Fact-checking Episode 9 of The People v. O.J. Simpson

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Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark. Photo: Byron Cohen /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 “Manna From Heaven” (read his take on episode eight, “A Jury in Jail,” here). And it should be noted that, as the series nears its conclusion, both Newton and myself agree that People v. O.J. has — to its credit — hewed closer to public record, although it still makes for riveting television.

What They Got Right

Shock and Awe at Mark Fuhrman’s Plea
“The most shocking day I have ever witnessed in the courtroom was the day he took the Fifth [Amendment],” declares Newton. “I had never before seen a police officer take the Fifth, and I’ve never since. To have him get up there and so badly undermine [the prosecution’s] work was shocking. As shocked as I was, the people who were most shocked and dismayed were [LAPD detectives] Lange and Vanatter. I got to know them after the case, and I can’t even put into words the outrage they felt.”

Ito Observing the “Public Concern”
“You’re entitled in this country to a speedy and public trial,” reminds Newton. “The notion is that justice is served not just by protecting the defendant’s rights but by letting the public observe, assuring the justice system is performing the way it should, which is an important reason why there should be a camera in a courtroom and why it was good Ito left it in the courtroom here. There’s a public interest in all cases. We have an expectation that if justice is done privately, bad things can happen. What the camera did [in the Simpson trial] is make people conscious of the fact that the world was watching, and I certainly hope it didn’t affect any rulings. I’m inclined to think it didn’t much.”

Anti-Fuhrman Furor
“There was definitely public protest about Fuhrman,” recalls Newton, though he can’t comment on whether there were specifically people outside the courtroom with signs depicting Fuhrman as Hitler. “That segment of the population in L.A. [for whom] the police department was capable of the worst possible things, Fuhrman seemed proof. This was a city that was still recovering from a riot. And, as I said earlier, I didn’t think the Simpson case had the potential to ignite people in the way [Rodney] King did. Fuhrman did. Of all the moments in the case I can recall, it’s the moment when the public seemed the most agitated.”

F. Lee Bailey As Point Man in North Carolina
“It felt a little put on to me,” Newton remarks of Nathan Lane oozing affected southern charm as Bailey. However, he concedes, “Bailey was responsible for Fuhrman, so whether it was done because he could fake a southern accent and Johnnie couldn’t, I don’t know, but it would have been logical that he would have been at least the key deputy on it. I just don’t know if there would have been concern for southern sensibilities in quite the way it was portrayed here.”

What They May Have Taken Liberties With

The Case Turning on Fuhrman
“Because of this testimony and tapes and his background, he plays an outsize role in the public imagination of the case,” Newton begins, before expounding on a reality that’s resonated with him throughout American Crime Story, which is: “He was not that important to the case itself, although he became important to the demise of the case. People associate a lot of the case with him, but he didn’t interview witnesses, he didn’t collect evidence. He was there briefly, and then the whole thing went to Robbery-Homicide. The defense did a very skillful job of making it seem that if there was something wrong with Fuhrman, there was something wrong with the entire case.”

Shock and Awe Over Bringing Fuhrman Back
“The notion that [Fuhrman] wouldn’t be questioned at all about [the tapes] is absurd,” Newton states. “He denied using the N-word. So the idea that Ito’s ruling is as precarious as it’s portrayed here seems a little exaggerated to me, in the sense that there was no question he was going to have to face at least some questions about these tapes.”

Clark and Darden’s Courtroom Volatility
“I suspect what we’re seeing here is the need to act out things people might have been feeling,” Newton posits, echoing his ongoing reaction to scenes of the legal teams losing composure in court. “It’s hard to just show someone sitting impassively and feeling torn up inside. My abiding recollection in terms of the behaviors of the lawyers in court is that it was highly professional. There were moments where people got mad or there was a fierce objection, but I don’t recall this series of shouting matches or crestfallen looks. I think they probably do capture correctly the anguish and intensity these lawyers are feeling. I just think it’s not quite right to suggest they acted those feelings out in court.” 

Darden Walking Out As Fuhrman Took the Stand
“I don’t remember that,” says Newton. “This was a fairly agonizing period for him, but I don’t remember anyone bolting the proceedings quite like that. I’m pretty sure if that happened it would have made it into our story.”

[Editor’s Note: While it’s difficult to ascertain Darden’s whereabouts in the AP video from that day, there’s no confirmation from the L.A. Times archives or elsewhere that he in fact elected to leave the proceedings while Fuhrman invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege.]