'People v. O.J. Simpson' Author on Game-Changing Article: No One Knew Race Would Be a Factor

'The Run of His Life' scribe and series consultant Jeffrey Toobin on meeting Simpson's lawyers, breaking the story of his life.
Ray Mickshaw/FX; Getty Images

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the third episode of American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.]

When it came to assembling O.J. Simpson’s now infamous Dream Team of lawyers, media influence had just as much to do with the actual legal representation selection as the overall racial defense strategy itself. That complex network of decision-making and political players unraveled on Tuesday night’s “The Dream Team” episode of FX's American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.

As Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) sat down with The New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Toobin (Chris Conner) — who went on to write a game-changing article on the defense strategy and eventually, the book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, on which the series is based — it also served as the catalyst to the team reaching out to Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance).

To head back a couple of decades and get into the mindset of a younger Toobin, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the author and journalist to find out just how accurate that turn of events is in the limited series, what kind of repercussions the article had and where he thinks the prosecution went wrong.

How accurate was the scene between yourself and Shapiro?

The story is a little more complicated than that; he didn’t give me the lawsuit. My editor told me to go cover the story and I had no real clue what to do. There were hundreds of journalists out there. I called Alan Dershowitz [who served as an appellate advisor to the defense], who said Mark Fuhrman is a bad guy. That wasn’t much to go on and I certainly wasn’t going to write a story just because Dershowitz said something nasty about him, but I thought, 'OK, if he’s a bad cop, maybe there are lawsuits against him.'

So [after finding the lawsuit] I then just showed up uninvited at Robert Shapiro’s office and talked my way past the receptionist. He said to me, in effect, “Well, if you think that’s bad, we think he planted the glove at O.J.’s house.” And then I really had a story.

Had you originally also gone there for the witness whoring story?

That was part of it; I was writing a story about “cash for trash,” which I actually did. That was almost entirely key to the Michael Jackson case, which was sabotaged by the sort of cash-for-trash phenomenon — witness whoring, as you say. But my subsequent story was the Fuhrman story and that, of course, got a great deal more attention.

Would you agree that the article was a turning point in the case in terms of public perception?

Oh, absolutely — you have to remember that at that stage no one knew that race was going to be a factor at all. Obviously we all knew that this was the police department that had the Rodney King case, but we had no idea that the defense was going to use it, much less in such a specific way. And I think that’s why the story got so much attention.

What kind of access to the defense team did you get after the story published?

I wouldn’t say I got all that great access during the trial; I don’t think anyone did. I got some access, but look … my experience with sources is that approximately 100 percent of them have some sort of agenda with me. But that’s no reason not to write about it. That story is presented very skeptically and it does not vouch for the claim that Fuhrman planted the glove — far from it. My job was to talk about what the defense was going to argue and I did that with great enthusiasm.

What kind of reaction did you receive from Fuhrman?

He’s quoted in the story. He, of course, denied it. After that he was kept very much under wraps. Remember, he wound up … there was that whole saga with the screenwriter and he took the fifth [amendment] and ultimately pleaded guilty. ... The only time I ever met him after that was when we were both on episodes of Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher, on adjacent tapings. We weren’t on the same show, but we were both in the green room together, which I suppose is somehow bizarrely fitting. It was several years afterwards … I think we both appreciated the sheer weirdness of it.

At what point did you know you wanted to write a book about all of this?

It was shortly after the Fuhrman story that I realized what a big deal the Simpson case would be, but also the fact that I had broken a big story. That’s when I went to my agent and said, “Do you think we should do a book about this?” From that point forward, I was covering the trial for The New Yorker, but also saving strings for a book.

Where do you think the prosecution went wrong?

I tend to take a more tragic view of the outcome of the trial today. Yes, there were mistakes that the prosecution made, but I think the case was largely lost in jury selection. That the prosecution didn’t understand how poisonous the relationship was between the LAPD and the African-American community; once Johnnie Cochran made this case a referendum on the LAPD, there wasn’t much the prosecution could do. They made some mistakes as well — having O.J. try on the glove was obviously a mistake — but I don’t think it changed the outcome.

Did the Dream Team really only approach Cochran after your article?

The series is very astute on the whole transition from Shapiro to Cochran. Through me, Bob Shapiro threw race into the middle of the case, but I think he felt the racial subtext got out of control and he wanted to pull back on it because his friends in West L.A. were not happy with it. But Johnnie was there to win the case. So that was part of the conflict that played out in the defense.

Did you get the impression Simpson didn’t want to make it about race?

At first, yes. He wanted to remain the O.J. who was somehow apart from the African-American community. I think by the end he realized that this was the only way to win, and he certainly wanted to win.

Are you still waiting to speak with Simpson himself?

For someone who has been so important to my career, I have had absolutely no interaction with O.J. Simpson one-on-one in my whole life. I’ve tried many times. I have written him in prison, I’ve had other contact … but he never responded, so I have never had a conversation with O.J. Simpson, never met the guy.

What would be the main thing you’d ask him if you had the chance?

One of the main things I know about O.J. Simpson is that he is a compulsive talker. So if I were to ask him one question, I would get 45 minutes on the history of the case. It would be irrelevant what I would ask him — he would just start talking.

What can you sum up about being on set the day your scene filmed?

That was really thrilling. Chris and John doing those scenes was just amazing and really surreal. I gave Chris one of my reporter’s notebooks so he could be carrying the exact kind of reporter’s notebooks I’d always used. It was great, right down to the kind of unfashionable corduroy jacket, which I am pleased to say I no longer wear, but did in those days. And even better, Chris is better looking than I am, which is definitely a good thing for my historical reputation.

American Crime Story airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.

What did you think of “The Dream Team”? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling