have no reason to feel peripheral to this event. If anybody else had been charged with this, then that wouldn’t have been the case. Their position in this has always been terribly sad.”