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 “The Run of His Life” (read his take on episode one, “From the Ashes of Tragedy,” here).
What They Got Right
It was A.C.’s Bronco.
“Hundreds of people have asked me about that over the years,” laughs Newton, saying he “was grateful” to see the show clear that up. “Many people have assumed over the years that [Simpson] was allowed to return to his own car, and that’s what they were in that day. I don’t know whether he admired him so much that he copied the car. I just know he did have a car that looked exactly like Simpson’s.”
Johnnie Cochran wasn’t a Bob Shapiro fan.
“I do think it’s true that Cochran felt Shapiro did not grasp the dimensions of this case or its larger social context, all of which could be used to put on an effective defense,” confirms Newton. “I think he was baffled that Shapiro didn’t get that. It accurately captures the spirit of that. Whether it captures the words or exchanges, I don’t know. It was very clear to me once Cochran came onto the case that he was going to be the lead person on it.
The Leonard Deadwyler* case was dear to Cochran.
“I can’t testify to the words he was saying, but that idea that Cochran’s understanding of the LAPD and its relationship with African-Americans dates to Deadwyler is certainly correct,” says Newton. “He really places his own history as starting there. Deadwyler was a really important racial-justice case in L.A. history, and Cochran was right in the middle of it.”
Christopher Darden was a man of principle.
“I don’t know if I bought the stuff in the first episode about the exchange he and Cochran had,” begins Newton, “but I think, in general terms, it is true that Darden was — is I assume — a very principled guy. I’m sure it was uncomfortable at times being a black prosecutor in L.A. and relying on police testimony.”
O.J. and A.C. Cowlings drove by Nicole’s grave.
“I think it might be true,” says Newton. “It would have been in the beginning, before the whole world was aware he was in the wind … that did ring a bell for me.”
[Ed. note: While it wasn’t part of the live chase coverage, Simpson acknowledged in his 1996 civil-suit deposition that he and Cowlings drove up to the cemetery but left when they saw a police car blocking entry.]
False leads on O.J.’s location were flooding in.
“I know people … all over were pinging about where they had seen him,” Newton recalls. “The phones at the paper were ringing, too, about people who had seen him here or there.”
O.J. and the LAPD did talk during the chase.
“I do know LAPD was in touch with him,” acknowledges Newton. “In fact, one of the things that has surprised a lot of people — me included — was that none of this stuff came in during the criminal case. One of the things that’s most baffling to me — and this may be dealt with during a later episode — was the one thing every juror knew about was this chase, and they never heard about it. All this contact that was going on that day — the note, the phone calls going back and forth — the juries never heard about, and I’m not sure why.”
S.W.A.T. was out in full force.
“S.W.A.T. at LAPD handles hostage situations and barricaded subjects, and this qualifies as either or both,” Newton explains. “So it was a natural for S.W.A.T. The evening after this all finished, I spent an evening with the S.W.A.T. team telling me the story of how they effectuated this arrest. One of the officers who was there that night was a guy named Charlie Duke, who’d testified on behalf of the officers in the Rodney King case and defended their use of force against King. And it did occur to me that evening that it was possible one of the officers who defended the officers in King would end up being the officer who killed O.J. Simpson, and the ramifications of that are mind-boggling. And S.W.A.T., by the way, kills very few people, but if Simpson had come out of that car with a gun and pointed it at anyone, they undoubtedly would have killed him, and I just can’t begin to imagine how this city would have reacted.”
O.J. had O.J.
“I remember very well that he had orange juice,” Newton laughs. “I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t there, but once he was back home, he was allowed to compose himself and have a glass of orange juice before submitting himself to arrest. And that’s not uncommon in the effort to cool one of these situations off.”
What They Took Liberties With
D.A. Garcetti as mayoral hopeful.
“There’s something amusing about that, since his son [Eric] is now the mayor,” Newton points out. “I guess it’s possible he harbored mayoral ambitions. I was not aware of them. He was kind of late to elected politics. It’s not like he had climbed the political ladder and this was a stop on his way to being mayor. I never heard that. Who knows what he felt in his heart? I found that sort of amusing since his son is in fact the mayor, so it struck almost as an inside joke.”
Garcetti breaking the news of O.J.’s fugitive status.
“The press conference they show of him saying Simpson is a fugitive, it’s possible that did occur,” says Newton, who explains, “I was at a different press conference at LAPD when then-commander David Gascon announced that Simpson was a fugitive. And that was certainly the first I’d heard of it. And people gasped in such a way that I’m quite sure that, for other people, that was the first they heard of it, too. I don’t know if that’s an instance of [the show] conflating a couple of events, but I’m sure it was LAPD that announced he was in the wind and not Garcetti. My conclusion was, like the thing with the funeral, that rather than have two scenes, they sort of compacted them into one. Here, it might make sense just because Garcetti is more of a character than Gascon.”
[Ed. note: Gascon did first make public that Simpson was a fugitive in his early afternoon press conference, while Garcetti held his own press conference just over an hour later.]
Shapiro was callous and self-absorbed.
“There’s an aspect that strikes me as mean-spirited with respect to him,” offers Newton. “The impression I had of Shapiro was not that he was incompetent or self-absorbed, but that this was a bigger deal than he was accustomed to handling. And the idea that this was a case that was going to have profound racial dimensions also seemed like not a natural for him to handle. It made him uneasy. It’s one thing to say this is a case that was outside his comfort zone. It’s another to portray him as a ninny, which is the way he comes across.”
O.J. wasn’t exactly local to L.A.
“The one thing I thought was a little tenuous about the exchange where [the Dardens and neighbors] are all outside cooking was [Darden’s] complaining that you don’t see any parks around here named for Simpson,” says Newton. “Well, Simpson grew up in San Francisco. I’m not sure why there’d be a park in Los Angeles [named for him]. That idea was definitely out there that Simpson had gone white, and he wasn’t black until he was chased by the police and represented by Johnnie Cochran. But I can’t really figure out any reason why Simpson, if he were to dedicate a park, would do it in South Central.”
Gunmen in the trees.
“That seemed a little exaggerated,” says Newton of the moment when Cowlings claims a S.W.A.T. team member is armed in a tree on Simpson’s property. “I don’t know why they would put a person in a tree. It’s a big, open yard, and I can’t think of a reason, so that’s probably not true.”
No imminent shoot-out.
“One of the officers says [to a photojournalist], ‘You’re gonna get caught in the crossfire,’” mentions Newton, clarifying, “I sort of doubt that. It’s not like you’re gonna have a shoot-out with him. That just strikes me as absurd. The worst-case scenario is that it would end with him being shot, but this is not the O.K. Corral.”
“He’s got a gun!”
“I remember from my meeting with S.W.A.T., they were very concerned about him not raising the gun above the level of the dashboard,” begins Newton. “But I don’t have any recollection of them panicking that he’d emerged from the car with a gun. He did have framed pictures with him, and he may have come out of the car holding them, but I don’t recall anyone jumping to the conclusion that he was carrying a gun. They were concerned about it, but by the time he got out of the car, my sense is they were confident he was no longer armed. I’m fairly sure I’d remember that, because I spent that evening with the S.W.A.T. officers, and I’m sure they would have talked about that. I did a reconstruct of how he was brought to ground, and it was based mostly on my evening at the police academy. I’m quite sure I’d remember if they were that close to having to shoot him.”
* An earlier version of this piece misspelled Leonard Deadwyler’s name.