Fact-checking Episode 5 of The People v. O.J. Simpson

Photo: Ray Mickshaw/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 “The Race Card” (read his take on episode four, “100% Not Guilty,” here).

What They Got Right

The “N-word” debate.
“There’s a part of this that really was poignant for me,” shares Newton. “When we were covering this at the paper, my main partner was Andrea Ford, who was an African-American woman who has since died. And when we finished the day of that hearing, I was very sympathetic to [Christopher] Darden. My first reaction was he had a point, that this word was so inflammatory [that] the idea of it being bandied about in a courtroom would be distracting and difficult for people to process. She had exactly the opposite reaction that I had, that it was insulting to African-Americans to even imagine that it was a plausible idea that it would be banned from these proceedings. It was a really startling moment for me, and it’s the thing in my life that most impressed upon me the need for diversity in newsrooms.”

The black community’s backlash against Christopher Darden.
“I know that’s something that bothered Chris a great deal at the time,” acknowledges Newton. “He felt to me, throughout this case, very unsettled by the notion that he was going to be opposite Cochran, that Johnnie became the voice of black L.A. and Chris became the opposition to that. He was terribly troubled by that. And I’ve seen him in years since, and he’s still troubled by it. I don’t remember a poll that illustrated that. It could exist, and I just don’t remember it. Certainly, though, the show captures a feeling of his uneasiness that I think haunts him.”

O.J.’s home makeover.
“I remember it,” confirms Newton. “I don’t know how many pieces were exchanged, but there’s no question it happened and that it was kind of inexcusable. I don’t understand how it was allowed. The whole jury visit to the scene was a bit of a charade anyway. I don’t know why they had to go there at all. And the notion that they would change the house in order to impress the jury strikes me as indefensible. I had never covered a case in which the jury had left the courthouse to visit a scene before, so I was not really familiar with the rules, and to this day I’m not really familiar with the rules.”

Carl Douglas “fell on the sword” in the defense-witness discovery controversy.
“I do remember Carl taking a dive for that,” Newton recalls. “Whether it’s the case that he made a mistake and took responsibility or Cochran ordered him to do so, I don’t know. The only thing I can say in defense of anyone in that back-and-forth is that this thing came in very fast. It’s very unusual for a murder case to go to trial as quick as this one did. It was the defense that pushed it as quickly as it did, and that did result in disruptions throughout the case. That was a strategic decision on their part. The show does accurately portray a certain chaos that was the result of that strategy.”

Ito was enamored with the trial’s glamour.
“I don’t know this firsthand, because I never went into chambers with Ito,” Newton says. “My impression from other people who visited him and had occasion to talk to him during this was that he really was quite swept up in the hysteria, glamour, excitement of it. I don’t know that that affected anything substantively with the case.”

The importance of accounting for an accurate timeline.
“Ever since the Simpson case, whenever I hear a gunshot or anything disruptive in the middle of the night, I always look at my watch,” Newton laughs uneasily. “And it is a product of this case. That question of the exact timing of this is one of the things that was very much in play. The debate over the timeline was very important.”

What They May Have Taken Liberties With

Bill Hodgman’s courtroom collapse.
“Not true,” says Newton flatly. “A collapse in a courtroom? That just didn’t happen. This episode, to me, took more liberties with the facts than any I’ve seen to this point. Hodgman did not collapse in court. The whole idea that he was going to get carried out on a stretcher, that’s not true. It is true that he had health issues and backed off from a leading role, but it didn’t happen in the dramatic fashion the show portrayed.”

Cochran’s off-microphone N-word to Darden.
“C’mon,” urges Newton to anyone who thinks Cochran would actually utter “Nigga, please” to Darden off-microphone after his opening statements. “This [episode] felt to me like the one that was most loose-limbed in connecting to the case. Could it have happened? I guess so, but I just can’t imagine that exchange happening.”

[Editor’s note: In a 2001 interview with Time magazine, Cochran confessed the desire to chastise Darden by saying “Nigger, please … ” subsequent to Darden’s requesting the “N-word” be banned from being uttered during the case.]

Ito and Dominick Dunne’s “quid pro quo.”
“I sat two seats over from Dominick Dunne on the days I was in the courtroom,” explains Newton. “So I had a lot of conversations with him at the time. The idea that there was a quid pro quo, even an understated one, between them is hard for me to believe. It was odd — he and [fellow Vanity Fair writer] Joe McGinniss both had good seats. I don’t know what Ito’s reasoning was. It did seem unusual, frankly, that these two writers who were going to be writing intermittently about it would be placed up with daily journalists. On the other hand, they’re both talented people, and I certainly didn’t object to them. But the way the show portrays it, it feels like Ito in a calculating way saying, ‘This is a person who will represent a certain point of view of this because of his own personal experience.’ I hope that’s not true, that’s all I can say.”

The defense’s dominant self-belief.
“I would say that shift comes off very abruptly in the show,” offers Newton. “There was a more subtle transition than the show presents from the prosecution being in command to the defense being in command. My feeling was that occurred further into the trial; it wasn’t really an opening-statements moment. I remember feeling that during the eight days of DNA prosecution testimony, which were the eight longest days of my reporting career. There’s a hint of this in the [episode], where [Marcia] Clark gave this very precise opening statement all about the blood, and it seemed easy. When [LAPD criminologist] Dennis Fung testified day after day and was cross-examined to the ends of the earth, that’s when I felt like this had gotten much more complicated and the balance of power had shifted over to the defense.”

The People v. O.J.: Episode 5, Fact-checked