'The People v. O.J. Simpson': How Accurate Was the Ninth Episode?

"It was an incredibly explosive moment in real life, and I thought it was a terribly riveting piece of television," says a case expert.
Courtesy of Michael Becker/FX Networks
'American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson'

Mark Fuhrman taking the Fifth Amendment while on the stand during O.J. Simpson's criminal trial is one of the most dramatic moments the reporter who covered the trial the closest has ever seen. 

Jim Newton, former lead cops reporter for the Los Angeles Times, said that Tuesday's episode of FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, titled "Manna From Heaven," knocked it out of the park.

"It was an incredibly explosive moment in real life, and I thought it was a terribly riveting piece of television," he tells The Hollywood Reporter.

"It was an astonishing moment," reiterates Newton, now a professor in UCLA's communication studies department and editor of the university's Blueprint magazine.

The infamous "Fuhrman tapes" were one of the most shocking recordings Newton and his colleagues at the Times ever heard, he says. And the community's outrage was just as intense as depicted in the FX series. 

"[The newspaper] had access to some [of the recordings], and I think we had published some details from the tapes, so some of it people were aware," Newton says. "Whether there were protests demanding the release of the tapes or protests objecting to Fuhrman, I don't recall completely. But there was certainly a great deal of public outcry around what Fuhrman had said."

The fight for the tapes by defense attorney Johnnie Cochran and his team was real, Newton says. 

"Once the defense got wind of what was on [the tapes], it was essential that they got them," he says. "The effort to get the tapes was all out."

Newton explains why Fuhrman's fall from grace was so imperative for Simpson.

"One of the things to remember here is that Fuhrman was not actually that important to the prosecutor's case; he didn't interview any witnesses, he didn't collect any blood or anything like that," says Newton. "But he was really important to the public's perception of the case because he'd been kind of a star witness at the prelim, and he found a glove. So, mudding him up was a key goal for the defense from the beginning, and this was just a slam dunk." 

Another factual aspect were the delays in the trial because of the contents of the tapes.

"Obviously, it's sort of a messy situation when you have a case where the defense is building a case on LAPD incompetence or conspiracy and the judge is married to a female LAPD officer," says Newton. "It was kind of bound to be a issue at one point."

Newton's small criticism of the episode stemmed from the reaction by some of those on the defense team to Fuhrman's character, played by Steven Pasquale, taking the Fifth.

"In this telling you have some members of the defense team seeming to not realize [that moment's] power," he says. "I doubt that. But I can tell you who I know recognized its power was Johnnie Cochran. Cochran understood he was dealing with jurors who had reasons to be skeptical of the LAPD, and now he handed them skepticism on a platter."

Cochran is played by Courtney B. Vance.

While discussing the actual Fuhrman, Newton recalls the two bodies of evidence in which the now ex-LAPD detective used racist language and says they are "contextually kind of weird."

"In the first instance, the one that [Jeffrey] Toobin wrote about in his initial piece in The New Yorker, the context of that is Fuhrman was trying to get a disability pension from the police department. So he was trying to convince a psychiatrist from the city that he was unstable. So of course pension cases being what they are, they city's response was 'No, you're not unstable, you're a liar and so you have to keep working for us.' So it's a strange outcome, but he had an incentive to portray himself in a certain way," Newton says. 

And then there's the Fuhrman tapes, made by Laura Hart McKinny, who interviewed him for a screenplay she was working on in the mid-1980s. 

"So both times you're in a weird situation where you're listening to what he's saying, and it's hard to know whether he's telling the truth and he's a racist thug or he's lying to impress someone, in which case he's an opportunistic liar," says Newton. "So there is no good Mark Fuhrman in any of this. But it's not necessarily the case that he is portraying himself accurately because there is an odd incentive to hype his own bigotry. It's strange."

Previous fact-checking installments for the series:

*Episode One

*Episode Two

*Episode Three

*Episode Four

*Episode Five

*Episode Six

*Episode Seven

*Episode Eight

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