The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story recap: '100% Not Guilty'
The comparison between The People v. O.J. Simpson and Charles Dickens (1812-1870), whose sprawling novels like Bleak House and Little Dorrit have also made for phenomenal television, can be most acutely understood from one throwaway scene in this fourth episode, “100% Not Guilty.” A policewoman named Margaret York (Carolyn Crotty) knocks on a door at a courthouse. She is let in by her husband, who’s wearing a jogging outfit, and told gleefully by him some exciting news: That he’s been assigned to be the judge on the O.J. Simpson double murder trial.
Welcome to Simpsonland, Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi). “Oh my God!” York says, echoing his bouncy enthusiasm — inappropriate yet all-too-plausible given what would later be learned about this in-over-his-head, starstruck man. He hands her “the usual spousal conflict form” to fill out, which includes a list of witnesses (among them Nicole Brown’s sister Denise and O.J.’s houseboy Kato Kaelin) with an instruction for her to attest that “I have no recollection of any interaction, incidental or spontaneous, with the following individuals.” She signs it — and that signature, more than a full year later, will bring the whole murder case within a hairsbreadth of a mistrial.
(As a reminder, these recaps will place the events depicted on the show in their historical context to illustrate how well synthesized, or not, so many of Murphy and company’s choices are.)
The show will presumably touch upon that later, so for the uninitiated I’ll refrain from spoiling Mrs. Ito’s connection to the case — though suffice it to say, it drives Judge Ito to almost weep on live TV. And that his wife became such a crucial part of the trail, all due apologies to Ito’s tears, is the definition of great drama. It’s not unlike the scene in Great Expectations when we are nonchalantly introduced to someone named Molly, a maid for a wealthy family in Dickens’ book, and only later find out that she is the mother of Estella, one of the story’s main characters. Everyone. Is. Connected.
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And so it goes in episode 4. Not counting an opening sequence set in a nightclub (as O.J. and Robert Kardashian dance and snort cocaine with groupie women) and a blunt-punch closing salvo (the Dream Team’s reaction to Chris Darden at the people’s table), “100% Not Guilty” (directed, as was episode 3, by Anthony Hemingway) is bookended by two compelling scenes featuring the defense lawyers. In the first, Shapiro introduces the newly hired Johnnie Cochran to the team. “You know how these people think,” Shapiro tells him, referring to potential black jurors, a self-indicting use of racial verbiage. “Mea culpa,” Shapiro says, hands raised, when Cochran calls him out.
And the later one is an entire six months later, in December 1994, when Shapiro has returned from a Hawaiian vacation to find the O.J. case files cleared out of his office. In a fraught meeting with the defense team, and with Simpson sheepishly weighing in on speakerphone, Shapiro is demoted from the lead attorney position that he’s held and coveted since the week of the murders. The decision to remove him was made not only because of Cochran’s race (though all agree that was a factor), but more precisely because of Shapiro’s propensity for saying the wrong thing. His suggestion that O.J. should plead guilty to manslaughter was the last nail in his coffin. “You and I are creatures of the courtroom,” F. Lee Bailey snarls to Cochran in between gulps of scotch. “That’s where cases are won. Not by settling like a p—y.”
NEXT: Robert Shapiro and Marcia Clark both feel the burn
Shapiro is described with barely disguised contempt in The Run of His Life, the Jeffrey Toobin book on which the miniseries is based. He’s variously referred to as shameless, delusional, and opportunistic. (The book features a strange, lengthy passage about Shapiro’s friendship with ABC’s entertainment journalist Joel Siegel, who died in 2007, in which Toobin mercilessly paints both men as pathetic dweebs.) And yet within The People v. O.J. Simpson there is an aura of sympathy that moves around the cast, settling even on O.J. himself during the Bronco chase. Now, the betrayal of Shapiro has a quality that’s even a little touching. And Travolta, a person who has been slammed for mistakes of the mouth and at points in his career been considered painfully unhip, portrays Shapiro’s snub with all the pathos inherent in a Hollywood actor who’s lived a life of ups and downs.
Betrayal is not just an emotion felt by Shapiro. Marcia Clark feels the sting of rejection when the black women on a mock jury score her personality, on a scale of 1 to 10, with a cruel 4. (Per Toobin, the words used to describe Clark included “shifty,” “strident,” “bitch,” “bitch,” and “bitch.”) That despite the number of cases that Clark tried — and won — in defense of victimized black women. Among the same demographic group, O.J. scored all 9s and 10s — a fact that shocked everyone, including Cochran. The results of a defense team survey contradicts the lawyer’s warning early in the episode that, “Black men, obviously, are our allies” but “Black women resent successful black men marrying outside the community.”
Clark and Chris Darden engage in a trenchant conversation, late at night over a bottle of tequila, about her detriments as a lawyer versus Cochran’s strengths. “He talks like a preacher because he goes to church every Sunday,” Darden says. Note the careful phrasing of that — Darden doesn’t say Cochran is actually a religious man, but that he knows how to talk like one. Clark is dubious about the defense team’s loaded bench. O.J.’s biggest problem, she says, is “that pile up of egos called the Dream Team. It’s a dozen alpha dogs in a cage match.”
Betrayal, in fact, is a theme that emerges a lot during this extended episode, which clocks in at 1 hour 17 minutes with commercials. But three of those minutes are devoted to a powerful monologue delivered by Fred Goldman (Joseph Siravo), tearfully speaking to Clark about the media’s glib coverage of his murdered son — when the media bothered to mention him at all. “It’s like they’re trying to tarnish him,” Goldman says, “like he was asking for it. He was a good person.” Some viewers, indeed, have complained that the lack of attention afforded Goldman thus far on the series (compounded by the inclusion of the Kardashian kiddies) has mimicked the disrespectful treatment that the murder victim received during the trial. This one scene likely won’t assuage all the critics — which include Fred Goldman, as he explains in this clip from, of all places, Dr. Phil (during a recent segment on which Toobin is also present to defend this chapter, though he mistakenly refers to it as the third episode):
NEXT: Say hello to Nicole Brown’s little friend
But if the media betrayed Ron Goldman, at least his memory wasn’t sullied by his best friend. “100% Not Guilty” also chronicles, in two scenes straight out of producer Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, the bizarre personage of Faye Resnick. Another character that would’ve fit perfectly alongside a grotesque like Mr. Smallweed in Dickens’ Bleak House, Resnick published a quickie memoir during the six-month pre-trial period that this episode encapsulates. She was offered a six-figure advance and given a ghostwriter in the form of a gossip columnist from the tabloid National Enquirer. Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted was published in October 1994.
There are two nuances about the Resnick commotion which The People v. O.J. Simpson both under- and over-dramatizes for effect. First, Lance Ito’s Chicken Little reaction to the publication, depicted accurately on the show, illustrated more about the judge than the sleazy book itself. Toobin writes critically of “Ito’s media obsession” and explains, “The sensible course would have been to ignore Private Diary… but Ito couldn’t leave Faye Resnick alone.” His suspension of jury selection for 48 hours shone an unnecessary spotlight on the fame-craving woman — and in a sign of things to come, allowed the media to dictate procedure in the trial.
Secondly, the casting of Connie Britton — a very fine actress and American Horror Story vet — is baffling. Not only is she 11 years older than Resnick was at the time (the show has been otherwise dead accurate about actor vs. character ages) but she delivers her dialogue in a slurry affectation which is quite unbefitting. Resnick’s appearance on Larry King Live, depicted on this episode with King once again playing himself, is not available online, but check out Resnick from other show bookings during the 1995 time period:
The woman, as you can see, is capable of speaking in whole sentences. While understanding the show’s intent to depict Resnick in high camp style as a former cocaine addict, Britton’s somnambulant performance simplistically buttresses the defense’s absurd claims about her. Namely, that Nicole Brown was murdered by drug dealers as a warning to Resnick. Cochran badly wanted to put her on the stand to ask her about her drug use, in fact, but resisted when he found out she would assert that O.J. told her he wanted to kill his ex-wife, a claim that many including Nicole’s sister have found credible. Her depiction on the show (thus far, at least) seems not to acknowledge this fascinating duality of her character.
There’s boldness, however, in the show’s depiction of how much race played a role in the jury selection. This would be an area where a lesser recounting of the trial might whiff on the details, but The People v. O.J. Simpson aims for the bleachers. And after a jury of nine black women and zero white men was agreed upon by both sides, we see Chris Darden’s inclusion on the prosecution’s side (per DA Gil Garcetti’s thinly veiled directive to “stir in a little added flavor”) replete with these reaction shots:
And in that spirit, I’ll close out this recap with something that should make your eyebrows raise as well. The show only touches upon the actual makeup of the Simpson jury without drilling too deeply into the dirty details. From Toobin’s book, here is a list of their characteristics:
• All twelve were Democrats
• Two were college graduates.
• Not one juror read a newspaper regularly.
• Nine lived in rented homes; three owned homes.
• Two had supervisory or management responsibilities at work; ten did not.
• Eight regularly watched television-tabloid news shows like Hard Copy. (Vinson’s polling data had found a predilection for the tabloids a reliable predictor of belief in Simpson’s innocence.)
• Five said they or a family member had personally endured a negative experience with law enforcement.
• Five thought it was acceptable to use force on a family member.
• Nine—three quarters of the jury—thought O.J. SImpson was less likely to have murdered his wife because he had excelled at football.