I was 4 years old during the O.J. Simpson trial, barely sentient as the so-called “trial of the century” dominated talks, televisions, and tabloids. The only memory I’ve retained from that era is chasing a boy through a maze of sullen wood furniture in a room marked by high ceilings and thick tension. Even as a kid, I had a feeling that my giggling was inappropriate for the venue, a Downtown Los Angeles courthouse, a place I’m sure became known as a not-so-private hell for my godmother, Sheila Woods: Juror #1233 on the O.J. Simpson jury.
After finishing FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and watching that video of David Schwimmer saying “Juice” on loop, I decided to give Sheila a call to find out what the trial was like from someone who lived it, and how Ryan Murphy’s reimagining of the case squares up to reality.
How did you become a juror on the O.J. trial?
I received the juror summons in the mail and reported downtown to the criminal courts building, not knowing it was the O.J. trial. There were thousands of people there and we kept coming back to the courtroom about once a week or so for a few weeks. Finally we were given this nine-page questionnaire to fill out. We were all in the jury assembly room one day, and then all of a sudden all of the key players walk in the to room. It was O.J., his lawyers at the time, Marcia Clark, and Bill Hodgman [the original co-counsel before Darden]. Then everybody said, “Oh my goodness, this is the for the O.J. case!”
Were you excited? Scared? What was your initial reaction?
You could tell some people really wanted to get on that jury. I think they saw it as a chance to make some money. I was a little apprehensive. I had no vision of financial gain. It wasn’t something I’d say I wanted to do. I just always felt it was meant to be, that there was some reason I was chosen to be on there. I knew I could be fair and unbiased. O.J. was no superstar or anything in my eyes. I didn’t follow his career as a football player or his acting career.
The juror frenzy [in episode eight of The People v. O.J. Simpson] showed the process of different jurors being eliminated for different reasons.
That was pretty accurate. Jurors were getting thrown off left and right. You kind of had the feeling [that] if you’re in the jury room and they called a certain juror out, you were like, “Okay, is he or she coming back or is this it?” Because most of the time, if they called them out, they didn’t come back.
Was there any drama behind the scenes? Were there suspicions that certain people wanted other people out of there?
Oh, yeah. There were certain people who wanted other jurors off, and if they could do something to help kick them off, they would do it! This [juror], Willie — the one I befriended — got kicked off. [Dismissed juror Farran Chavarria] claimed that Willie was giving her dirty looks and bumped her in the elevator. I was standing next to him and I don’t recall any of that happening. But she apparently went to the deputies and told them so, you know, of course they had to report it to the judge.
There were occasional disagreements when it came to things like what they showed in the series, watching TV —
Yes, I wanted to ask you about that one! Did the Martin versus Seinfeld thing really happen?
I can’t remember if it was Martin or Seinfeld, but certain jurors wanted to watch one thing and other jurors wanted to watch something else.
Was there a racial divide like it was shown on the show?
Yeah. When we first arrived, it was pretty close to lunchtime after we had checked into our rooms. They took us down to this room that they had set up as our dining room. It seemed like all the white jurors kind of ran to the tables and sat down together. There may have been one or two black jurors who sat at the table with them. But [the white jurors] immediately all congregated together. So that left all the black jurors to sit amongst ourselves.
What was it like to be sequestered for that long? I remember hearing that you guys couldn’t watch TV, certain parts of the newspapers were cut out. You were pretty much isolated from the outside world even though you were right in the middle of Downtown L.A. How did that affect you psychologically?
If it had gone on for very much longer I think I would have had to ask to go home. You’re so close to home but you can’t go home. You’re constantly being guarded by sheriff’s deputies who are actually armed. So it was somewhat like you were a prisoner, but you didn’t commit a crime. Everything you did was watched. When we made phone calls it was in a telephone room. You would go in, and the deputy would call the person that you wanted to call. They would admonish them, letting them know that, “This was number 1233 calling … you can’t talk about the trial” and just sit there and listen. On Wednesday afternoons after court, you could have people come down to the courthouse to visit.
I think I remember visiting one time. That’s my one solid memory of the whole ordeal was visiting the courthouse.
You would come on Sundays, that’s when it was family time for about three hours.
This really does sound like prison.
Yes! For the most part, the visits were down at the courthouse in the juror assembly room, but because it lasted so long they had a few outings with visits at different locations. You know, you could sit outside with your family a couple of times.
Sounds like you guys were barely above O.J. during this time.
Different restaurants would invite us to dinner, we got movie passes where we would go to the movies on Saturday, things like that. I do remember when they would take us shopping, but I don’t remember the juror [in episode eight] was talking about Target and Ross. Black people like Ross [more]? I don’t remember that. [Laughs.] I do know they took us to Target though. They didn’t want to take us places where people might recognize us, but our faces were never shown on TV — although the trial was televised, they never showed us. But I think they had artists in there that I think would make sketches of us and they would show it on TV.
This media circus helped prompt the 24-hour news cycle we know today. When you were on that jury, did you have any idea the extent of how big this case was?
No, I didn’t. We couldn’t even look outside when we were in the courtroom. People were outside protesting. We weren’t allowed to go to the window and look out and see stuff like that.
But could you hear anything?
You could kind of hear the chatter, but we were so far up, on the eleventh floor or something, so you couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying. They would always take us through the back entrance of the court building and we’d go underground. We’d never see the front of the courthouse when people were protesting and all that kind of stuff.
We really had no idea how big it was or how it actually polarized the races. I had no idea, I was really shocked.
When the trial was over did you suddenly turn on the TV one day and then, bam?
When the trial was over, the first thing I saw was Chris Darden talking and the Goldman family. That’s when he started crying. And then Fred Goldman got on TV and was saying how “justice wasn’t served.” And I couldn’t understand that because, you know, I felt I did what I had to do. He wasn’t happy with the verdict, but to say justice wasn’t served? And then later, I saw what the reactions were when blacks heard the verdict and then when whites heard it. It was just so divided down racial lines.
Seeing the complete opposite visceral reactions, were you disgusted by the cheers? Were you confused by the tears?
Even in the jury, when we were still in the jury panel, I started crying before I even left out of the courtroom. I think it was tears of relief that it was over, and then when I saw the Goldman family, Kim Goldman crying, I felt bad for them. I also felt bad for the other side of the family because they went through a lot, too. But I didn’t think it was anything to really cheer about. It was just … weird. I had my own emotional breakdown because it was so draining for so long.
I guess maybe black people cheering was less about O.J. and more about the politics of the LAPD at the time, police brutality. A lot of their catharsis was bigger than O.J. I can understand that. But at the end of the day, two people were murdered.
I think most people thought we based our decision on race. Race never came up in the topic of our deliberation, or even how the LAPD treated black people.
Like, regarding Fuhrman, none of his comments really …
The thing with Fuhrman was once his credibility was shot, you really could discount anything he said. He was definitely a liar — he lied on the stand — and when he came back to the court, he took the fifth on everything. Why would you trust anything he said? He was the detective that found all this evidence: the blood on the Bronco, on the back fence, on the glove … all of that created reasonable doubt.
Do you think the fact that DNA evidence was in its infancy at that time made the DNA evidence a little hard to understand? The show made it seem like a very technical thing that could easily confuse someone.
I think so. Now it’s more sophisticated. And they dragged [the DNA evidence] out so long — I think it was about a month [of talking about DNA]. It was complicated, but if you’re sitting up there and that’s all you’re listening to…I mean, I could understand what they were talking about, but with all these numbers like —
Yeah, one alleles this, one person in one hundred million people … it just got to be a little overwhelming.
It seems as if the decision was more about reasonable doubt. But I think people look at this case and don’t see reasonable doubt, they see jurors setting a murderer free. What do you think is the biggest misconception about the jurors’ role in this whole thing other than race not playing a part?
I think the biggest misconception is they feel we really didn’t deliberate. They were upset that it only took us about four hours. Everybody went in thinking it was going to take a couple of weeks. But we took a poll once and it was 10–2 not guilty. And the two jurors that voted guilty didn’t reveal themselves, so they didn’t put up an argument as to why they felt he was guilty. Maybe if they had, they could have persuaded some of the other jurors to vote that way. They should have at least voiced their opinion.
Wow, so they didn’t even try to —
They didn’t even reveal who they were. Nuh-uh.
Then the finale stretched the truth with that one, because it definitely showed [Anise Aschenbach] saying she thought O.J. was guilty.
I think she probably did vote guilty. I heard she made a statement on some TV show [about it], but she felt it was probably useless to argue her point.
And you disagree with that.
She should have voiced her opinion. Maybe she could have swayed some of the jurors if she put up a good enough argument. I was open to what they had to say.
Do you think that they were intimidated or nervous?
No, most of those people were very vocal. I think everybody was just tired. They knew we were getting to the end, and everybody wanted to go home. To me, it was a mistake to sequester us for so long. We’ve been the longest jury in history to be sequestered.
Do you think people underestimate that psychological toll?
They fail to realize, too, that all we had when we went back to our rooms at night — I mean, you could have music in your room, I think I had a CD player. But you couldn’t watch TV, you could read, but you listen to all this testimony throughout the day, so of course you’re going to think about it when you go back to your room. You’re not supposed to discuss it with any of the other jurors, so we were constantly reliving and thinking about things. It wasn’t like it was going to take us a long time to, you know, think about this trial or come to a decision when it was time to deliberate.
[The lawyers] made it seem like the quick turnaround for the verdict was appalling.
I don’t know what people expected. Is there a protocol that jurors have to stay out for a certain number of hours, days, or weeks? If you come to a decision, then why prolong it, especially in our case.
There were a lot of things that we weren’t privy to that went on in the courtroom — almost as much as we were in the courtroom we were out of the courtroom. We didn’t hear a lot of testimony that maybe we should have heard.
Rosa Lopez. Even though I don’t think her testimony was all that, we never heard her testify, as they showed on the series. And she was supposed to be the housekeeper. And some of the evidence about the [Bruno Magli] shoes … More evidence came up about the shoes in the civil case than in the criminal case.
Then there was the press conference with Darden, when he said that the jurors made their decision based on emotion. How did you feel about that statement?
I disagreed with it. We followed the jury instructions. They didn’t even show that in the finale. I mean, they were long instructions, surely they wouldn’t have shown the whole thing. But they could have done a short synopsis of Ito explaining to us that if there was any reasonable doubt, that we would have to acquit the defendant. The prosecution had to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. And all of that was just omitted.
Was there a moment in particular during the trial that really swayed your decision towards reasonable doubt?
Yeah, when they started talking about the blood evidence. There was, like, a milliliter of blood they couldn’t account for. And they found blood on the back fence of Nicole’s condo, and that particular blood also had the additive in there. That additive is only found in [a test tube of blood], so why would the blood sample on that back fence contain that additive unless somebody took the blood from the test tube and placed it there?
Do you think O.J. was framed?
I don’t know if he was necessarily framed. I think O.J. may know something about what happened, but I just don’t think he did it. I think it was more than one person, just because of the way she was killed. I don’t know how he could have just left that bloody scene — because it was bloody — and got back into his Bronco and not have it filled with blood. And then go back home and go in the front door, up the stairs to his bedroom … That carpet was snow white in his house. He should have blood all over him or bruises because Ron Goldman was definitely fighting for his life. He had defensive cuts on his shoes and on his hands.
O.J. only had that little cut on his finger. If [Goldman] was kicking to death, you would think that the killer would have gotten some bruises on his body. They showed us photos of O.J. with just his underwear just two days after, and he had no bruises or anything on his body.
From what you’ve seen [in the show], what has stood out as very accurate and what wasn’t?
The way they portrayed that young girl going crazy, jumpin’ over the table [was inaccurate] … And us coming in the hotel through the lobby. We never came in the hotel through the lobby, we didn’t have access to the public areas at all. They would let us use the gym facilities and the sauna, but only after it was closed at night to the hotel guests.
The part that really strikes me was the scene where they had the jurors visiting O.J.’s house. What really happened there? The show portrayed Johnnie Cochran going in and replacing all the original art with African art.
I don’t know what was there prior. The house was already staged when we got there, so, you know, if Johnnie went in there and put up pictures of African-Americans in there, I didn’t know.
Did that have any sway on your final decision?
Oh no, that didn’t at all. You know, some of [the jurors] … they weren’t used to anything. That’s the only way I could put it.
Anything fancy? Like a Brentwood mansion.
And, you know, they’ve probably never been in a hotel before so it was probably like a holiday or something for some of them for some of them. There were probably better conditions [at the hotel] than they had at home.
You know, [my sister] taped TMZ over the weekend. Michael Knox was on — he was one of the prospective jurors who got released kind of early, after we visited O.J.’s house because he went to the field trip wearing a sweatshirt of a team that O.J. played on. Just ignorant. Why would you do something like that? On [TMZ] he made comments saying that the female jurors were upset because of the innuendos of Marcia and Chris maybe having something going on. I took offense to that, because I couldn’t care less what Marcia Clark and Chris Darden were doing.
Oh, you mean because of a black man, white woman kind of thing?
Yeah, black man and a white woman. He made a comment that “the black women were really upset about that.” What’s so bad is that he’s on TV and you’re going to have a lot of people believing that. That never happened. Stuff like that irritates me, when they have certain jurors who speak out and then say stupid stuff. They’re just trying to get their 15 minutes of fame. He didn’t even stay there that long! And he was the one that really wanted to be there.
Going back to the show, what’s your overall take of the portrayal of the jurors? Also, were you looking for yourself? Because I had a hard time finding you.
[The actress] who I guess is supposed to be portraying me has no resemblance whatsoever. It’s this lady that looked like she had long hair. I had braids when I first went in because I thought that I would be there for maybe two or three months. But I don’t know how they went about casting people. I think for the most part they did a very good job casting the attorneys.
After seeing the [attorney] strife, issues, evidence that wasn’t presented in front of you in court, did anything in the show has changed your perspective on what happened? Your decisions?
No, I would still render the same decisions based on the evidence that was presented to me and the jury instructions.
Did you even watch cable news after that? It must have been weird to see all the chatter about the trial for ages after the trial was over.
Oh, I became very angry for a period because I felt that people were just too critical, putting us all in one category. There were comments that we were uneducated, that nobody had any type of education. There were two of us who had college degrees …
And you were one of them.
Yeah. Even Darden made a comment saying our IQs were “room temperature” and that we couldn’t distinguish DNA from the PTA. All of those comments angered me for a period. I didn’t ask to do this, I did what I felt was my civic duty. And to be criticized like that, saying I didn’t even take the time to think about the evidence when that was all I could do [for nine months].
There was one incident at work that really bothered me. One day, me and some of my other friends were going to go to lunch. I drove my car around to pick them up, and this white lady was going to come, too. She gets in the car, and then all of a sudden she says that she won’t be able to go. Later, my friends tell me that she said she couldn’t go with me because she felt I set O.J. free. I was like, oh my gosh … there’s people here — and probably more people — who felt that way, and I didn’t know it. It bothered me because somebody doesn’t want to be around me because they felt I sent a killer home? I prayed before we rendered the verdict, because it was something I had to live with for now on, something that I had to feel comfortable with.
And you still feel comfortable with it?
What do you think of the show?
It’s interesting. I really don’t understand why the interest 21 years later, but now it’s a whole new generation of people — like yourself — watching this. And it was the so-called trial of the century. So it’s always going to be of interest as long as the key players are still around … maybe once O.J. dies in prison, they’ll finally let it go.
You know, I have my personal opinion about what I think might have happened. In my gut, I can definitely see a scenario in which O.J. did commit these murders. However, what I’m concerned about was the show’s portrayal as the jurors as somewhat … bumbling. You did say there were jurors who weren’t very sophisticated, but the show sort of portrays the jurors as not taking anything seriously.
I agree with that. It was a poor portrayal of the jurors. Some of them were bumbling idiots, but all of us worked and did take it seriously. Unfortunately, a lot of those [jurors] who have come out to speak just substantiate that portrayal that was shown [in the finale].
There’s going to be another O.J. documentary coming out next month on ESPN, and I did speak with the director for that. He really was trying to get me to participate in the project and was trying to assure me that it wasn’t going to be like anything else. I told him I appreciated it, but I just am kind of fed up with the whole thing. I don’t regret doing it, because I felt that I was chosen in some way to do this. But I don’t want to keep putting myself out there for criticism and ridicule. People have such deep-rooted feelings about this case. I don’t think that a lot of people would ever change their minds, even if someone just came out of the woodwork and said they were the actual killer. [People would] still say, “No no, O.J. did it.”
You’re ready to move on.
Oh, yeah. I don’t see the purpose of reliving everything again. I guess it’s for TV and ratings, and like I said, there’s a whole new generation of people who weren’t old enough to view [the O.J. case] and know about it. It makes for good TV.