Sloppiness Does Miniseries Credibility Damage

Although I took exception with the FX miniseries People vs. O.J. Simpson perpetuation of the mischaracterization of Simpson trial judge, Lance Ito, the creators and cast of the drama got a lot right.

Sarah Paulson absolutely nailed it as Marcia Clark, Sterling K. Brown was certainly a believable Christopher Darden. and Joseph Siravo was credible as Fred Goldman. The rest of the cast, except for Kenneth Choi’s voice in his role as Ito, might as well have been playing characters in some unrelated production.

The story line and conflict, also, are fairly accurate so far as what happened in the courtroom. I don’t know about what went on in any private conversations, except those in Ito’s chambers at which I was present. What bugs me, aside from the misrepresentation of Ito, is so much that wasn’t accurate out of sheer sloppiness that was easily avoidable.

It’s unlikely that I’ll hit everything here, but I can at least offer some examples. A couple of observations I made in previous posts on this blog.

One was early on in a scene in which Marcia Clark was standing on the balcony outside the District Attorney’s office in the Criminal Courts Building. That balcony was only a few floors up, probably the third of fourth floor. The District Attorney’s Office was, and still is, on the 18th floor, one floor from the top of the building.

Another was a completely fabricated meeting Ito purportedly had in his chambers with former movie producer-turned author Dominick Dunne. In that scene Ito is depicted pulling open a desk drawer, taking out an autographed picture TV personality Arsenio Hall had sent the judge and showing it to Dunne as if Ito thought it was some terrific get or coveted souvenir.

Rather than just sloppy, that scene had to be a deliberate fantasy. That’s because the miniseries was based on a book published by CNN commentator and writer Jeffery Toobin. Rather than Dunne, it was Toobin to whom Ito showed a photo of Hall. Toobin didn’t forget about that meeting or just misremembered that it was Dunne to whom Ito showed the picture. Toobin wrote about it in his book — sort of.

Here is my account, taken from my notes taken that day and an audio journal entry recorded that evening:

“Like many of his colleagues, Toobin clambered to meet Ito. Ito said no.

‘He’s a month behind the time,’ Ito said in reply to one request in mid-September of 1994. ‘He’s too late.’[i]

But Toobin persisted.[ii]

‘Just a few minutes with the judge,’ he pleaded on another occasion. ‘Just to say hello, to introduce myself and, as a lawyer, shake the judge’s hand.’

In February Ito finally relented, but said to bring him in at the end of the lunch break so he could limit his time with him. As I escorted Toobin to Ito’s chambers, I delivered my spiel that everything, once he crossed the threshold, was off the record. As usual, all manner of files, documents, mementos and other paraphernalia cluttered Ito’s chambers. As Toobin observed the surroundings, Ito showed him what he thought was an example of how crazily things had gotten with public interest in the trial. It was a note television personality Arsenio Hall had sent him in which he compared Ito’s job to President Bill Clinton’s, saying that Clinton has the second hardest job and that Ito had the hardest.[iii] With a shake of his head, Ito said he found it strange that people, even celebrities, apparently wanting to be part of or to somehow relate personally with the trial, would send the court notes and photographs and souvenirs.

‘You would think these people would have something better to do,’ he said.[iv]

But that’s not how Toobin told it. Nearly a year after the trial, Toobin hit the talk-show circuit to promote his book.[v] In recounting his meeting with Ito, he said the judge wanted to meet him and had ‘summoned’ him for a visit in chambers. Toobin’s tale was not only unethical because he violated the off-the-record condition, he reshaped it, apparently to support his characterization of Ito as behaving like ‘just another celebrity-crazed resident of Los Angeles’ and having ‘starry eyes.’[vi] Ito’s point in showing Toobin the Arsenio Hall note was to underscore how obsessed people had become with the trial. But that obviously wasn’t Toobin’s impression or his memory of how the incident played out.”

Although scenes in the courthouse and trial courtroom appeared to be shot in the actual building and courtroom, Ito’s chambers during the trial were not. In fact, Toobin could have made sure the chambers were a close, if not exact, replication of that office, since he had been in that office. Why he didn’t is a mystery, but it was just all wrong.

Again, despite the courtroom looking like an actual Criminal Courts Building courtroom, the clock and the lack of them, were wrong. The clock in Ito’s courtroom was the basic vanilla style clock found in most schools and other public buildings of that era, similar to this: 

I say “lack of them”, because in the early days of the proceedings, Ito ordered several more clocks that looked like this and put them on the courtroom walls as a hint to habitually tardy lawyers on the case that court began at 9 a.m. When that didn’t work, he started bringing hourglasses from a collection he had in his chambers into the courtroom, which of course made headlines.

Another inaccuracy was Judge Ito banging a gavel when he called a recess. That never happened. Ito didn’t use a gavel in his courtroom. He didn’t even have a gavel on the bench.

And what was that with Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson shaving in jail. Shaving, with a safety razor. A safety razor, which gives a pretty close shave. Then he shows up in court with had to be at least a two-day stubble on his face.

The make up of the jury on verdict day was nowhere close to the real jury. The real consisted of ten women and two men. The TV show has at least four men. Racially, the real jury was nine blacks, two whites and one Hispanic. The TV jury that could be seen on camera included four whites.

Further, when the trial judge dismissed the jurors post verdict, he addressed them as ladies and gentlemen of the jury and alternates. At that point in the trial, there were no alternates. The twelve alternates that began with the twelve regular jurors had become regular jurors during the course of the trial as one-by-one, the regular jurors were all dismissed.

Trivial errors or inaccuracies that few people would know to notice or care about. But if the miniseries producers didn’t care enough to get those kind of details right, how can they have credibility about anything else?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i].  Author’s notes, September 19, 1994.

 [ii] Id., January 25, February 3, 1995.

[iii]Id, February 3, 1995.

[iv]Id, February 8, 1995.

[v].   Jeffrey Toobin, “Today,” September 10, 1996, http://www.radicalmedia.com/work/today/trans/1996/sep/960910.txt; Francis X. Archibald, “Toobin critiques O. J. Simpson trial,” The State (Columbia, SC), September 29, 1996.

[vi].   Jeffrey Toobin, The Run of His Life (New York: Random House, 1996), 229

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