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Dream Team Nightmare

A lawsuit by O. J. Simpson claims journalist Lawrence Schiller got much of the material for his book (and upcoming TV mini-series) American Tragedy by interviewing Simpson's defense attorneys under false pretenses.

Logo - Brill's ContentNovember 2000 | Brill’s Content

By Jim Edwards

On the evenings of November 12 and 15, CBS will broadcast American Tragedy, a two-part mini-series dramatizing the O.J. Simpson trial as seen from inside the Dream Team’s defense war room. Ving Rhames, Ron Silver, and Christopher Plummer will star, and the script was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Mailer. In broadcast-TV terms, these are big guns.

As is perhaps fitting, given that American Tragedy is about lawyers, Simpson filed suit on August 15 against the film’s director, Lawrence Schiller — who wrote the book of the same name upon which it is based — as well as against his former attorney Robert Kardashian, to prevent American Tragedy from airing. According to Simpson, Mailer’s script makes use of conversations about Simpson’s defense — originally reported in Schiller’s 1996 book — that are protected by attorney-client privilege. Simpson says Schiller got much of the material for American Tragedy (both the book and the film) by interviewing Simpson’s defense attorneys under false pretenses: He had promised Simpson final approval over the manuscript but never showed it to him.

The eight members of Simpson’s defense team whom Schiller interviewed for American Tragedy confirm that they talked to Schiller about Simpson’s double-murder trial on the understanding that Simpson would see the manuscript. Simpson’s suit is unlikely to succeed. A trial date had not been set at press time, but on September 6 a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles denied Simpson’s request for an injunction to halt production of American Tragedy, declaring that the case has little merit. But the suit offers a revealing look at how one reporter gained the intimate confidence of his subject — a murder suspect — only later to face accusations of betraying that confidence to get his story.

Schiller is a veteran true-crime journalist. He is best known for his collaboration with Norman Mailer on 1979’s The Executioner’s Song — Schiller researched and reported the book — which told the story of executed murderer Gary Gilmore. He began working on American Tragedy in late 1995, but he had laid the groundwork for the book throughout Simpson’s murder trial, which lasted from January to October of that year. Schiller joined Simpson’s inner circle by ghostwriting his 1995 jailhouse dispatch, I Want to Tell You, after which Schiller developed what for a journalist was an unusually close relationship with Simpson and his lawyers, going so far as to do pro bono work for the defense — Schiller listened to hours of taped interviews with Los Angeles Police Department detective Mark Fuhrman and isolated snippets of Fuhrman’s racist language for use at the murder trial. Simpson and Schiller were so close, in fact, that Simpson arranged for Schiller to sit in the section of Judge Lance Ito’s courtroom that had been reserved for family members.

In April 1995, according to Simpson’s suit, Schiller and Simpson made plans to write another book together, this time about the trial itself. That book never found a publisher, but Schiller apparently stuck by his friend Simpson nonetheless. Schiller told Vanity Fair in 1996 that after Simpson’s acquittal in October 1995, Schiller sold snapshots he’d taken at the post-acquittal party to tabloids and turned over $640,000 of the proceeds to Simpson.

Schiller’s success at earning Simpson’s trust made him ideally situated to write the definitive account of the trial. At some point during the trial, Schiller approached Jason Epstein, then the editorial director at Random House, with a proposal for the book that would eventually become American Tragedy. (Epstein cannot recall a precise date; Schiller declined an interview for this article.) Epstein says he agreed to buy the book.

Schiller enlisted Simpson attorney Robert Kardashian’s help in researching American Tragedy — Kardashian was credited in the book’s acknowledgments as being the primary source, and Schiller told Vanity Fair that he had paid Kardashian an hourly fee for his help, though he wouldn’t say what that fee was. Documents filed in Simpson’s suit show that when he learned near the end of his trial that Kardashian was helping Schiller, Simpson began to worry about what Kardashian and other members of his defense team might reveal about the case. He sent two memos to his defense team, first in October and again in November, insisting that they preserve his attorney-client privilege.

In late November, according to affidavits filed in the suit, Schiller set about trying to interview other members of Simpson’s Dream Team — Barry Scheck, Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey, et al. — for American Tragedy. After his initial attempts were rebuffed, Schiller went to his friend Simpson to ask him to give the lawyers permission to talk. In late 1995 and early 1996, according to his suit, Simpson agreed, on the condition that he could review the manuscript before publication.

Schiller says in his response to Simpson’s suit that no such agreement ever existed. But Simpson’s former attorneys are unanimous in their support of Simpson’s account. Eight members of the defense team — everyone except Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro, neither of whom talked to Schiller — filed detailed affidavits saying that they consented to be interviewed by Schiller only because of the understanding that their former client would have final approval over the manuscript before it was published. Scheck’s declaration is typical of the rest: “[Schiller] agreed that any publication would be reviewed by Mr. Simpson,” he wrote, “and that any privileged or confidential information would be deleted unless Mr. Simpson gave express authorization….” According to six of the lawyers, either Simpson himself or his attorney Peter Neufeld, who represented Simpson in the dispute over the book, told them it was okay to talk to Schiller because Simpson would be able to change the manuscript. Three of Simpson’s lawyers had an incentive to help Schiller: In an affidavit responding to Simpson’s lawsuit, Schiller says he paid attorneys Shawn Chapman, Robert Blaiser, and Carl Douglas a total of $22,500 for their interviews.

American Tragedy hit bookstores in October 1996, revealing such insider tidbits as Simpson’s failing a lie-detector test before the murder trial. Simpson never got to vet the manuscript, despite Neufeld’s repeated attempts between June and October 1996 to persuade Schiller and Kardashian to turn it over. In September 1996, Neufeld says, Random House attorney Kelli Sager notified him that Simpson would not be allowed to see the book before it was published. The only reason that Simpson didn’t sue Schiller when the book was published was that he was too busy defending himself in the wrongful-death case, says attorney Terry Gross, who is representing Simpson in the suit against Schiller and Kardashian.

Whatever the outcome of Simpson’s suit, one person has already been punished for his role in American Tragedy: Robert Kardashian. In 1996, the State Bar of California initiated disciplinary proceedings against Kardashian for his conduct in the Simpson trial. The complaint stemmed from Kardashian’s participation as a source in American Tragedy. In July, Kardashian entered into a settlement with the Bar and agreed not to practice law for two years in exchange for closing the case and sealing the file.

Schiller returned three calls but said he was too busy editing the mini-series to speak to Brill’s Content: “My deadline is more important than yours” were his words before he referred queries to his attorney.