Posted on Tue, Nov. 12, 2002
Fuhrman, O.J. symbols of our time
BY GLENN GARVIN
• O.J.: A Study In Black And White, 10-11 tonight. HBO.
• Dominick Dunne Presents: Murder in Greenwich. 8-10 p.m. Friday. USA.
Seven years later, the Trial of the Century has turned into the Hangover of the Millennium. The O.J. Simpson case still hovers over us like a poisonous mist, a reminder that America's ancient racial hostilities are as toxic as ever.
Tabloid-TV loudmouths still shriek clueless tirades about the verdict. Lawyers and investigators keep flogging it for books, TV appearances, legal business. A Herald story on Simpson's children triggers a tidal wave of angry phone calls. No one, it seems, is ready to let go.
The reason, suggests O.J.: A Study In Black And White, is that the controversy over Simpson's 1995 murder trial, which ended in acquittal, had nothing to do with facts and everything to do with symbols.
''In that painful instant,'' the HBO documentary observes, ``the veil was lifted on the vast gulf that remains between blacks and whites. . . . The story of O.J. Simpson goes to the heart of the racial divide in America.''
This week, two shows -- O.J.: A Study In Black And White (which debuts tonight) and Dominick Dunne Presents: Murder in Greenwich (Friday on USA) -- revisit the Simpson trial from very different perspectives. Black And White uses the case as a springboard for an intelligent, if wrenching, examination of race relations. Murder in Greenwich, meanwhile, proves that infamous perjurer Mark Fuhrman is a bigger liar than ever.
Black And White makes no attempt at all to rehash the evidence from the trial or to argue Simpson's guilt or innocence.
''Most people, white and black, didn't actually know the evidence,'' notes Lawrence Grossberg, a University of North Carolina sociologist.
Instead, it explores Simpson's pioneering role as the first black athlete to achieve broad celebrity status in white society, with television roles and endorsement contracts from Hertz and other high-profile companies. But the hint of racial reconciliation promised by his cross-cultural appeal vanished instantly when Simpson was charged with the murder of his white wife and her friend.
Instead, the trial quickly devolved into a spectacle of mutual race baiting that brought out the worst on both sides. Whites, ignoring the many weaknesses in the case against Simpson (no witness, no murder weapon and no bloody clothing, except for that mysterious glove that didn't fit), claimed that he had won simply by playing the race card to a black jury. Blacks argued that if Simpson were guilty, it was nothing more than payback to a racist legal system -- as if the murder of two young white people in Los Angeles was somehow a fair response to a lynching in Mississippi 30 years before.
How could a quarrel like this have any winners?
Yet, implausibly, there was a winner: Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles cop whose perjury helped undercut the prosecution. He repeatedly swore he never used racial epithets, only to be confronted with his own swaggering bigotry on tape.
In the through-the-looking-glass logic of O.J. World, Fuhrman's lies catapulted him into media celebrity. He's the author of several best-selling books, has his own radio show and is a regular contributor to Fox News.
Murder in Greenwich is based on Fuhrman's book about the unsolved 1975 murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley, beaten to death with a golf club outside her family's Connecticut mansion. Her killer, Michael Skakel -- a nephew of Robert and Ethel Kennedy -- was finally tried and convicted this year.
Murder in Greenwich makes it appear that Fuhrman cracked a 25-year-old cold case that the local cops had long left for dead. In fact, his book was based mostly on a leaked copy of a private detective agency's investigation and had nothing to do with Skakel's indictment and conviction. The real break in the case came before Fuhrman arrived on the scene, when several drug-rehab buddies of Skakel saw a dramatization of the murder on the TV show Unsolved Mysteries and called a tip line to report that Skakel had bragged to them about killing the girl.
The Skakel investigation is only one focus of Murder in Greenwich. Fuhrman, who gets a producer's credit, also uses it to make himself look like the real victim of the Simpson case, which would almost be entertaining if it weren't so infuriating. My favorite moment was his explanation of why he lied on the witness stand about his frequent use of the N word. If he'd told the truth, Fuhrman says, ''the trial would have been all about me.'' Really dodged that bullet, didn't you, detective?