Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched Season 1, Episode 9 of “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” titled “Manna From Heaven.”
If last week’s episode of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” bordered on a sitcom, what with all that juror swapping, this week’s hour could be a procedural. Call it “Law & Order: Star Witness (From Hell).”
We know, of course, that Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale) began this case as this prosecution’s star witness and ended as the defense’s, thanks to those damning tapes, but now we get to trace all the legal maneuvering that it took to get those tapes into court. It’s a fascinating roller coaster ride of investigative work, subpoenas and appeals that takes Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) and co. from Los Angeles to North Carolina, where his over-the-top courtroom shtick isn’t so well-received. “With all due respect, I don’t know if you play as well in Dixie,” as F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lee) delicately puts it.
The formula is one “Law & Order” fans are quite familiar with.
Step one: The evidence is discovered. Investigator Pat McKenna can hardly contain his excitement when he talks to screenwriter Laura Hart McKinny, pushing her hard for details on what exactly is on the tapes. But she wants nothing to do with the case. (Dun dun.)
Step two: The lawyers get involved. Let’s get a subpoena! Cue a funny one-liner, this time from Barry Scheck (Rob Morrow): “I don’t understand. How can she teach screenwriting if she can’t sell a script?” A chorus of knowing groans echoes around the room from the L.A.-types. Cochran’s cocky: “God brought us these tapes… This is manna from heaven.” And, naturally, there’s an ego battle: Who’s going to head to North Carolina to wage this war? Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) finally stands down, as long as he can get credit. (That’s true, according to Jeffrey Toobin’s book: All the lawyers on the case insisted on signing their names to the brief.)
Step three: Courtroom battle. But Cochran’s not on his turf in North Carolina, so he loses round one: The judge denies them the right to use the tapes in Los Angeles. But Bailey takes over the appeal, lays his Southern charm on thick (referencing everything from the 13 colonies to the Bible), and wins one for the Dream Team: the tapes are theirs. (Bailey’s law partners were actually the ones that won the appeal, but no matter. Dramatic license granted.)
Step four: Surprising plot twist. Turns out Fuhrman’s not only a racist, but also a sexist — his epic rants include an attack on Judge Ito’s wife, a high-ranking captain in the police force. Should Ito recuse himself (which would trigger a mistrial)? That would spell disaster for the defense, but might rescue the flailing prosecution. Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) urges Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) to push for it: A do-over would mean they’d learn from their mistakes. A trial in Santa Monica with a new jury. And no Mark Fuhrman. But she’s hesitant: Pushing too hard might trigger double jeopardy.
Step five: Judge’s decision. Ito punts, kicking the decision over whether he should step down to another judge, but not before delivering the ironic line: “Women who work in male dominated professions I think are tougher than most,” which doesn’t go unnoticed by Darden. Needless to say, Ito’s fellow judge sides with him, and he gets to stay on the case.
Meanwhile, the tension in the courtroom (and outside) is at an all-time high: Darden and Cochran are at squabbling over whether a witness can testify about whether someone “sounds black.” Cochran’s at odds with Shapiro, too, over the tapes: Cochran wants to keep the pressure on to release them; Shapiro’s worried as ever about the potential for more riots. And Darden finally explodes at Clark for not listening to him about Furhman in the first place: “You put me on this trial because wanted a black face, but the truth is you never wanted a black voice.”
When Ito decides to release the tapes out of “public interest,” Darden nearly finds himself in contempt of court — Clark, rising to his defense, almost joins him. But when it comes time to deciding what the jury — who’ve been sequestered — will actually hear, Ito limits it to just two lines, 12 words in all, where Fuhrman perjures himself on the use of the “N” word. And this time, it’s Cochran’s turn to lose his temper.
Once again, we see Fuhrman’s tense, slow-motion entry into the courtroom, showing us just the back of his head, as he’s stared down by everyone in his path. “It’s hard to hated by both sides,” says Bailey. “It takes a man of certain character.” Or lack thereof. He takes the Fifth Amendment during Cochran’s cross-examination, but it’s when he pleads the Fifth to the final question that sends shock waves through the courtroom: “Did you plant or manufacture any evidence in this case?” (Dun dun.)
But that’s not where this episode ends. We get two final touching codas: One with Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), visiting a gloating O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) in jail. “I won’t be wearing these for much longer,” chuckles Simpson, as he changes back into his chains. “Yeah, that was a real success for the defense,” replies a stony Kardashian, tonelessly. He’s not having an easy time of this.
And then there’s our beleaguered heroine Clark, who deserves some good news after yet another awful day in court: She got primary custody of her kids. “So you got everything,” says her colleague. Did she?
As for step six: The verdict — well, we’ll have to wait for next week. Wonder what the jury will decide? Dun dun, indeed.