Tuesday’s episode of the FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson, titled “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” focused on the trials and travails of Simpson prosecutor and true-crime author Marcia Clark. Slate sat down with Clark a few weeks ago to discuss the series and her memories of the trial. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jeremy Stahl: Tuesday’s episode addresses the criticism of you during the O.J. trial, a lot of it unfair and a lot of it of a gendered and sexist nature. But there was also some support for you at the time. Ellen Goodman at the Boston Globe wrote a piece describing you as a feminist icon. Do you feel like you’re getting more support now than you got back then, and did you feel the support you did get back then?
Marcia Clark: You know, truthfully, it was tough to feel anything at that time. I was so immersed in the trial. It was a nonstop, minute-by-minute immersion. I ate, slept, and breathed the trial, and it was like living in this bubble where … I can’t tell you that I felt everything that was going on on the outside. Certainly I knew about the criticism. Of course I did, and every once in a while, someone would say something supportive. … The Boston Globe article was supportive, and things like that would filter through now and then, but to a large degree, I kind of tried to avoid it, because it was surprising, and it was kind of overwhelming. And it had never happened before. … It all kind of left me incredulous. I didn’t understand why people cared about my hair or my makeup or my clothing. It was like, “I’m a prosecutor. I’m not a model. I’m not an actress.” But somehow, we all got kind of turned into soap opera figures.
A prominent Los Angeles attorney said at the time, “She seems to change personalities like she’s Sybil,” the character from the cult film about multiple personality disorder. A UCLA law professor said you were going back and forth between being “coquettish or hostile.” And I don’t think Johnnie Cochran today could get away with calling you …
Hysterical. Or that F. Lee Bailey could get away with describing you as shrill. How do you think that that would play out today?
I think a lot of the things that people got away with saying about me back then wouldn’t fly today. I think that people would call them out. I think women would call them out. That’s what’s so different, and saying things like, “She’s coquettish in one moment and harsh in another moment” is ridiculous. Who’s one-note throughout their lives? I mean, who doesn’t at some point get a little softer, a little hard?
The portrayal of you seems to be one of the more sympathetic portions of the show. Do you think they’re getting that aspect of it at least somewhat right?
I do. Sarah Paulson is mind-blowing. I mean, she always is. She’s always fantastic. I’ve never seen her be less than brilliant, but she’s really amazing in this role, and she managed to deliver on how I was feeling on the inside, even though I couldn’t show that in court, because you have to kind of have a poker face in court.
You were going through a divorce. You had—as the show depicts—issues with child custody, and then all this other—the outside media stuff. So, the show got that stuff right, you’re saying.
Yeah, they really did. They got what it was like to be under pressure and under fire from all corners of your life, of my life, and how difficult it was to deal with, and in a way, for me, diving into the trial every day, going into the office every day was an escape, because I could dive into the case and pull and push it all out.
There’s a line in the show when Sarah Paulson as you is talking to Chris Darden, and she says, “I’m not a public personality.” And she also said this about you in an interview: “She just didn’t have the skin for it. She didn’t have that razzle-dazzle that Johnnie Cochran had, and they all had. She just wasn’t designed as much for public life.” How do you feel about that depiction?
Certainly, I did not have the experience on camera that they had. They had been doing the cable news circuit. They had been, you know, doing a lot of interviewing, and they had a facility with reporters that I never needed to have. But also, a prosecutor cannot be razzle-dazzle-y, especially in a [situation] like that where there is so much tension and so much racial tension around the case and all the characters.
What I have to do is be very dressed-down, very direct, very low-key. People looked to prosecutors in a different way. They looked to us to deliver the truth. They looked to us to fight hard but fair. They looked to us to be kind of the deliverers of justice. I don’t think any prosecutor should walk into a courtroom and think they’re going to wow a jury with catchphrases and clichés and that kind of performance.
The show depicts your appearance, specifically your hair, as being an important factor for the DA’s office, and something that got brought up among your colleagues and to you directly, something that you had to address. How much of a distraction was the media in that sense?
I mean, I knew about it. I knew that, and they would talk, the people in my office said, “You know, you got to dress better. You got to look,” that kind of thing. And people donated clothes to me. This was … kind of embarrassing, but at the same time, all I felt was, “Look, if that’s what you need, that’s fine. I don’t care. I don’t care what I’m wearing, and I don’t care about my hair either. So, whatever you say is fine by me.” All I cared about was the jury. What are they seeing? What do they care about? I’m pretty sure they didn’t care about my hair or my suits, just a guess. But if people thought they did, or if people thought the office looked bad because I didn’t look spiffy enough, I’m happy to change.
But there were parts of the media coverage of it that made me, like, incredulous. For example, my favorite one that cracks me up to this day is my makeover. What makeover? So, my makeover consisted of a concealer pencil, which my girlfriend gave to me, because she said, “Really, you got to do something about those circles under, that’s terrible.” So I said, “OK.” And then, my youngest son, who was then 2 years old, decided it fit perfectly in the sprinkler pipe, and it did, and there was my makeover, that and my perm grew out, because people who know about hair will tell you, when you have short hair, perms grow out really fast.
In the show, it is portrayed as this big makeover scene. What did you think when you were watching that?
I think they had a point to make, and they made it really well. They’re going for the bigger picture, and I applaud them for it.
You’ve said before that the show gets the big stuff right. You’ve also acknowledged inaccuracies. What are the big-picture elements that you think the show, or Jeffrey Toobin’s book on which the show is based, got wrong?
The whole business with the jury consultant, that I wouldn’t listen to the jury consultant. Now, that’s based on the jury consultant [as a source]. Because I fired him. So, he didn’t have a lot of good things to say about me after I kicked him out of the courtroom. And what happened was, he was telling me that African-American women, and men, but particularly women, were going to be a very difficult sell, and I had to make sure to keep them off the jury. And I said, “OK, excuse me. That’s illegal, it’s unethical, it’s also impossible. We are going to have African-American men and women on this jury. What you need to do, your job, is to tell me how to reach them. That’s what I need.”
No answer. His answer, “Talk more softly. Wear pastels.” So, this guy, who never bothered to read one single jury questionnaire, came up with this genius advice. You know, he couldn’t be more useless, and then sat in court and just looked terrible. He looked like the rich white fat cat that, you know, that we didn’t need sitting next to us, and I watched the jurors looking at him, looking at me, looking at him. It was terrible, and embarrassing.
I had a chance to talk to Jeff Toobin earlier today, and he said that you told him that you thought you had a special rapport with black Americans.
I never told Jeff anything.
You never told Jeff …
I never talked to Jeff.
He said, “She told me this: She thought she had a special rapport with African-American women,” and in previous trials you’d had a particularly good rapport with black women.
No, it’s not true.
It’s absolutely false. Absolutely false.
So, you and Jeff didn’t have that conversation?
I never had a conversation with him during the trial, period. I didn’t even meet him until after the trial, so I don’t know what he’s talking about. But he does a lot of that kind of stuff. He implies, he moves, you know what I mean? He’s kind of shifty in the way that he represents things, but I didn’t talk to him. And I certainly wouldn’t have said that. What is true is I did say, and this is what I said probably to the jury consultant, not Jeff, I said, “In previous trials, I had no problem with African-American women, even when the defendant was black. But I know it’s different in this case.” And here’s the thing. It’s a stupid thing for him to say. It makes no sense. I sat in the focus group room and I [watched], you know?
The hands went up, you know? They showed it in the series very well, that the racial divide was absolutely crystal-clear, couldn’t be more clear, and that women in particular, African-American women in particular, no fans of mine, so I wasn’t in denial about that. The question was, what do I do? I knew there were going to be African-American women on the jury, that it was unavoidable, and I’m not allowed to excuse any African-American juror based on race. That’s illegal, also unethical, and I can’t possibly excuse them all. So, the question was never whether they were fans of mine. That’s a silly thing to say. I knew it better.
Jeff Toobin told me that you haven’t asserted that anything in his book is specifically inaccurate.
Can you name some specifics? Some that might have even ended up on the show?
So, I don’t know if they wound up on the show, and I didn’t read his book cover to cover. I had excerpts sent to me by friends of mine. One was sent to me just yesterday, it made me laugh out loud. So, he says that Mark Fuhrman was never prepared for testimony, and that the extent of his preparation for testimony at the trial was a half-hour in my office while he was eating a sandwich, which is just a complete and total lie. It’s completely false. In fact, Fuhrman was grilled by a battery of prosecutors for days. Chris [Darden] took him down to the grand jury room, and they cross-examined him for days on end, to a point where, when he finally wound up being my witness, the former partner of his came to me and said, “Be careful. He’s about to snap. They’ve pushed him too hard. He’s gone through so much.”
He went through so many hours and days of cross-examination [prep] that it was probably too much. At the end of the day, then, I spent an afternoon with him, but he was very well-prepared. He certainly had been through his paces by that time, but half an hour with a sandwich? That’s so false.
I mean, he had other things that were just, from a trial strategy point of view, just plain old stupid, just stupid. Here’s one. … A friend of mine wrote to me last week, because people are now reading the book, so they’re telling me, “Did you know he said this?” And these are trial lawyers, and they’re laughing at him, and so, he said, “The answer to Mark Fuhrman was not to present his testimony at all, and let Phil Vannatter or Tom Lange testify to finding the glove.” Right? Don’t call him. OK. He thinks we should not have called Mark Fuhrman and let somebody else testify to finding the glove. OK, so what happens next? Of course, the defense then starts asking every cop. “Do you know where Mark Fuhrman is? Do you know, he found the glove, though, right? Didn’t he? Didn’t he? Didn’t he?” Then, Johnnie goes out on the courthouse steps and says, “They’re hiding the racist. They’re hiding the guy who planted the glove. Of course, that’s a concession. They’re basically admitting it.” Jeff Toobin dismisses that in his book as, “That could have been easily handled, no big deal,” which shows you that he has very little trial experience, and even less experience with a jury that is diverse.
Toobin said: “I think the defense was overwhelmed, and to some extent surprised by, the intensity of the anti-LAPD feeling on the jury.” Did you feel like you were overwhelmed or surprised at all by that?
We were not overwhelmed by that. Jeffrey was overwhelmed by that, clearly. We’d been working downtown, facing the racial divide when it came to the views of law enforcement for 10 years. We were downtown, all of us, working in the criminal courts building during the Rodney King riots. We knew what we were facing, and we knew how hot it was and what a big problem it was. We saw it firsthand. So, when a famous African-American man is now charged with a double homicide, yeah, we knew we were going to be in serious trouble, and I found out early, early on that, for a brief stutter step, I thought maybe not. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, because Simpson was so not a civil rights icon and was so much invested in the white world.
Within a week after the murders, my friends in the branch courts that were working in areas that had more heavily minority population were saying, “They are not fans of yours. It’s going to be very tough.” And then, we convened the grand jury. That was two weeks after the murders, and the grand jury ultimately had to be disbanded because they were tainted by press. They had been watching television. I think, really, to their credit, who could avoid it? And they were overheard talking about it, and my grand jury adviser, who by the way was the prosecutor of the Rodney King trial, came to me and said, “I heard two African-American women talking, and they were saying Nicole had it coming.”
So, no. We weren’t overwhelmed. We knew what we were facing. We just, the question was, what do you do about it?
Toobin also said that you “believed and tried this case like it was a domestic violence homicide … [which] I think it was”—
It was a domestic violence homicide, I think too. “But the jury didn’t see it that way,” he told me, “and the jury in crude terms thought race trumped gender.” Do you think that you may have had a blind spot for that distinction?
I think it’s true that the jury was not impressed with the domestic violence evidence. Nevertheless, it’s the motive, and we have to present the case we have. We can’t present the case we wish we had. The motive for this murder was the issue between Simpson and Nicole Brown. That was the motive, and Ron Goldman was the unfortunate, innocent bystander, and that’s the truth of the case. I have to present the facts I have, and I do think that especially with someone as famous and as celebrated as Simpson, we needed to explain why this happened. I can’t just pretend it happened in a void.