The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story recap: Manna From Heaven
The defense and prosecution teams plead their sides as the case boils over with the introduction of hate-filled tape recordings from a key witness
“In the struggle over the Fuhrman tapes, the last great drama of the Simpson trial, it was as if the id of the case had been unleashed. All the smoldering passion, anger, and resentment shot directly to the surface.”
That is Jeffrey Toobin, writing at the beginning of chapter 22 in his book The Run of His Life, the primary source material for The People v. O.J. Simpson. The chapter, like this episode, is titled “Manna From Heaven,” a biblical reference that’s reflected in the fact that Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) believed that the tapes proving the racism of Det. Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale) were literally a gift from God.
The episode starts cleverly with the tabloid TV show A Current Affair and its signature digital zoom-whoosh sound effect. The show is actually being watched by Laura Hart McKinny, one of the last participants to climb onto the vast web that is the O.J. Simpson saga. In 1985, a decade before the trial, she was a screenwriter working on her laptop in a coffee shop — de rigueur behavior nowadays but odd 31 years ago. And a passerby named Mark Fuhrman came over to McKinny to ask about this big fold-up computer.
As fate would have it, the screenplay she was working on was about women police officers, and Fuhrman had quite a lot to say on the topic. In fact, over the course of nine years and 13 hours of recorded interviews, he told her about an inexorably sexist and secret organization within the LAPD designed to keep female officers off the force. It was called MAW, as in the jaws of a ferocious animal. But MAW stood for Men Against Women.
Flash forward to 1995, and what Cochran and company were interested in regarding the Fuhrman tapes was their racist content. And there was an abundance of racist content. The N-word, which he swore under oath not to have uttered in the last 10 years, was said 41 times. But they first needed to obtain them. So Cochran and F. Lee Bailey traveled to North Carolina to ask a judge to subpoena McKinny into releasing her tapes. (It was a lawyer of McKinny’s who had leaked to the defense team that the tapes existed at all; McKinny herself thought that O.J. was guilty and wanted no part of the trial.) She testified at the hearing —which is not shown on the show — and Cochran’s examination of her, replete with Cochran-isms, was possibly part of what provoked the judge to issue his ruling. He refers on the show to Cochran’s “gratuitous alliteration,” which viewers of the past eight episodes have become warmly familiar with.
“Haven’t you noticed the smell of mint julep and condescension in the air?” Cochran is asked by Bailey (Nathan Lane) after the North Carolina ruling. In fact, Bailey enlisted his law partners in Boston to file an emergency appeal, which ten days later led to the state appellate court overturning the judge’s ruling and forcing McKinny to release the tapes. The episode portrays this in a moment of wonderful humor as Bailey makes his smooth Dixie plea to the justices while Cochran stays at the table, sitting plastered with his resting face.
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The Fuhrman tapes obviously confirm his racism, though in one of the captivating twists of the whole case (which I referred to as Dickensian at the start of my recap for episode 4; Marcia Clark meanwhile evokes another author, O. Henry), Fuhrman’s attitudes toward women also played into the mechanics of the trial. The detective had made derogatory remarks about Margaret York, Fuhrman’s former commander in the LAPD, who also happened to be Judge Ito’s wife. Chris Darden, in a frank, heartfelt one-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey, talked openly about Fuhrman. Just past the 15-minute mark in this video, Darden says, “Let me tell you something, people talk about the epithets, the racial epithets on those tapes. You ought to hear what he says about women. He says things about women…I’ve never heard.”
NEXT: Cochran pleads to let the jury (and the public) hear the tapes while Fuhrman pleads the Fifth
“Women who work in male-dominated professions,” Judge Ito says from the bench, “are tougher than most. And if they are successful, they are almost always targets for this kind of treatment.” Director Anthony Hemingway is sure to hold the camera on the face of Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson). Funny how much Ito cares about sexism in the workplace once his wife gets smeared. In audio recordings that Clark made during the trial (some of which can be heard, once again, on Oprah), Clark had stated, “[Ito’s] sexism, their sexism has gotten so irritating, it’s funny. The judge makes this cute little corrections to me about ‘person’ instead of ‘manpower, personpower’ and that kind of s—. That’s just a change of a word, Judge, how about your sexist f—ing attitude.”
The real-life Darden has said that he doesn’t believe he was made the co-lead prosecutor simply because he was black. That is, of course, arguable from multiple vantage points but also leads me to not take too seriously the scene in which Darden angrily confronts Clark in an elevator. “You put my on this trial because you wanted a black face,” he says, “but the truth is you never wanted a black voice.”
But that conflict between the prosecutors gives way to the show’s dramatic flourish, as Darden erupts in an outburst during court (the name of his book, now you understand, was In Contempt) and Clark has his back. Their newfound camaraderie during this scene allows each to apologize for past mistakes. And though Darden did blow up at Cochran and Ito over the Fuhrman tapes, it was an argument that began in Ito’s chambers and then spilled into court, where Darden promised that he would be referring the defense attorneys to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for rebuke. It was then that Cochran laughed at him. Marcia Clark’s snark line about having the watch and jewelry confiscated is an invention, but Darden’s “I should be held in contempt!” in fact comes from an incident in the courtroom six months earlier. According to The New York Times:
“You know, I just realized something,” Clark says to Darden in private after a bulk of the Fuhrman tapes were played in court without the jury present. “Mark Fuhrman’s initials are M.F.” That’s a cute line, considering that The People v. O.J. Simpson was one of the first basic cable shows to break the “motherf—er” barrier during prime time.
Regarding those Fuhrman tapes, one of the most heartbreaking footnotes from the playing of them in court comes from Toobin’s book and has nothing to do with anyone on the prosecution or defense team. At the end of one excerpt, in which Fuhrman gleefully recounted to McKinny how he threw handcuffed suspects down flights of stairs, the courtroom was quiet except for one noise. Kim Goldman, the sister of one of the murder victims in the case, began to cry.
Judge Ito ruled that only two instances of Fuhrman’s use of the N-word from the voluminous hours of recordings would be admissible in court — enough to prove he committed perjury. The decision riles the defense team, especially Cochran, and for important reasons outside of how the full tapes benefited Simpson. The recordings also confirmed instances of systemic police cover-ups and brutality and the existence of the vile organization MAW. It’s been suggested that much of what Fuhrman says on the tapes is fiction or commentary on a screenplay that he was advising McKinny on.
But it was the illegal behavior that he boasted about which led Fuhrman to hire a criminal defense lawyer. And then, in one of the most shocking moments in the O.J. trial, he pled the Fifth Amendment to every question he was asked.
You’ll notice that it was defense lawyer Gerard Uelmen who asks Fuhrman the questions (not Johnnie Cochran, as depicted in the episode) and that Fuhrman consults his lawyer before answering every question…with the same answer. That detail I wish they had kept in since it underscores the detective’s cowardliness. Two years later he told The Seattle Times that he was forced to take the Fifth “because prosecutors wouldn’t assure me they would ask questions that I could answer in a narrative fashion.” (Perhaps — but that’s not why one hires a criminal defense lawyer to hold one’s hand in the courtroom.)
The jury, in any event, were not present when Fuhrman resumed the witness stand. After the trial, according to Toobin, many of them said that the Fuhrman tapes had little impact on their verdict. Fuhrman, however, had done great damage. In 1996, he pled no contest to the perjury charge, and a short time later was hired as a talking head by the Fox News Channel, where he regularly appears with Sean Hannity to lend his impeccable expertise to events like the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo.
Next week, brace yourselves for the verdict as The People v. O.J. Simpson reaches its conclusion. Like the ship sinking at the end of Titanic, knowing the outcome doesn’t make the reenactment any less thrilling.