Fact-checking Episode 6 of The People v. O.J. Simpson

Episode six of The People v. O.J. Simpson, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” 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’s 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 Brown Simpson’s 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 “Marcia Marcia Marcia” (read his take on episode three, “The Race Card,” here), and his thoughts on that recently recovered knife.

What They Got Right

The View of the Room
“The courtroom is a dead ringer for the actual courtroom,” assures Newton. “This is the first time I saw the whole thing in panorama. It’s creepily familiar. I found myself looking for myself in the audience.”

Rosa Lopez Was That Comically Obstinate
“I remember having an argument with an editor at the paper at the time about whether she was saying, ‘No me recuerdo’ or, ‘No me acuerdo,’ laughs Newton. “His hearing was she was using incorrect Spanish to say, ‘I can’t remember.’ It was at that level of silliness. She felt terribly programmed — she was gonna go up there and say what she had to say and if anyone asked her anything else, she was gonna say, ‘No me recuerdo.’”

O.J. Being More of a Supporting Player
“Once this thing moved into trial, Simpson was really the least significant figure at the defense table,” Newton confirms. “Defendants often are not the most important part of a defense team. Their role is subordinated by that of their attorneys. It’s unusual in this case because the defendant is so high profile, so you expect him to be a bigger character, but I think the show’s correct for the most part in treating him as kind of a secondary figure once the trial gets going.”

The Courtroom Buzz Over Marcia Clark’s New ‘Do
“Regrettably, I must admit, there was a buzz around her new haircut,” sighs Newton. “I wish I could say there wasn’t. It’s the moment I realized we’d entered a realm that these people had now become television characters. I can’t think of anything less interesting for the purposes of the work I was trying to do than what she looked like or [Johnnie] Cochran’s ties, but those things were part of the buzz around that case. I think, in that moment, she’d gone from being a prosecutor to being a character, and I don’t know how that happened.”

Cochran’s Canny Defense Strategy
“The strategy as it appeared from the outside was to find a problem or problems with the testimony of as many witnesses as possible,” Newton recalls. “Particularly those who came from the police department. It opened up the possibility of two alternate defenses: one that evidence was mishandled and you couldn’t trust it, [and], alternatively and contradictorily, that the police department managed to plant evidence and frame him. The genius of the defense, if you can call it that, is it left both options for jurors. What you’re seeing is a correct portrayal of the construction of the defense’s alternative narratives. I’m not sure which the jury was more persuaded by.”

Bailey on the Rocks
“There was all this buzz at the time that he had a drinking issue,” says Newton, noting how in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” we see Bailey curiously sipping from a cup before rising to cross-examine Mark Fuhrman. “I thought the show subtly hinted at that in a way that was clever.”

What They May Have Taken Liberties With

Fuhrman As Marcia’s Pet Witness
“I understand how they’re amping the drama around Fuhrman, but it’s not really true,” insists Newton. “This idea that up until the moment he testified in the trial, they were unaware of the potential problems he posed for them is not correct. What’s odd about that is it’s [Jeffrey] Toobin more than anyone who exposed the fact that he posed problems for them, and that was in the period between the prelim and the trial. The idea that [Clark]’s being taken by surprise here is odd. I don’t know why they decided to go ahead anyway, but it’s not because they were ignorant of the fact that this might happen, it was despite that, and the show gets that kind of backwards.”

Bailey’s Bravura Cross-Examination of Fuhrman
“It felt like a sideshow at the time, and it may be that jurors took it more seriously than the reporters did,” Newton offers. “So I’m not saying the reporting was right and the show is wrong, but that’s certainly not the way it was greeted publicly at the time. It felt like grandstanding instead of a triumphant moment for the defense.”

Clark and Christopher Darden’s Romantic Detours
“I don’t know the answer,” Newton responds. “I actively don’t care. There was a smarmy moment in this case where they had passed some notes back and forth to each other, and my recollection is that someone on the defense team got a hold of the notes and offered them to me and other people. I don’t think we ever reported on it much, but I also don’t think it would have been proof of anything. They were close. A lot of relationships got formed in this case, cause everyone spent a year together. I don’t know what their relationship was or is. The only way it could have been relevant to this case if it was distracting, and I don’t have any reason to believe it was.”

[Editor’s note: In Darden’s memoir, he discusses nights in which he and Clark drank wine and danced to hip-hop and R&B after a day in court and laments the “locker room question” regarding whether their relationship was romantic. In Clark’s memoir, she dismisses the speculation as “irrelevant” and asserts: “Darden and I were closer than lovers.]

The Centrality of Clark’s Child-Care Issues
“I honestly don’t remember it,” Newton confesses. “Everyone who was involved in this case, because it was so consuming, it became disrupting to personal lives. I don’t remember Clark standing out in that regard. Everyone I knew at the paper couldn’t get home. I have no doubt it was difficult personally for Clark. I just don’t remember her personal life being part of the discussion around the case or the coverage of the case.”

Clark Crying in Court
“I can’t imagine it,” comments Newton. “She struck me as so strong. She’s much more vulnerable in this portrayal than the Marcia Clark I saw. That isn’t to say she wasn’t tormented or having difficulties. This was very hard. It feels to me like we’re seeing a weaker, more trembly Clark than I recall.”

[Editor’s note: In Vulture’s interview with Marcia Clark, she said point blank she did not cry in the courtroom.]

Gil Garcetti Passive-Aggressively Urging Clark to Get a Makeover
“I hope not,” Newton chuckles. “I’ve known Garcetti and his son [current L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti] for a long time. He’s a fairly straightforward guy. If he thought she needed help in the courtroom, I’d think he would have addressed it with her more directly than in that side-swipey way than he does in this episode.”

[Editor’s note: In Vulture’s interview with Marcia Clark, she said: “Gil did help me. Behind the scenes, very quietly, he got suits donated to me that were much nicer than the ones I had. The suits were a quality I could never even have dreamed of, let alone buy.”]

And About That Knife That’s in the News …
“It is weird that this thing turns up while the show is airing, and I don’t know what to think of that,” begins Newton, going on to reason that, “If the story behind this knife is correct, the notion that we’ve now solved the case is far-fetched. First of all, I can’t believe that they didn’t look for this knife extensively on his property at the time. Everyone was searching for the knife. Imagine that this knife in fact types to either Nicole Brown Simpson or Ron Goldman. The other question it would raise is, did someone put it there later? And if it was put there while Simpson’s in custody, it bolsters a frame defense. Even if this knife turns out to be the murder weapon, and I have a lot of doubt about that, it doesn’t solve the case. In fact, it bolsters both the police-department version and the defense version. It leaves us in exactly the same jam that we were in 20-odd years ago.”

The People v. O.J.: Episode 6, Fact-checked