By opening with footage from the Rodney King riots, FX’s “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story” made clear its focus. Its goal was not simply to document a famous court case; it was to document the environment in which the case made such an impact.
How did society amplify the importance — and lasting significance — of the trial? What ramifications did the trial have for the whole of society?
Such an approach aligns with a pivotal reality: trials go beyond the verdict. They impact the key parties — and the societal environment — in ways that cannot be completely stipulated, let alone controlled, by a judge and jury.
Tuesday’s season finale operates with a particular respect for that reality.
Granted, the fact that the OJ verdict is common knowledge to every conceivable viewer makes it easy, if not mandatory to embrace such a reality. There would be no intrigue in a season finale that hinged on the question of whether the jury convicted or acquitted OJ Simpson.
But “American Crime Story” creative contingent gives every reason to believe it would have looked beyond the verdict even if the case were decidedly more obscure. It finds itself fascinated by the case’s broader ramifications. It finds itself eager to explore how differing perspectives and objectives prompted the different characters to evaluate those ramifications in different ways.
That latter point speaks to the true beauty of Tuesday’s finale. Its ambition is not simply to show what happened. It is not even simply to show how what happened mattered outside the courtroom.
It is to show how what happened meant markedly different things and produced markedly different consequences based on the perspective each key player maintained throughout the proceedings.
In advance of the finale, which airs Tuesday night at 10PM ET on FX, Headline Planet discusses the questions, concepts and perspectives the show explores:
OJ Simpson: OJ may have been cognizant of the trial’s broader-reaching ramifications, but unlike the other key players, he is not fixated on them. For the iconic athlete and entertainer, the stakes are simple as they are personal. If he’s found guilty, it means his legacy is ruined and he goes to prison for a crime he insists he did not commit. If he’s found not guilty, it means his name was cleared — and he could go back to being OJ.
The viewer, however, knows that legal cases — especially this legal case — are not nearly as simple. Public opinion is not married to the official verdict. Consequences are not limited to those imposed by the court.
Upon release, OJ encounters this reality.
Johnnie Cochran: The OJ Simpson trial operated against the backdrop of a broader discussion about racial injustice, and no individual was more attuned to that reality than Johnnie Cochran. The battle against racial injustice consistently inspires and invigorates his work, to the point at which it seems “victory” requires more than a mere not guilty verdict. It requires a commentary on systematic racial inequality.
Whereas OJ naturally hopes the case ends with the verdict, an individual like Johnnie wants its lessons and revelations — particularly those documented last week on the Fuhrman tapes — to leave a perpetual impression.
Marcia Clark & Chris Darden: Justice motivates both Marcia Clark and Chris Darden; Tuesday’s episode specifically explores its impact on the former’s work.
In that sense, it is easy to see why this case — and the quest for a guilty verdict — is so important. Beyond all the manufactured theatrics and organic societal conversation is a fairly straightforward scenario: the evidence overwhelmingly suggests OJ Simpson murdered Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, and a just outcome would involve him facing consequences for his alleged actions.
There are, however, complications. Justice is not a binary concept related to a guilty or not guilty verdict; it also involves the process. It can mean refusing to indulge in unscrupulous tactics, even if doing so hurts the attorney’s prospect of winning. It can mean acknowledging the system’s faults even if one is sworn to defend the system.
Naturally, philosophical dilemmas will emerge. If a likely guilty individual was fairly tried and fairly acquitted, was justice served? Or, is justice only served if the final outcome aligns the presumed truth?
Bob Shapiro: What does the case — everything from the strategy, to the client, to the outcome — say about the attorney?
Throughout the case, Bob has weighed opportunities for throwing in the towel. He has disagreed with certain strategic decisions, including some of those Johnnie has pursued to ignite the case’s racial element.
By the same token, Shapiro has proven his thirst for a not guilty verdict. He has proven he can be an valuable asset to the Dream Team; he is far from an internal foil.
Ultimately, the Bob Shapiro portrayed in “American Crime Story” is one who conflates self-interest with client interest. At times, that may mean vehemently and shrewdly defending OJ to secure the acquittal and demonstrate his excellence. At other times, it may mean refraining from certain strategies — or even considering a white flag — in order to minimize potential blowback and protect his reputation.
Some may criticize such an approach; isn’t it about the client rather than the attorney? On the other hand, someone willing to do anything necessary to protect oneself is not exactly a bad ally to have.
Bob Kardashian: Defense attorneys already face an inherent dilemma: their obligation to seek an acquittal (or at least the most favorable outcome possible) without irrespective of the client’s morality.
As a member of the Dream Team, Bob Kardashian faced that dilemma. Insofar as OJ maintained his innocence and desire to contest the charges, Bob had to support the endeavor, even as evidence began to mount in favor of the prosecution’s case.
As one of OJ’s best friends, Kardashian faced another, even bigger dilemma. He had to ensure loyalty to his friend trumped his conscience and sense of right and wrong.
A not guilty verdict would risk transforming — and heightening — that dilemma. He would have to live with the fact that he potentially helped a murderer walk free. He would also have to evaluate his long-term relationship with OJ. Is it wrong to turn his back on his friend, especially given that his friend maintains his innocence and was found not guilty? Is it wrong to even suspect his friend is truly guilty?
On the other hand, is it not wrong to completely dismiss the possibility that OJ did murder Nicole (also a friend)? Is it not wrong to indulge in OJ’s fantasy about freedom and a return to normalcy?
Support and loyalty seem like simple concepts; Kardashian’s dilemma proves they are anything but.
The Goldmans: From the get-go, the evidence has strongly suggested OJ’s guilt in Ron’s death. They have grown to recognize and accept such evidence as factual condemnation: OJ is guilty.
Given that decisive mindset, how could they possibly see the “justice” in a not guilty verdict? It is easy to talk about the importance of a “fair” trial system from an academic perspective. It is easy to cite Blackstone’s formulation, which says that it is better to let 10 guilty men go free than to imprison one innocent one, from afar. But what about the victim and/or the family of a deceased victim? Can they possibly find “justice” in watching the presumed guilty party receive an acquittal?
And, even if they can, what happens at that point? Do they just accept that that the person who murdered their loved one will never pay the price for his crime because it makes objective sense within the confines of the system?
Moreover, what if the Goldmans were to accept OJ at his word? What if they were to accept the possibility that someone else killed Ron? It is not as if the state is going to vigorously pursue an alternative killer.