1995: The year the future began
The cable television miniseries about the 1995 O.J. Simpson double-murder trial has proven surprisingly popular, so much so that there’s been a good deal of interest in determining how closely the dramatization hews to the factual record.
The episodes of the 10-part miniseries, which air Tuesday nights on FX, are hardly a documentary treatment about what in 1995 was often called the “Trial of the Century.” They are, though, a rough approximation of what went on — notwithstanding some utterly made-up scenes, such as a prosecutor’s dramatic collapse in the courtroom.
The miniseries, called The People v. O.J. Simpson, mirrors the trial in another, glaring respect: The victims have been largely overlooked, obscured, or effectively treated as incidental. The violent slashing deaths in west Los Angeles in June 1994 of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman were the reasons Simpson, a black former professional football player and celebrity, stood trial in 1995. Their deaths were the moral center of the case against him.
The trial began in late January 1995 and as it wore on, the vicious killings of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman receded amid a welter of legal maneuvering, prosecutorial missteps, dubious conspiracy theories, the injection of race and questions about the use of racial slurs. The sideshows became the trial’s main show, and the news media found it all irresistible. In early October 1995, Simpson was acquitted by a jury that had spent fewer than four hours reviewing the evidence.
So it is with the FX miniseries. The episodes reveal the producers’ fascination with sideshow — especially with high-powered personalities such as the character of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Simpson’s lead defense lawyer, and with flawed Los Angeles police detectives such as Mark Fuhrman, who during the trial was revealed as a racist.
Through the first seven episodes, the miniseries has focused on the likes of Cochran and Fuhrman and lead prosecutor Marcia Clark, while offering only occasional, glancing reminders of the murder victims and the crimes that brought Simpson to trial.
Complaints about the misguided focus have been few, and faint. Goldman’s father, Fred, and sister, Kim, have notably challenged the program’s emphases and its indifferent regard of the victims.
“People are [saying], ‘Oh, the acting’s riveting and this is such a great plot line.’ And I’m thinking, ‘These are murders!’ It’s very confusing to us, because this is not entertainment.”
And her father noted a prospective lasting consequence of the miniseries and its distorted focus: “There’s gonna be a whole generation of people who never knew anything about this trial, that will see this series and take it as gospel, when in fact it won’t be, and isn’t.”
One of the most perceptive chroniclers of the 1995 trial was Dominick Dunne, a correspondent for Vanity Fair. He likened the proceedings to “a great trash novel come to life,” a telling characterization that I quoted in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began.
Dunne’s 2001 book, Justice: Crime, Trials, and Punishments, included several chapters about the Simpson trial that were repurposed from his Vanity Fair articles. Dunne was no apologist for Simpson and was quite certain of his guilt.
In Justice, Dunne effectively captured the logic of the sideshow, writing:
“Johnnie Cochran … did what a lawyer does when he knows his client is guilty. He veered the focus away from the defendant. He put Detective Mark Fuhrman on trial. He made it appear that saying the n-word was a worse offense than killing two people. In his rabble-rousing closing argument, he exhorted the twelve jurors he understood so well to give a message to the Los Angeles Police Department. They did what he told them to do. The killer walked, and Johnnie Cochran got his own TV show and moved to New York.”
Dunne in his reporting was not inclined to overlook the victims. In one article reprinted in Justice, he described viewing the autopsy photographs of Nicole Simpson and Goldman, saying they were “appalling to behold.”
“What I was not prepared for,” Dunne wrote, “was that Nicole’s and Ron’s eyes were open, reminding me that they must have looked upon whoever it was knifing them to death.”
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