The blood on the table
In American Tragedy, his exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—account of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Lawrence Schiller relates a story that would seem unbelievable even on a network crime procedural. Barry Scheck, the defense lawyer in charge of examining the DNA evidence, is trying to establish the possibility of contamination at the lab that tested the blood from the Bundy and Rockingham scenes. He ends up focusing on lab technician Collin Yamauchi, who handled many of the samples, and after painstakingly reconstructing the criminalist’s notes, he uncovers a bombshell:
Yamauchi had worked with O.J.’s reference sample [of blood] immediately before he handled the Rockingham glove. If Yamauchi got blood on himself, or if he got some on the table when he opened O.J.’s vial—a real possibility, considering the bloodstains on the vial—he could have transferred O.J.’s blood to the glove.
Then Scheck worked out from the lab notes the order in which Yamauchi handled the Bundy blood swatches. Scheck compared that order to the amount of Simpson’s DNA found on each sample.
Paydirt. For the first time Scheck and his team could see that the Bundy swatch with the largest quantity of O.J.’s DNA, swatch number 51, was the first one that Yamauchi touched after he handled the Rockingham glove. The swatch containing the second-highest quantity was the second one he touched. And so forth.
Scheck instantly recognizes the importance of this discovery. If the handling of the samples at the lab itself can be brought into question, the fact that DNA testing put Simpson’s blood at the scene can be thrown out the window: any test, no matter how accurate, is only as good as the evidence it analyzes. As Schiller puts it:
Common sense indicated that Yamauchi had to have gotten some of Simpson’s blood on his own glove, or on the table, or both. It was like stepping into a mud puddle, then continuing onto dry ground. Your first footprint leaves a lot of mud; the next one leaves a bit less; the third leaves still less. Scheck could see Yamauchi’s “footprint” on the glove and Bundy blood swatches.
The sequence was clear: Yamauchi gets O.J.’s reference blood on his gloved hands. Maybe on his worktable. Then he transfers O.J.’s blood to the Rockingham glove. Next he handles the Bundy swatches and contaminates them with O.J.’s blood.
And under questioning in court by Scheck, Yamauchi confirms that he got blood on his gloves while handling the tube with the reference sample, immediately before moving on to the Rockingham glove and the Bundy swatches. Yamauchi claims that he threw the contaminated gloves away, but it’s more than enough to raise legitimate concerns about the accuracy of the results that were obtained.
I’m telling this story in detail for several reasons. First, because I hadn’t heard it before reading Schiller’s book earlier this year, and I think it’s fascinating. Second, because it serves as a reminder that the Simpson defense raised damaging questions about the prosecution’s case that had nothing to do with race or the accuracy of DNA testing itself. Third, because we didn’t hear a word about it in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. I should say right now that I loved the miniseries, which covers an enormous amount of ground in ten hours—but it can’t include everything. And the fact that Scheck’s breakthrough doesn’t even merit a mention, when it might have served as the centerpiece of another story, reminds us of how challenging this narrative really is. Despite the show’s texture and surprising subtlety, I have a feeling that most viewers will still come away with a sense that the defense’s case was based solely on allegations of police conspiracy and a pair of ill-fitting gloves, when in fact Scheck’s systematic dismantling of much of the physical evidence was so persuasive that I’m not entirely sure how I would have voted. (That said, I don’t think there’s any real doubt about Simpson’s guilt. Everyone will have a different opinion about which details can or can’t be explained away, but for me, it’s those Bruno Magli shoes, which we know the killer wore—it would have been all but impossible to fake—and which Simpson denied having owned, only to have dozens of photographs surface after the trial showing him wearing those very shoes, less than three hundred pairs of which were ever sold.)
Still, the miniseries represents a real achievement. It’s almost tempting to underestimate how good a job it really does, given what the writers had to work with: it offers roles of a lifetime to Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, to Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, and especially to Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden, and its climactic scene is the best proof imaginable of the writing rule, which I’ve discussed here before, that a jury delivering its verdict is always suspenseful, even if we know exactly what the outcome will be. And the result is so satisfying that it’s probably a trifle unfair to point out that the series doesn’t give the scientific side of the defense’s case the attention it deserves. (Doing it justice would have required a different approach altogether, closer to the obsessive procedurals that David Fincher does so well in films like Zodiac or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and while I’d love to see that version of this story, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll get it.) Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have done a spectacular job of clarifying and organizing a vast amount of information, much as they did with Ed Wood and Man on the Moon, which are still two of the best biopics I’ve ever seen. And they’re ruthless about cutting back repeatedly to the social and emotional core of the story, even if it means leaving a lot of great material on the table. It doesn’t provide a lot of room for Rob Morrow as Barry Scheck, who gets about a dozen lines of dialogue altogether, along with a tantalizing final caption that reminds us that he went on to found the Innocence Project. That’s a miniseries in itself. But it’s one we’ll just have to imagine.