Fact-checking Episode 7 of The People v. O.J. Simpson

Cuba Gooding, Jr. as 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’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 “Conspiracy Theories” (read his take on episode six, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” here).

What They Got Right

The Colombian-Necktie Defense
“The Columbian necktie definitely occurred,” confirms Newton. “There was definitely a line of questioning. It took me completely by surprise. The way the show portrayed it, it’s such naked gamesmanship it made my eyeballs hurt to watch it.” (As for Alan Dershowitz’s supposed contribution to the line of questioning, Newton can only say, “Dershowitz was definitely on the periphery of this case, but I don’t know whether the idea came from him, much less by fax in the courtroom.”)

[Editor’s note: During his cross-examination of Detective Tom Lange, Johnnie Cochran referred to this homicidal ritual as both the “Colombian necklace” and “Colombian necktie,” though American Crime Story may have focused on the latter as it’s the more gruesome and sensational variation. And contrary to the show’s depiction, Lange had in fact heard of the tactic.]

Cochran’s ‘Big Moments’ Strategy
“There’s an exchange within the prosecution team where [Christopher] Darden raises the notion that they’re winning big moments, and we’re telling a small story,” says Newton. “I don’t know that Darden’s the one that made that argument, but I remember Cochran would say [to me], ‘Jimmy, blacks like big.’ [Laughs.] He really believed that the best way to try a case to a predominantly black jury was big moments. It very much took me back to those exchanges I would have with him. It’s an idea Cochran talked about a lot that I’m sure Darden was aware of.”

Darden’s Glove Gamble
“What I can tell you for sure is it is one of the worst courtroom mistakes I have ever seen,” Newton says flatly. “And for precisely the reasons Clark articulates before it happens. Everyone who saw that happen knew that was going to be really hard to get past, and whether it happened because he was baited [or] because they miscalculated, I don’t know. Once they fell down that hole, they spent the next day or so trying to get out of it. If you’re trying to explain why the thing you believed would go one way didn’t go your way, the best you can do is go back to normal. And that’s clearly what happened here.”

The Frogmen Theory
“Everything was talked about in this case,” Newton laughs uneasily. “One of the questions was who had the emotional capacity and physical capacity to do this? In that context, yes, some people chatted about Frogmen and whether movie training somehow contributed to this. But that’s also what made Colombian necktie not so outlandish in the moment. If the suspect is to be Simpson, the question is, how did he learn how to administer this kind of wound, and I’m afraid that’s where Hollywood meets this case yet again, is that some people speculated [Frogmen] is where he could have learned it.”

What They May Have Taken Liberties With

Palpable Tension Between Clark and Darden
“I don’t remember seeing that,” says Newton. “As the trial grew on, they seemed tense, and Cochran seemed to be under their skin, but I didn’t sense tension between them. Which is not to say that there wasn’t, but it felt to me as an outsider that the stress he was effectively putting on them was getting to them. I just didn’t see it as something that was divisive between them.”

Garcetti’s Admonishing of Shapiro
“The notion that Garcetti realistically believed this could result in another riot — or that Shapiro saw it as his responsibility to avert another riot — I find absurd,” Newton says. “The conditions that led up to the riots in ’92 were so volatile. So much went into that. But to suggest we would have another one just because a not-very-well-regarded person in the black community might get convicted by the police department of a murder seems ridiculous. I don’t know, I have a hard time believing that Garcetti thought these defense tactics might cause another riot, or that Shapiro then took it upon himself to do everything he could to head that off. There was enough evidence that pointed toward conviction that it wouldn’t have come as the slap in the face that the acquittal of the officers in the [Rodney] King case did.”

The Garment Bag in the Room
“What I remember better was discussion about the golf bag that Simpson took with him to Chicago,” Newton points out. “I think there was discussion of whether there could have been a knife in that bag and whether it escaped detection cause he checked it. And because when he returned, [A.C.] Cowlings may have ended up with the golf bag somehow by picking him up at the airport. There definitely was discussion about his bags and whether he had stashed a knife in one of them. I am unaware of any moment like this of [Robert Kardashian] having to rifle through the bag. I don’t know specifically how Kardashian played into that.”

[Editor’s Note: There were photos taken of Kardashian with the garment bag, though in a 1995 interview with CNN, he says he never looked inside it, and according to the New York Times, the bag was empty when introduced into evidence. Testimony from Simpson’s limo driver the night of the murders, as well as Los Angeles Airport staff, alleged that Simpson flew to Chicago on June 12 carrying at least one less bag than he had arrived at LAX with.] 

Robert Shapiro Trying On the Gloves
“One thing I’d really question is that Bob Shapiro, in a break in the proceedings, walked up and tried the gloves on himself,” says Newton incredulously. “You don’t just leave the gloves lying around for people to play around with. That may be just a way to dramatically present this being Bob’s brainchild. When Simpson tried them on, they made him put on latex gloves. Why would they do that if Bob could try them on during the break?”

The People v. O.J. Episode 7, Fact-checked