John Beard has been back on Channel 2 so long now that Western New Yorkers might have forgotten that he once worked in the big time.
Beard, who joined Channel 2 as “Daybreak” co-anchor in 2009, recently has been reminded of his quarter-century as an anchor in Los Angeles by viewing the FX limited series, “American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson.”
He anchored the nine-month trial gavel to gavel, sitting on the set at KTTV, one of the LA TV stations in 1995 that covered the so-called Trial of the Century live.
“It brings back so many memories,” said Beard of the FX series. “There are so many things about it that I’ve forgotten.”
He remembers very well how he heard about the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. His then-girlfriend was on the assignment desk at KTTV and relayed the news. He didn’t initially connect Simpson to the murders.
“It never occurred to me at all,” said Beard. “It didn’t hit me that much. I didn’t see the implications at the time, the tragic story.”
Beard, who left Channel 4 in Buffalo for LA in 1981, has watched every episode of the FX series about the trial of the former Buffalo Bills star. He has loved it, with some reservations.
“I wasn’t buying Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J., but after the few couple of episodes, that went away,” said Beard. “He is smaller than O.J. was, he doesn’t physically resemble him very much, his voice is different.”
Becoming TV critic for a day, Beard praised Courtney B. Vance as defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, Sterling K. Brown as prosecutor Christopher Darden and Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark. He wasn’t as high on the high-profile actor playing defense attorney Robert Shapiro.
“John Travolta was a bother at first, but that doesn’t bother me so much now,” said Beard. “He is the weakest of the characters.”
Travolta is in the spotlight of this Tuesday’s gripping Episode Seven, which focuses on how the defense team manipulated Darden into asking Simpson to try on the bloody glove found near Simpson’s home. The demonstration backfired and led Cochran to say to the jury famously, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Beard also praised David Schwimmer, the former “Friends” star who plays Simpson’s friend Robert Kardashian.
“I thought that would be bad casting but it turned out to be pretty good,” said Beard.
Schwimmer is in the spotlight in Episode Eight when Kardashian’s doubts about Simpson’s innocence emerge after all the DNA evidence overwhelmingly points to his friend as the killer.
Beard believes the series captures the essence of the trial that he watched daily with two lawyers on the set – a white civil rights leader, Luke McKissack, and a black civil rights lawyer, Leo Terrell. Beard said Terrell is a Simpson family friend.
“Every time there was a break or recess or a sidebar we would come on camera and summarize,” said Beard. “It was a fascinating real-time learning experience for me.”
He also had one unfortunate experience. He was on Catalina Island when a man approached him and said, “Hey, John. How you doing?”
The guy introduced himself as Allan Park, the limousine driver who took Simpson to the airport on the night of the murders.
“I said, ‘Don’t say another word and go away from me,’ ” Beard said.
He didn’t want Park to jeopardize his testimony by talking to someone in the media.
As a member of the media, Beard went inside the court a few times to look at the jury and principals. Getting an up-close look at the defendant made Beard question the defense attorneys’ claim that it would be really hard for one man to kill two people without making a lot of noise.
“I forgot sitting behind O.J. how big he was compared to everybody else on both sides of the bench,” said Beard. “A big guy with a big knife in the dark, that (defense claim) did not pass the smell test.”
Like many others, Beard believes moving the trial from predominantly white Santa Monica, to downtown Los Angeles, led to the not-guilty verdict by a predominantly black jury who could easily envision Simpson being framed by a racist cop, Mark Fuhrman, who found the bloody glove.
Beard thought Simpson would be convicted at the start but noted that evidence available to the public wasn’t put into the trial.
“I do think the prosecution did a terrible job of presenting their case,” said Beard. “They got outmanuevered, especially by Cochran. They never should have put Fuhrman on the stand. (Defense attorney) F. Lee Bailey cut him up into shreds. That alone, if I were black, probably would have swayed me. The change of venue was a mistake … I thought there were times he might get off on a technicality because of the glove, how Fuhrman clearly was a racist. I could see how that could sway any jury. I get that … But there was never a doubt in my mind that he killed her.”
“The DNA would have convicted anybody else. You’ve got the guy’s blood dripping from the crime scene. That’s it, game over. But they dirtied up the DNA, and made it look like they framed O.J., which was beyond belief. He was universally loved. He knew more cops than anybody know. They were friends. There is absolutely no motive to frame O.J. Simpson. None.”
On the day of the verdict, Beard said both attorneys on the set expected a conviction.
FX’s retelling of the story illustrates Cochran’s ability to play the race card and makes the acquittal less surprising today than it was in 1995 when there was a racial divide.
“It is an education,” said Beard of the series. “Certainly a whole generation hasn’t seen it, doesn’t know much about it.”
Beard hasn’t changed his mind on Simpson’s guilt but he has changed his view of cameras in the court.
“I always thought it was a good idea,” said Beard. “But I think that the principals, knowing that they would be on live, changed the trial. I think trials that are important should be recorded for posterity or educational purposes. But I don’t think they should be viewed live.”
That’s one verdict in the case that’s easy to accept.