American Crime Story
Anyone who’s ever served on a jury, even for a day or two, knows about the torments of this widely dreaded civic duty: getting herded between the cramped spaces of the jury box and the deliberation room, hanging out with a motley assortment of strangers, never discussing the one thing everyone has in common until the closing arguments are finished. Since your new friends are not self-selected, personality clashes are inevitable — or, at a minimum, some lapses in communication will occur. Hundreds of people may have lobbied to be on the O.J. Simpson jury — it was like an American Idol audition before American Idol existed — but the jurors and alternates who were chosen severely underestimated what would be required of them. The trial consumed the better part of a year, which was far longer than anyone could reasonably have expected.
When the trial was over, the jurors didn’t get much respect from the media — and did not, based on interviews after the trial, seem to consider the ins-and-outs of the case that deeply — but “A Jury in Jail” puts them in a kinder light. That’s been a common theme throughout The People vs. O.J Simpson: The figures who were mocked or vilified at the time, especially Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran, and Christopher Darden, are seen as part of a phenomenon they could not control. The jurors may have volunteered eagerly to pass judgment on the Juice before a national television audience, but the novelty became a grind and the lawyers took turns discrediting and disqualifying them. Their sacrifice was answered with suspicion and hostility.
Save for the presentation of the DNA evidence, tonight’s hour takes place almost entirely outside the courtroom, where the show consistently thrives. It seems like a bit much to open with a deputy castigating jurors like the warden in an old chain-gang movie, but the conditions of sequestration for the O.J. trial justify it. The jurors are referred to by numbers. They have limited visitation from their families. They cannot have TVs in their rooms. They cannot have any reading materials that haven’t been scanned first. They cannot talk with other hotel guests about anything. They cannot visit each other in their rooms. Their accommodations may be nicer than the defendant’s, but their freedom is equally limited, if not more so. The jurors certainly can’t get together for poker night. And they have no control of the remote, either.
The contrast between the jury on Day One, when they stride into the InterContinental like they’ve just won the lottery, and the same group on Day 124, when they’re on the verge of revolt, underlines the unreasonable terms of their public service. It also defines the racial divisions at the heart of this case from the beginning. The Martin versus Seinfeld debate makes the schism plain enough, and “A Jury in Jail” hammers the irony of O.J. musing to his white buddies about how Cosmo Kramer should have his own spinoff show. The black jury that will eventually acquit him may be into Martin, but he’s been keeping up with Jerry Seinfeld’s show about nothing. He’s not black or white, after all. He’s O.J.!
The all-out war between Clark and Cochran over jury disqualifications whittles the alternate jurors down to the nub, which ultimately becomes dangerous for Cochran, who’s caught so many breaks in this trial that a mistrial would be a disaster. They each have a sense of who’s sympathetic to their cause — the breakdown is mostly on racial lines, of course — and the parrying in Judge Ito’s chambers suggests how often cases are won and lost outside actual trials. Clark lost too handily in jury selection to make up enough ground here, but the show makes an entertaining spectacle of smearing jurors mid-trial. First, there’s F. Lee Bailey offering one hell of an “Actually …” on a report that a juror’s husband raped her twice (“Actually, it wasn’t legally rape in ‘88”), then there’s Clark coolly responding to Cochran’s accusations of dirty-dealing: “Toughen up, Cochran. This is the smoker’s lounge. Day care’s on the first floor.”
As the gamesmanship in The People vs. O.J. Simpson hits it peak, David Schwimmer is there to remind us that it’s not a game at all. For Robert Kardashian, one of the dispiriting realities of being privy to the defense strategy is understanding it as a comprehensive effort to sully the prosecution’s case, not to offer a plausible counter-theory for his friend’s innocence. (Apologies to anyone clinging to the “Colombian necktie” premise.) He can watch a ferocious litigator like Barry Scheck make hash of the DNA evidence, but the presence of O.J.’s DNA signature at the crime scene, in the Bronco, and on his estate is hard to get around when only 1 in 170 million individuals have that same signature. Add to that the flunked pretrial lie-detector test, plus the utter fiasco of O.J.’s mock-cross later in the episode, and the conclusion is seeming unavoidable. The jury may be eating it up, but Kardashian is watching the sausage get made. And it’s turning his stomach.
- The show has been tilting hard against the defense team lately, but the spectacle of Cochran, Shapiro, and the gang clinking champagne glasses over the glove debacle is a little much. It’s like the toast at Kamp Krusty’s on The Simpsons: “Gentlemen, to evil!”
- “What is a Seinfeld?” The cultural gap between black and white jurors is canyon-wide.
- This week’s music cues are mostly on-the-nose stingers — “Another One Bites the Dust” after several jurors are dismissed, “Fight the Power” when the remaining jurors revolt — but credit the show for unearthing Folk Implosion’s novelty hit, “Natural One,” for Clark’s post-Scheck meltdown. It was Lou Barlow’s only mainstream success, but it was nearly big enough for collectors of low-fi Sebadoh albums to swear off him forever.
- Standing Alone: A Vote for Nicole was never written, but the juror accused of pitching it, Francine Florio-Bunten, was later dismissed for lying to Judge Ito about reading a note passed by another juror. She disputed that accusation as being a cover for the book charge, which even Cochran suspected was fraudulent. She also left convinced that O.J. was guilty, and was so determined to sway her fellow jurors that she’d have hung the jury. Here’s the full story.
- The mock-cross of O.J. may be Cuba Gooding Jr.’s best piece of acting so far. He plays O.J. as a man so convinced of his own charisma that he tries to charm his way through cross-examination, shrugging off accusations of domestic abuse (“we scuffled around sometimes”) with the smile that sold Hertz rental cars. For most of the defense team, putting O.J. on the witness stand is bad strategy. For Kardashian, it’s an incriminating moment that the jury in his head can’t strike from the record.
- The Fuhrman tapes are coming next week. Fire up the Folk Implosion.