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

Have a seat. Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX

Tuesday night’s FX premiere of polarizing production duo Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story had the feel of event TV. That’s only fitting, given the singular divisiveness of its source material: the 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. Critics have already spoken out in near-universal praise of the limited series, which itself was adapted by writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski from Jeffrey Toobin’s 1997 book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Toobin’s account was based on his own New Yorker reportage of the notorious court proceedings, though even he acknowledges that American Crime Story takes its share of creative liberties.

To that end, we’ll be 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 the show handles with care versus when it deviates from documented fact and common perception. (It leans toward both treatments in one scene.) 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 Brown Simpson 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 is Newton’s insight into the veracity and potency of events and characterizations as presented in “From the Ashes of Tragedy.”

What They Got Right

Johnnie Cochran
“It captured Johnnie [Cochran] nicely. I knew most of these folks for a long time,” Newton affirms. “I knew Johnnie best of all. I thought he was really well-displayed. The scene with the clothes was a little silly, but he was extravagant.”

The Context
“It was very smart of them to contextualize this around the [Rodney] King beating, because it really was in many ways a case about the standing of the LAPD,” explains Newton. “The notion that the LAPD framed Simpson still remains really tenuous. The complexity of a frame is really big. I don’t think the defense team went very far toward proving a frame, and they sort of alluded to it in the first episode. But the notion that the LAPD couldn’t be trusted and that jurors would think of the LAPD as capable of almost anything was legit at the time. It tapped into a genuine anxiety about the police department. It’s certainly what gives this some contemporary relevance.”

Robert Shapiro
“Shapiro was overmatched in this case,” concurs Newton. “He was a smart lawyer who, for the most part, had handled famous people with small problems, so I think this thing got away from him. He’s well represented in that sense.”

The Sonji Danese Taylor Case
“There are several allusions to the [Sonji Danese] Taylor shooting,” says Newton. “This is a case that Cochran had that I was covering at the time. It’s dealt with glancingly, but astutely in the sense that it reminds you of the kind of history that was happening at the same time.”

The Cut on O.J.’s Hand
“The cut on his left hand becomes a key thing for the prosecution,” says Newton. “I react to in in several ways: (1) It’s super important when looking at the blood drops to the left of the footprints at the scene of the crime. But my main interaction with [Simpson] at the end of the case was around the cut. I had a cut on my hand at the time, and he and I really got into a tussle about it, so watching him with the cut is resonant for me. But it’s also, more importantly, essential in understanding the prosecution’s case that if there’s blood that matches his DNA at the scene, and it’s coherent with a cut on him, that’s a powerful piece of evidence. I thought the show did a good job of establishing early that that bandage on his finger is going to be something important to watch going forward.”

What They Took Liberties With

The Taylor Shooting
“[The Taylor shooting] is not totally portrayed correctly in the show, in the sense that it talks about her having been shot in the back,” clarifies Newton. “That’s true, although the bigger issue was whether she was shot on the ground. It does not happen to mention that she had her daughter in her arms, with a knife to the daughter’s throat. That was the thing that made this so poignant. It kind of shorthands it, but it’s a reminder that this notion of LAPD in contact in particular with black suspects was the thing people were most preoccupied with.”

How the Taylor Shooting Was Covered at the Time
“They have Johnnie in the episode saying that the Taylor shooting is on the back page of the newspaper,” recalls Newton. “Well, it was actually on the front page of the newspaper — I happened to write the story. I certainly wouldn’t take offense at that one. It just happens to be true that we put it on the [front] page.”

When Exactly O.J. Became a Suspect
“There’s a scene where a television cameraman shoots a picture of [O.J.] being handcuffed in the backyard,” mentions Newton. “I remember there were some images of that, but I don’t have a recollection of him being publicly discussed as a suspect until the day before he was arrested. So the notion that that image launched the conversation that he was the lead suspect feels a little off to me. I wrote a story that ran on the front page on I think Thursday morning saying he had a cut and had been bleeding and there’d been blood drops leading away from the scene. I remember we considered that a terribly risky thing to put on the front page before he’d even been arrested. So when the TV image came up, it felt a little off, because it seemed like that’s what put in people's heads that he was gonna be the suspect.”

The Open-Casket Funeral
“There’s a scene at the Nicole Simpson funeral,” recounts Newton. “If you searched for a story on the funeral that would have my byline, and I think Carla Hall’s, who was the reporter who actually attended for us, I don’t believe it was an open casket, and I certainly don’t believe that Simpson actually walked up to the casket at the service. Dramatically, that works very well for the show, but I think I’d remember that if it were the case. It would be in our story for sure if it were true.” 
[Ed. note: As reported by Newton and colleagues in the Times, Nicole’s closed-casket funeral was held Thursday, June 16. Robert Shapiro also noted in his book, The Search for Justice: A Defense Attorney's Brief on the O.J. Simpson Case, that the funeral was closed-casket. The prior afternoon, Simpson attended a private viewing for Nicole alongside her family. During the civil trial against O.J. in 1996, Nicole’s mother Juditha testified that at the aforementioned viewing, O.J. leaned into the open casket, kissed Nicole on the lips, and said, “I’m so sorry, Nic. I’m so sorry.”]