Brow Beat

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The People v. O.J. Simpson Finale?

OJ Cuba.
OJ Simpson and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by POOL/Getty Images and FX Networks.

The series finale of The People v. O.J. Simpson aired last night, and it managed to succeed in spite of a truly thorny structural challenge: how to tell an emotionally coherent story about a shocking verdict that the audience knows ahead of time. Wisely, the show’s creators don’t try to stretch the lead-up to the big reveal over the entire episode, dropping it in about halfway through instead and thus leaving room for an extended coda in which we get to see all the characters take the first steps of their post-trial lives.

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What was fact and what was fiction in the tenth and final episode of The People vs. O.J. Simpson? Let’s take it from the top, using Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of his Life, as our guide.

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The speeches

The episode opens with a series of speeches: first O.J.’s brief address to the court, then closing statements from Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, and Johnnie Cochran. According to Toobin’s book, Clark looked deeply exhausted by the time she went up to deliver her remarks, wearing “large half moons of purple under each eye” and looking “emaciated beneath her simple beige jacket.” In the show, Sarah Paulson looks great as usual! No purple half moons that I can see, anyway. Also, the jacket she’s wearing while she’s talking looks more gray than beige, though in subsequent scenes that take place later in the day, the light falls on it slightly differently, and an argument for beige can be made.

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More interesting about Clark’s closing statement is that she delivered it over two days, and on the night before part two, she started experiencing intense dental pain. According to Toobin, she went in for emergency treatment around 6:30 p.m., was given general anaesthesia while the dentist removed an abscess, then was sent back to the courthouse around 10 p.m., where she continued working until 4 a.m.

Here’s a fun fact: Originally Clark wanted to cut Darden out of the closing statements entirely because she was so mad at him over the glove incident. In life as in the show, however, Darden delivered the “domestic violence” portion of the prosecution’s final plea. This doesn’t quite come through on the show, but Darden’s speech began a little after 7 p.m.—notable because it was the first night session of the entire trial, and the rest of the vast courthouse had already been vacated. As Toobin describes it, the atmosphere in the room was shot through with a “curious intimacy” and a “strange glow.”

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Another fun fact: Darden’s remarks were written in part by a private stalking and domestic-violence expert named Gavin de Becker, author of the bestselling 1997 book The Gift of Fear.  

“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”

One of the funniest moments in this episode of The People vs. O.J. takes place when Johnnie Cochran is writing his closing argument. In the scene, Cochran is spitballing possible lines to himself and tries out, “If the glove is too small, easy call” before landing on, “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” According to Toobin, though, the iconic line was actually suggested by Gerald Uelmen, a member of the Dream Team who had been hired by Alan Dershowitz.

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In the TV version of Cochran’s speech, the lawyer rumbles up to the lectern when Judge Ito calls him up and roars with theatrical flare about how seriously he takes domestic violence. In reality, as you can see in this YouTube video, Cochran got the party started in a much more unassuming way, calmly thanking everyone involved in the case, including the Goldman and Brown families. He also thanked the jury profusely, calling them “perhaps the most patient and healthy jury we’ve ever seen.”

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While Cochran did invoke Hitler in his speech, as he is shown doing on the show, he did not in fact repeat “If I doesn’t fit, you must acquit” three times. According to the video footage, he only said it once over the course of his roughly six-and-a-half-hour-long (!) closing statement.

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Jury deliberations

That covers the first part of the episode. The second part is all about the jury’s deliberations, which lasted just a few hours before all 12 jurors agreed Simpson was not guilty. One major deviation from the facts is that on the show, the jury foreperson, Armanda Cooley, asks her fellow juror Carrie Bess to keep track of the votes in a notebook when she took a secret ballot. In fact, Cooley asked Anise Aschenbach to do it, and not on a piece of paper but on a blackboard. This is just sloppy work, and it regrettably continues to push what is arguably one of the biggest false narratives about the O.J. Simpson trial: that Carrie Bess wrote down the tally in a notebook. It just didn’t happen that way, and that’s all there is to it.

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O.J.’s coming-home party

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Some of the crazier moments in Episode 10 did take place as rendered, however. Cooley really did garble Orenthal James Simpson’s first name when she read the verdict. One juror really did throw his fist up as he walked out of the courtroom. Chris Darden really did break down in tears mid-sentence while speaking at the post-verdict press conference. The tabloid magazine Star really did buy exclusive rights to photographs of O.J.’s coming-home party for about $400,000.

That last detail deserves some elaboration, actually, because the person who facilitated the deal was an enigmatic figure —and friend of Robert Kardashian—named Larry Schiller. In his book, Toobin describes Schiller as “an apotheosis of sorts for the O.J. Simpson spectacle: the perfectly amoral profiteer.” Schiller had enjoyed some success by purchasing the book rights to the life stories of murderers, and his first brush with the O.J. case came early in the trial, when he convinced O.J. to put out a book from jail in which he responded to his many fan letters.

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Schiller’s Star deal was relatively tricky: As Toobin describes it, the arrangement was made in advance of the verdict, and required Schiller to build a photo developing lab inside Simpson’s house. The reason for this was that the verdict came down on a Tuesday, which was when Star closed and shipped; in order to make the deadline, Schiller had to take the pictures, get them developed, and send them off to the magazine extremely quickly.

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“O.J. was here”

Before I sign off, two things from the final episode of the show I could not confirm and would love to. The first is whether O.J. really wrote “O.J. was here” on the wall in his jail cell. The second is whether O.J.’s son gave his dad a puppy when he came home. If you can find a source for one or both of these lovely details, drop me a line.

Finally, as a tribute to Jeffrey Toobin, without whom I could not have done my “fact-check” of this tremendous show, I would like to point out that the killer line that Robert Shapiro delivers in the finale when he finds out that the jury has rendered a verdict after just a few hours—“They’ve discussed this case less than anybody in America!”—is actually from The Run of His Life.  

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