For weeks, the specter of Mark Fuhrman has haunted The People vs. O.J. — a would-be star witness harboring an ugly history of racism and violence that could validate the defense's argument about LAPD bias. It was a danger that prosecutor Chris Darden saw coming, but a strictly hypothetical one — and if you didn't already know the outcome of the trial, you might have assumed that the prosecution had dodged a bullet.
And then, at the end of last week's episode, the infamous "Fuhrman tapes" emerged, dramatically altering the outcome in a case that once looked like a slam-dunk conviction of O.J. Simpson. As Dominick Dunne puts it: "You couldn't get away with this plot twist in an airport paperback."
Like so much of the O.J. trial, the emergence of the Fuhrman tapes was so bizarre and unlikely that it feels like it can't be true. In the midst of research for a movie about female police officers, aspiring screenwriter Laura Hart McKinny interviewed Fuhrman about his life and work. Over 13 hours of tape, Fuhrman spoke — with horrifying, blasé candor — about his willingness to inflict violence and fabricate evidence in the line of his police work, particularly against non-white suspects. In the process, he casually used the word "n----r" 41 times — in direct contradiction to the testimony he gave earlier in the trial.
The key to Tuesday's episode is recognizing just how much the debate over the Fuhrman tapes departs from what is relevant to the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. (You probably feel differently if you believe there's any truth to the defense's LAPD conspiracy theory, but personally, I'm comfortable ruling that out.) For all of the legal wrangling on both sides of the courtroom, it's worth noting that O.J. Simpson himself — ostensibly the man on which all of this hinges — doesn't have a single line of dialogue in this week's episode until after Fuhrman's infamous testimony. The implications for the trial were enormous (and possibly decisive), but the Fuhrman tapes had basically nothing to do with Simpson or the murders. If the O.J. Simpson trial was, as Chris Darden puts it a "circus," Fuhrman is essentially the definition of a sideshow.
But despite their relative irrelevance to the murder trial, it's not so easy to dismiss the Fuhrman tapes out of hand when they're right in front of you. (The People vs. O.J. provides a number of disturbing excerpts; if you'd like to read them in full, the transcripts are publicly available.) The LAPD may not have framed O.J. — if anything, O.J.'s celebrity offered him a consistent "get out of jail free" card — but it did enable an officer like Fuhrman to not just survive, but thrive.
That institutional failure came home to roost in the O.J. trial, when one of the most important witnesses turned out to be the prosecution's biggest liability. Forced to justify such a damning and damaging witness, Marcia Clark has little choice but to return to the same drum she's been banging over the course of the trial: the clear and overwhelming evidence pointing to Simpson's guilt. "The defense just wants to inflame the jury so they forget about the facts and vote emotionally," she argues in court. "I beg of you, Your Honor, act on precedent. Do not let the jurors hear these tapes."
For Johnnie Cochran, the stakes are entirely different, and largely divorced from the trial itself. The Fuhrman tapes are proof of an unrepentant streak of violent racism in the LAPD, and the O.J. Simpson trial is the perfect spotlight to shine a light on the injustices that have long gone unremarked upon — injustices that Cochran has endured throughout his life, and has spent most of his career fighting. "Those tapes are proof of the systematic civil rights violations," Cochran fumes. "What black people have always known, and what white people never understood." Later, he justifies his insistence on publicizing Fuhrman's hate speech: "This isn't a smoking gun for the Simpson case. This is a smoking gun for the United States."
Is it possible that both Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran are right? It's infuriating to watch someone like Fuhrman muck up the trial, which should, in its purest form, be about justice for Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. But it's also infuriating to look at the broader history of racial injustice in Los Angeles and recognize that it took a ghoulish spectacle like the O.J. Simpson trial to make many white Americans sit up and pay attention. Judge Ito calls the tapes "a matter of national concern," and they should be. It's in conflating them with the rest of the facts in the O.J. Simpson trial that problems arise.
And there are so many factors competing with the facts in the O.J. Simpson trial: race, celebrity, money, media. The more time you spend retroactively trying to assign responsibility for something as muddying as the Fuhrman tapes, the more complicated and crazy-making any explanation turns out to be.
In many ways, a trial is nothing more than a series of choices and coincidences, hastily reassembled into a story only when you have the distance to look back on everything that happened. In this instance, maybe you stop at Judge Ito, who broke with precedent by deeming some excerpts from the tapes admissible in court. Maybe you blame Marcia Clark for ignoring Chris Darden and putting Fuhrman on the stand in the first place. Maybe you go back to Ito's wife, Peggy York, who (the series heavily implies) lied about her previous interactions with Mark Fuhrman so her husband wouldn't be pulled off a career-making case. Maybe you go back even further, to the serendipity that led Laura Hart McKinny and Mark Fuhrman to strike up a professional acquaintanceship that literally began when Fuhrman approached her at a cafe to ask about her laptop computer. Whatever your starting point, the ending is the same: Fuhrman on the stand, pleading the fifth about whether or not he fabricated evidence in the O.J. Simpson case.
We're one week away from the final episode of The People vs. O.J., and while the show's characters don't know what's coming next, we've all known the verdict since the beginning. For better or worse, all of these real people have already become household names, and most will spend the rest of their lives in the shadow of the O.J. Simpson trial. It's an ugly, painful chapter for everyone involved, and for the rest of the United States — but if there's a silver lining, it's in the way it forced people, as Johnnie Cochran insisted, to confront the injustices that had been unspoken for so long. It's just unfortunate that the trial itself had to end in injustice too.
And that's as good a reason as any to revisit the central figure of "Manna from Heaven." After so much infamy, what happened to the real-life Mark Fuhrman, anyway? He accepted a plea bargain on charges of perjury, and resigned from the LAPD. Two years after the trial, he published his own nonfiction account of the O.J. Simpson story, Murder in Brentwood, which went on to become a New York Times bestseller. ("For O.J. Simpson to get away with murder, an innocent cop — a brilliant detective — had to be destroyed," complains the book.) Fuhrman parlayed that success into a second career as a writer, radio host, and Fox News "forensic and crime scene expert." His Fox News biography describes him as "a key investigator" and a "witness" for the O.J. Simpson trial, and cites his "55 official commendations during his 20 years with the LAPD." It does not mention the tapes.
Read previous The People vs. O.J. Simpson recaps:
- The People vs. O.J. episode 8: Runaway jury
- The People vs. O.J. episode 7: If it doesn't fit...
- The People vs. O.J. episode 6: Marcia, Marcia, Marcia
- The People vs. O.J. episode 5: The race card
- The People vs. O.J. episode 4: Don't forget the dark truths at the heart of The People vs. O.J.
- The People vs. O.J. episode 3: The Kardashian problem
- The People vs. O.J. episode 2: The run of his life
- The internet's next true-crime obsessions will be The People vs. O.J. Simpson