Trial and tribulations

Detroit native Courtney B. Vance portrays the late Johnnie Cochran in the FX 10-part mini-series “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” A trial attorney, Cochran was best known for his role in the acquittal of Simpson in 1995.

Photo courtesy of FX

Detroit native portrays attorney Johnnie?Cochran in ‘O.J.’ mini-series

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Detroit native/Tony Award-winning actor Courtney B. Vance is no stranger to playing attorneys.

Vance, 55, is best known for his role as Ron Carver, the assistant district attorney, on NBC’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” from 2001-06. He appeared in 111 episodes, which is the longest for an actor to play an ADA on “Criminal Intent” and one of the longest in creator Dick Wolf’s entire “Law & Order” franchise.

He also had a recurring role as high-powered/high-priced attorney Benjamin Brooks in 2012 on ABC’s “Revenge.” 

Currently, Vance is portraying the late Johnnie Cochran – the renowned trial attorney best known for his role in the acquittal of ex-football great O.J. Simpson in 1995 in what has been called “the trial of the century” – on FX’s 10-part mini-series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” currently airing Tuesday at 10 p.m. Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”) serves as one of the executive producers of this mini-series, which is based on Jeffrey Tobin’s book “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson.”

“Who wouldn’t be attracted to (this part)? There are certain roles that are iconic to be able to play,” said Vance, an alumnus of Detroit Country Day. “Every now and then something comes your way and you go, ‘Really?’ I met with the producers twice… A week or so later, I found out (the role) was mine. I was in shock and that lasted all of about 10 seconds. I said to myself: ‘You’ve gotta do this.’ And the journey began. I had a 10-second period of celebration and then all the pressure began.”

Vance graduated from Harvard University and the Yale School of Drama. He lives outside Los Angeles with his wife, Oscar-nominated actress Angela Bassett (“What’s Love Got to Do With It”), and their two children.

The ensemble cast of the mini-series features Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (“Jerry Maguire”) as O.J.; Oscar nominee John Travolta (“Pulp Fiction”) as attorney Robert Shapiro; Nathan Lane (“The Birdcage”) as attorney F. Lee Bailey; David Schwimmer (TV’s “Friends”) as the late Robert Kardashian; Sarah Paulson (“What Women Want”) as assistant prosecutor Marcia Clark; Sterling K. Brown (TV’s “Person of Interest”) as assistant prosecutor Christopher Darden; and Kenneth Choi (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) as Judge Lance Ito.

Besides Vance, two other actors with Detroit ties also appear: Tye White (“Drumline: The New Beat”) as Jason Simpson, O.J.’s son from his first marriage; and Selma Blair (“Legally Blonde”) as Kris Jenner, Kardashian’s ex-wife.

The first episode, which debuted on February 2, was the most-watched series premiere of an original scripted show in FX’s 22-year history, drawing 12 million viewers. Of those 12 million, 6.1 million were adults ages 18-49. In its second week, the mini-series is still going strong; it held 89 percent of its total viewers, 94 percent of which were adults ages 18-49.

“We know we had the built-in audience because of the O.J. trial. In order for it to be a hit, it had to cross over into young and old (viewers), black and white… that’s what we’ve done. People had an interest in it. It gives people a view of what happened behind the scenes,” explained Vance.

Dr. George Popovich, who teaches film at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, isn’t surprised by the first episode’s success.

“This is Jack the Ripper stuff. The public is fascinated with violent and brutal crimes,” said Popovich. “It was a media frenzy. It was like the script of a sordid melodrama. Two lovers allegedly murdered by the ex-husband. Lots of blood and gore. A prolonged car chase. It was also an early use of DNA evidence, which gave it a unique technological twist. The race angle was a powerful ingredient also.”

The plot of the mini-series chronicles the behind-the-scenes preparation of both the prosecution and defense in the aftermath of the brutal murders of Nicole Brown Simpson, O.J.’s ex-wife, and her friend Ronald Goldman in Brentwood, Calif. on June 13, 1994.

The mini-series also shows how this case took on a life of its own with all the media attention.

Simpson was accused of their murders and fled in a Bronco with his friend Al Cowlings driving down the I-405 freeway in California on June 17, 1994. Simpson had a gun aimed at his head, planning to commit suicide. He even left behind several suicide notes. More than 15 police cars gave chase with CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS interrupting regular programming, which drew 95 million viewers. In the end, Simpson surrendered to police and was arrested.

Initially, Shapiro was Simpson’s lead attorney but Cochran eventually took over. The mini-series portrays the dissention between the two men. Cochran was criticized by many, including Shapiro and Darden, of making a race an issue in the trial, which occurred not long after the 1992 L.A. riots, where four white police officers were acquitted for the 1991 beating of black motorist Rodney King.

“My challenge was that I wasn’t imitating (Cochran). I wanted to read as much as I could about him and try to capture his spirit… that would keep me from the danger of trying to imitate him. It freed me enough to know I am not him nor will I ever be him, but I claimed enough nuggets of his life to be able to represent him enough so that people would be able to eventually stop seeing me… that’s all I can hope for,” explained Vance.

On October 3, 1995, Simpson was found not guilty and vowed to bring “the real killers” to justice, much to the shock and disgust of the prosecution and the families of the victims. An estimated 100 million people worldwide stopped what they were doing to learn O.J.’s fate. Long-distance telephone call volume dropped 58 percent and trading volume on the New York Stock Exchange dropped 41 percent.

“My students were fascinated by the spectacle and couldn’t understand why I didn’t care or have an opinion about O.J.’s guilt or innocence,” said Jay Korinek, a retired Henry Ford College telecommunication professor.

 “I tried to explain how the system of jurisprudence works in the United States: trial by jury not by the general public – who, no matter how much TV they watch, just can’t know all the facts presented to the jury. Plus, (regarding) all that the jury constantly sees in the courtroom, no amount of TV cameras can. No matter, the spectacle polarized the country and, finally, made the story about race instead of a murder. So the dramatization – and its exaggerated emphasis on a few lurid details selected from a period of more than a year – does equal disservice to our country and the justice system.”

Although Simpson was acquitted, Goldman’s family sued him in a wrongful death civil suit as did Brown Simpson’s family. The victims’ families were awarded $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages, thereby finding Simpson “responsible” for the respective murders.

On September 13, 2007, Simpson and several other men broke into a room at the Palace Station hotel in Las Vegas, where he stole various sports memorabilia at gunpoint, claiming it was his. On October 3, 2008 – 13 years to the day he was acquitted of the murder of his ex-wife and Goldman –Simpson was found guilty. On December 4, 2008, he was sentenced to 33 years in prison, which he’s currently serving.

Cochran died of a brain tumor in 2005. Nonetheless, the ramifications of this trial are still felt to this day.

“We’re still having so many issues regarding the police and African American men and women,” said Vance. “We didn’t take the time to talk about it when we had that moment. When he was acquitted, black people cheered, white people were aghast and horrified, and two people were still dead. It was so emotional. It was a daily soap opera. It was too much for us to deal with. It became our issue. It became ‘That’s my father, that’s my brother, that’s my mother who was murdered.’ When it was over, we went back to our corners and swept it underneath the rug because we don’t talk about race in America. Our hope is people will be able to talk about it so our differences won’t be a difference anymore.”

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