Fact-Checking the Finale of The People v. O.J. Simpson

L-R: Jessica Blair Herman as Kim Goldman, Joseph Siravo as Fred Goldman. Photo: Prashant Gupta/FX

FX’s 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 the finale, “The Verdict” (read his take on episode nine, “Manna From Heaven,” here). We also step back to reflect on the sum total of the series. And on a personal note, thanks to all the readers for helping be a part of this collaboration. 

What They Got Right

The Goldmans’ Anguish
“I sat a few seats down in the same row as the Goldmans,” Newton recalls. “When the verdict was announced, my enduring memory is looking to my left and seeing Fred Goldman break down. It was overwhelming, and it was semi-overwhelming to watch it again. It’s a testament to the show that it took me back. Whatever one thinks about Simpson’s guilt or innocence, there was no replacing that son to that father, and I just watched his whole world drop out from under him when that verdict was announced.”

The Stunningly Swift Deliberations
“[Everyone was] stunned and mystified,” confirms Newton. “And I think the show does a good job capturing [that] both sides were nervous that it meant something bad for them, or it could mean something good for them. The last thing anyone expected, after more than a year of this, was that it was going to be over in a couple of hours.”

Marcia Clark’s Visual Aids
“I remember there being charts,” says Newton. “I have no idea whether these are the actual ones or how much they look like them. But I remember her using objects in her close, visual aids, so it was something like this used. These days, you’d probably have a PowerPoint, but it’s not unusual to use some kind of a device to frame the case. They have to be reviewed by the court in order to be shown to the jury, but they’re admissible.” [Editor's note: This video shows Clark using visual aids about two minutes in.]

The Spectacle of Simpson’s ‘Closing Statement’
“He was given the opportunity to stand up there and say he didn’t do it and that he was misrepresented by the prosecution,” Newton notes in mild disbelief, adding that Simpson also “did not have to answer any questions about it. I’ve never been to another trial where a defendant had that opportunity. He was supposed to stand up to stay, I wave my right to testify, and instead he gave this little soliloquy, and Clark kept trying to get him to stop, and Ito finally did get him to stop, but not before he had the opportunity to say what he really wanted to say. He made a closing statement.”

An Ostracized O.J.
“I don’t know about the reactions of his friends,” Newton prefaces. “He certainly did receive a hostile reception at his house. In fact, the day I interviewed him, which was a couple of months after all this, there were protestors outside his house. This was not a welcoming for him to return to. He re-entered a society that had lost a lot of patience with him.”

[Editor's Note: According to Dominick Dunne's Vanity Fair reporting in the months following the trial, there was a lavish welcoming party at Simpson's home upon his return, and his friends and peers did start to distance themselves in the ensuing weeks.]

What They May Have Taken Liberties With

A Subdued Simpson
“I was surprised they didn’t capture the moment that endures for me of Simpson, which his almost touchdown moment of fist clenched, victorious,” remarks Newton. [Editor’s note: You can watch the moment he refers to 1:45 into this clip.] “There’s an image that appeared on the front page of the L.A. Times the next day of him winning. And the contrast of him winning and Fred Goldman losing was poignant and unforgettable for me.”

‘Gil, You Gonna Look for the Real Killer Now?’
“I don’t remember that being a part of the press conference,” says Newton of the reporter who shouts said question at D.A. Garcetti. “But that was a sentiment that some people [felt]. Some people said it tauntingly and some genuinely, because if he didn’t do it, then someone’s out there who killed these two people. It’s the job of the police department to find [the murderer] and D.A.’s office to prosecute [him or her]. It’s a natural next question. Whether it was uttered in the mocking, taunting way the reporter does in that press conference, I don’t recall and sort of doubt, but I think the show is correct to pose the question.”

[Editor’s note: Neither video of the press conference nor Newton’s L.A. Times’ next-day coverage of it bears any evidence of a reporter taunting Garcetti with that question. As for O.J. announcing that he would find the "real killer" at his party, Dunne's article states that O.J.'s son Jason Simpson read a note from his father articulating that thought at a post-verdict press conference. The note being read at the party instead may have been added to the show for dramatic effect.]

The Goldman Family Consoling Christopher Darden
“[The Goldmans] are in some ways the most poignant characters of this drama for me, in real life and watching it replayed,” says Newton. “I get why, for dramatic purposes, the show would highlight them in the end. They were uppermost in my mind, too. Here I felt like they needed a last nod to the Goldmans and they chose to do it by having Darden run to their solace.”

[Editor’s Note: The show depicts Darden embraced by Fred and Kim Goldman. At the actual press conference, he receives consolation from several individuals, including Clark and Fred’s wife Patti (Ron’s mother, Sharon Rufo, was estranged from the Goldmans at the time). Fred looks on with concern, though he, Kim, and Darden do not embrace.]

Final Thoughts on People v. O.J. and People v. O.J.
“The thing I’ve thought most about in the years since this is that whoever killed Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman left Nicole’s children to find their bodies,” he reflects. “And the show mentions that in passing. If that person was O.J. Simpson, that to me is a crime almost equal to the murders. That indifference to the welfare of those children is so shocking to me that I’ve never gotten over it. That’s inapplicable if the murderer is not O.J. Simpson, but if the murderer is O.J. Simpson, then he committed a crime against his own children, as well as against his wife with whom he had a long history. The show itself I came to as a skeptic. I worried it would sensationalize or distort a piece of history I take seriously, and I come away a convert. There are places where they took license, but to my mind, in the service of a kind of larger truth most times. I don’t think any of it does damage to what actually happened. It really takes you back, and it does so in a way that’s dramatically satisfying. Things have changed and things haven’t, and the show does a really admirable job of taking you back there and framing it in a context that’s contemporary.”