“What’s so difficult?” Marcia Clark scoffs at Chris Darden at the end American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson’s fifth episode. “It’s just a cop on a stand.”
The FX series’ latest installment proves Clark (Sarah Paulson) very, very wrong. That “cop on a stand” turns out to be a racist, anti-Semitic thug — the now-notorious Mark Fuhrman, the LAPD detective who found the bloody glove outside OJ Simpson’s house. “Manna from Heaven,” the show’s penultimate episode, deals with the court’s decision to play the infamous tapes on which Fuhrman can be heard using the N-word no fewer than 40 times.
“Manna from Heaven,” written by series creators Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, opens with Laura Hart McKinny answering a phone call from Simpson’s private investigator. McKinny, an aspiring screenwriter living in North Carolina, met Fuhrman in LA in 1985, when she was working on a screenplay about women police officers. Fuhrman served as a “technical consultant,” and McKinny taped 13 hours of their conversations between 1985 and 1994.
The emergence of the tapes wasn’t the first time the defense sought to challenge Fuhrman’s credibility as a witness. In July 1994, Simpson’s “Dream Team” seized on a disability pension case Fuhrman filed in 1983, in which the detective told a psychiatrist that he became disillusioned during his final six months in the Marine Corps because “there were these Mexicans and niggers, volunteers, and they would tell me they weren’t going to do something.”
In March 1995, Fuhrman took the stand and testified that he had not used the N-word in the past ten years. Simpson’s lawyers got their big break when Patrick McKenna, a private investigator hired just two days after Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered, received a phone call tipping him off to the existence of recordings on which Fuhrman can be heard using the N-word. This is where The People v. OJ Simpson left off last week.
The episode handles the legal ins and outs of the tapes beautifully. First, Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) and F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) go to North Carolina to read the transcripts, but a judge there blocks their attempt to get McKinny to hand over the tapes. They quickly appeal the decision and win. Now, they can prove that Fuhrman lied under oath, but the episode makes clear that for Cochran, this isn’t just about perjury. “It’s more than that,” he tells Bailey. “This is what black people have always known. And now it’s right here, for everyone to hear.”
When Clark and Darden (Sterling K. Brown) sit down to listen to the tapes, they discover a conflict: on them, Fuhrman disparages Judge Lance Ito’s own wife, Captain Margaret York, the highest-ranking woman in the LAPD. To make matters even more complicated, Marcia has the delicate task of informing Ito (Kenneth Choi) that his wife had to have remembered Fuhrman, because she reprimanded him once for writing “KKK” on a Martin Luther King Jr. poster. (Ito understands the implication: she lied about her connection to Fuhrman so her husband could take on the Simpson case.) In her book Without a Doubt, Marcia Clark writes that York “upbraided the squad for writing ‘KKK’ on the calendar entry for Martin Luther King [Jr.] Day. Mark had snickered, and when she called him on it in private, he claimed, he belittled her to her face.”
“Manna from Heaven” also features another tense moment between Darden and Cochran. When Cochran argues in court that the tapes are “a matter of national concern,” Darden angrily rises and cries, “You’ve presented a defense that is based completely on lies and deceptions…This case is a circus, and the defense has made it into a circus.” The real Chris Darden famously uttered that last line, although he was reacting to defense attorney Robert Shapiro, who accused the prosecutors of trying to have Ito taken off the case simply out of spite. By replacing Shapiro with Cochran, clearly the show is capitalizing on the long-simmering tension between the two black lawyers.
Writers Alexander and Karaszewski brilliantly balance the legal minutiae and the horror of the tapes, the contents of which they tease throughout the episode. When Fuhrman (the excellent Steven Pasquale) finally enters the courtroom, all eyes follow his path toward the witness stand. When Cochran gets up to approach him, Darden stands and walks out of the courtroom. This kind of happened — in reality, Darden stepped out before Fuhrman entered the courtroom; the New York Daily News reported that he “lurked in the men’s room and hall until Fuhrman was gone.”
Again, the show puts Cochran in place of a white lawyer — defense attorney Gerald Uelmen was the one who actually confronted Fuhrman in the courtroom on September 6, 1995. He asked three questions: “Was the testimony that you gave at the preliminary hearing in this case completely truthful?”; “Have you ever falsified a police report?”; and finally, “Did you plant or manufacture any evidence in this case?”
In the episode as in real life, each time, Fuhrman asserts his Fifth Amendment rights, declining to answer the questions. If a witness takes the Fifth, he can’t pick and choose which questions to answer and which to refuse — he has to refuse them all. But as The People v. OJ Simpson is so adept at demonstrating, those kinds of details easily get lost in the shuffle when a grenade like the bigoted Mark Fuhrman is tossed in the courtroom. This is a devastating blow to the prosecution, and especially to Ron Goldman’s father, Fred, who says in a press conference, “This is not a trial about the man who murdered our son.” There’s heartrending footage of a trembling Fred Goldman at the actual press conference in 1995, saying, “This is not now the Fuhrman trial. This is a trial about the man who murdered my son.”
In the end, Ito limited the defense to just two short excerpts from the tapes. The LA Times reported the following: “‘They don’t do anything,’ Furhman said of women police officers during the excerpt played for the jury. ‘They don’t go out there and initiate a contact with some 6-5 nigger who’s been in prison seven years pumping weights.'” In the other excerpt, which McKinny testified was the “least offensive and inflammatory” example of Fuhrman’s bigoted remarks, the detective said, “We have no niggers where I grew up.” Fuhrman was charged with perjury (he had already resigned from the LAPD in August 1995).
Jeffrey Toobin, the New Yorker staff writer who wrote the book on which this series is based, said in an interview that The People v. OJ Simpson “is a ten-hour trailer for Black Lives Matter. This is ten hours that tells you why America is, at least in part, the place that it is today.” It’s telling that Toobin evoked Black Lives Matter, a movement born out of the George Zimmerman trial, in connection to this show. As that trial and others — the recent Jian Ghomeshi decision comes to mind — have shown, even when the justice system fails victims, it brings issues to the surface that may have otherwise stayed buried. While only two brief examples of Fuhrman’s bigotry played in court for the jury to hear, in “Manna from Heaven,” Alexander and Karaszewski include a scene in which longer excerpts are played with the jury absent — as if to submit them as evidence retroactively. Coming so quickly on the heels of the 1992 LA riots, the Fuhrman tapes forced the public to reckon with the specter of racism and police brutality all over again.
This is a conversation we’re still having two decades later. And, amazingly, Mark Fuhrman still hasn’t learned to keep his mouth shut. In 2013, he appeared on Fox News to discuss the unfolding George Zimmerman trial. Unsurprisingly, he defended Zimmerman, saying that it was his word against “a dead victim, dead suspect, however which side you’re on you’re gonna describe Trayvon Martin.” If this series has taught us anything, it’s that race in America is an ever-moving target, one we can’t afford to take our eyes off of.