This American Crime Story review contains spoilers.
American Crime Story: Season 1 Episode 9
Last week’s episode of American Crime Story followed the (ever-shifting) jurors from the Simpson trial, with special attention paid to their very limited knowledge of the outside world during their sequestering. This week homed in on one very particular piece of evidence, and the debate of whether or not to keep the jurors in the dark. I’m talking, of course, about the Fuhrman Tapes, recorded by screenwriter Laura Hart McKinny as research for a screenplay.
Thirteen hours of conversation taped over the course of nearly a decade, containing 41 uses of the n-word and countless descriptions of police brutality, sexism, and other behaviors and attitudes that would paint Fuhrman as not only unreliable but repulsive, suspicious — this could very well be a man who would plant evidence at a crime scene to frame a black man.
That’s what Johnnie Cochran is desperately hoping, at least. This is the manna from heaven that the defense has been waiting for, wandering through the desert for the proverbial forty years with no sign of the Promised Land. No surprise, Cochran is behind the subpoena to get the tapes released in North Carolina — though journeying down to the South makes for a revealing lesson that Cochran isn’t top dog everywhere. But the tapes get released regardless, thanks to F. Lee Bailey’s sweet tea and honeyed charm … only to trigger a series of twists that Dominick Dunne excitedly and aptly describes as better than anything you’d find on an airport paperback.
Remember in the pilot when Judge Ito’s wife Peggy signs an affidavit that she doesn’t remember having any significant interactions with Fuhrman? Turns out that in addition to hating black people, Fuhrman harbored no love for female cops like Peggy, especially after she dressed him down for writing “KKK” (seriously?) on a Martin Luther King poster (seriously?).
There’s a brief period where it looks like Ito might have to recuse himself as judge, which would lead to a mistrial. You can literally see Ito’s dreams of stardom flitting away… only to be saved, as another judge rules that Ito can still preside over the case. Yet he’s even more aware of the eyes on him now: One of the episode’s most engaging sequences has Ito staring at the camera in court and watching Larry King Live late at night while poring over the transcripts. He’s seeing himself reflected back dozens of times and in dozens of ways.
What’s especially fascinating is that the episode’s biggest decision — whether or not to play the tapes in the courtroom — depend on two entities who have nearly no physical presence yet still loom over the proceedings. There’s the jury, who are being kept in the dark; and Fuhrman himself, whose words and voice capture attention while simultaneously inspiring revulsion.
Fuhrman’s repeated use of the n-word, and the attitudes it underlays, trigger emotion in the courtroom, most notably in Darden, who cannot control his emotional outbursts to the point of almost being held in contempt. (You have to appreciate the irony of Ito scolding Darden for losing his cool, when Ito himself gives an impassioned speech about protecting his wife.) Clark, too, must maintain her composure when she begs Ito not to release the tapes: It’s not that she wants to defend Mark Fuhrman in any way, but releasing all 13 hours of the tapes and the racial epithets contained within will be disastrous.
Turns out you don’t even need the actual tapes to whip the people into a frenzy, just the existence of them. Outside of the courtroom, Cochran is threatening another riot (in so many words) by forming a coalition to claim that the people have a right to know what Fuhrman said—because it’s no longer just about the Simpson trial, it’s about the racist attitudes and dangerous precedents of the LAPD.
As it turns out, Ito rules that only two sentences will be used in the trial — the ones proving that Fuhrman perjured on the stand when he claimed he had not spoken the n-word in the past ten years. Just as Fuhrman (a steely and downright scary Steven Pasquale) enters the courtroom to testify in-person, it looks as if the prosecution will be able to recover.
Then Cochran does his magic. Now, you have to consider again the scene where Cochran gets cut down in the North Carolina court — it’s a reminder that for as much as he plays the race card, race gets counted against him just as much. Don’t think it humbled him, however; back in the Simpson trial, he pulls out what I have to begrudgingly call a genius move. Upon returning to the stand, Fuhrman is invoking his Fifth Amendment right all over the place, when asked about whether he’d used the n-word and other questions pertaining to the tape. While everyone else is ready to throw up their hands and consider it a waste of time, Cochran takes advantage of the charged atmosphere to ask Furhman if he has ever manufactured evidence in a crime scene — Cochran having railed against Ito’s decision, because it took away a portion of the tapes in which Fuhrman mentioned doing exactly that. His response? To plead the fifth. And just like that, reasonable doubt.
Earlier in the episode, while waiting for Ito’s ruling, Darden and Clark debate whether a mistrial might work in their favor. Yes, it will mean (as their boss exasperatedly points out) $6 million of taxpayer money and one year wasted, but it also means a fresh start, a clean slate. Lord knows these two need it, after their various gaffes (which they apologize to each other for, aww). But it’s not to be; the die is cast and this whole thing is like a Greek tragedy. All it can do is careen toward the finale, airing next week.