1995: The year the future began
In its finale the other night, the popular FX cable miniseries about the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder case again played fast and loose with the record, putting dramatic words he never spoke into the mouth of Simpson, who was acquitted but never exonerated of killing his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald L. Goldman.
The closing episode of the miniseries (FX will re-air the 10 installments tomorrow, in succession) showed Simpson’s seriously miscast character, Cuba Gooding Jr., celebrating the verdicts at a lavish party at his mansion in Los Angeles. He hushes the revelry to read a statement in which he vows to “pursue as my primary goal in life the killer or killers who slaughtered Nicole and Mr. Goldman. They are out there somewhere.”
The statement was accurate.
But Simpson never spoke the words, and certainly never interrupted the party to say anything of the kind.
The vow to find “the killer or killers” was part of a statement read by Simpson’s eldest son, Jason, at a news conference in the courtroom shortly after the verdicts were read on October 3, 1995.
Dominick Dunne described the bizarre, post-acquittal scene in an article for Vanity Fair, writing that as he read his father’s statement, Jason “sat awkwardly, almost hiding his face from us, as if he were ashamed of the message he was reading.”
As I write in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, Simpson’s vow to find “the killer or killers” was “gratuitous and narcissistic,” an empty pledge he surely had no intention of fulfilling.
To depict Simpson as reading the statement was more than misleading: The bogus scene suggested that he assigned far greater importance to tracking down “the killer or killers” than he really did. Interrupting the party also served to inject more drama than the statement merited. (According to The Run of His Life, the book by Jeffrey Toobin on which the miniseries was based, Simpson spent little time with party-goers that night and instead received small groups of well-wishers in his bedroom.)
Misportrayals were done casually in the FX miniseries.
The week before the finale, the actor playing Johnnie L. Cochran, Simpson’s lead lawyer, was shown rejoicing at the discovery of audiotapes that contained racist comments by Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles police detective who found a bloody leather glove outside of Simpson’s mansion. The glove’s mate had been discovered at the crime scene, the courtyard of Nicole Simpson’s condominium.
The unmasking of Fuhrman was devastating to the prosecution’s case. Cochran’s character, played assertively and well by Courtney B. Vance, declared the tapes “Manna from heaven” — words that in fact were spoken by Gerald Uelman, another of Simpson’s several defense lawyers, which Toobin also reported in his book.
The miniseries offered other exaggerations, as when a female juror went berserk in seeking to be dismissed from hearing testimony in the months-long case, and when a prosecutor was felled in the courtroom by a heart ailment. Never happened.
More troubling than made-up scenes was that the miniseries failed to emphasize the single most important consequence of the 1995 Simpson trial: The importance of forensic DNA evidence and its decisive potential in criminal cases. “Through the Simpson case,” I write in 1995, “the American public gained a measure of familiarity with forensic DNA testing,” familiarity that has significantly deepened in the years since.
Simpson’s lawyers, I note, “neither challenged nor attacked the science of forensic DNA analysis. They accepted it,” which was something of a breakthrough.
“Instead,” I write, “they went after the sloppy and imprecise ways in which the Los Angeles police had gathered, stored, and processed the DNA evidence in the Simpson case. … The defense strategy thus signaled a high-profile affirmation of the relevance of DNA evidence in criminal trials.”
The trial undeniably was a turning point in the embrace of DNA evidence. But about that, the FX audience wasn’t told much at all.
In a case without a murder weapon, witnesses, or a confession, Simpson’s DNA retrieved from blood at the murder scene, inside his SUV, and at his mansion represented the prosecution’s most compelling evidence of his guilt.
But during lengthy cross-examination at the trial, Barry Scheck, another of Simpson’s lawyers, “extracted acknowledgement by Los Angeles police criminalists that they had mishandled or overlooked DNA evidence at the crime scene,” I write in 1995. “They had placed DNA evidence inside plastic bags where they were prone to degradation. DNA samples were placed in a police evidence van that lacked air-conditioning. … A portion of a reference sample of O.J. Simpson’s blood was spilled at the police laboratory where DNA evidence samples were tested.
“The prosecution’s most damning evidence against Simpson became its bane.”
Scheck’s cross-examination was incorporated in the eighth episode of the miniseries. But only briefly. Scheck’s character, Rob Morrow, is shown demolishing the testimony of Dennis Fung, a criminalist for the Los Angeles police department in all of 10 minutes. Fung in fact spent nine days on the witness stand.
DNA evidence was remarkable in that it cut both ways: As the case against Simpson unfolded, DNA seemed certain to tip the outcome to the prosecution. In the final analysis, it was decisive in Simpson’s going free.
“By the end of trial,” I write in 1995, “Simpson’s acquittal was predictable — or should have been — given how effectively his lawyers had shredded the prosecution’s case and had injected serious doubts about the integrity of the DNA evidence.”
Inept evidence-collection offered lessons for forensic laboratories around the world about what to avoid in gathering, processing, and analyzing DNA samples at crime scenes. As Scheck later said, the Simpson trial demonstrated that proper techniques of “collection and handling of this evidence [are] essential to getting reliable results.”
Moreover, the trial’s focus on DNA evidence “anticipated and perhaps stimulated broad popular interest in DNA and its seemingly wondrous capabilities,” I write in 1995. Within a few years of the Simpson case, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation debuted on prime-time television. It was immediately popular, ran for 15 years, and spawned a number of spinoffs.
To give such short shrift to DNA was to diminish the miniseries even further, and to minimize the most significant contribution of a case that otherwise exerted little impact on American jurisprudence.