On the day Judge Arthur Brennan sentenced Father Gordon MacRae to die in prison, the trial of O.J. Simpson opened with the highest TV ratings in Hollywood history.
On the night of May 5, 1993, I entered into a nightmare from which I have not yet awakened. I had dinner that evening at a small Rio Rancho, New Mexico diner with two friends with whom I also shared a home and office, Father Michael Mack and Father Clyde Landry. I wrote of them once, and of the chasm of loss brought about by their sudden absence from my imprisoned life, in “The Holy Longing: An All Souls Day Spark for Broken Hearts.”
Minutes after arriving at home on that evening nearly 23 years ago, the doorbell rang. I opened it to see two Rio Rancho police officers standing there. “We’re looking for a Gordon J. MacRae,” one said. “I am he,” I replied. “Please turn and face the wall,” said one of the officers as he placed me in handcuffs to escort me to his cruiser.
That scene, and the ones to follow that night, have replayed in my mind a thousand times since then. I was driven to the Rio Rancho Police Headquarters where Detective Arlan Norby showed me a warrant for my arrest issued weeks earlier 2,000 miles away in Keene, New Hampshire. The warrant described that I stand accused of numerous charges of sexual assault upon two adolescent males alleged to have occurred a dozen years earlier. It listed their identities only as “T.G.” and “J.G.” and I had no idea who they were.
It did not take long for the true nature of the case to surface. Detective Arlan Norby told me that he had numerous telephone conversations with Keene, NH, Detective Jim McLaughlin who was investigating these claims, and added, “This is all because your church has not been handling these cases very well.” From that moment on, I knew this would not be a simple case of truth and justice, and I was right. I was not to be the one on trial.
Within three days, I was released from custody on a personal recognizance bond ordered by a New Mexico judge, and the long, slow process of obtaining information on the case against me began. It was weeks before I learned the identities of “T.G.” and “J.G.” and when I did, I had not thought it possible. I remembered Thomas Grover and his brother, Jonathan, two Native American young men who, years earlier, had been adopted in the Keene area by Patricia and Elmer Grover who divorced after adopting eight multi-racial children. Theirs was not an easy life, but it seemed they found an easy repository for their life’s woes – that and a road to easy money.
Thomas Grover, then age 27, had a criminal record of his own for fraud, forgery, theft, and drug charges, and had pending domestic violence and assault charges. His brother, Jonathan Grover, then age 25, had been discharged from the U.S. Navy after a drunk driving arrest. Jonathan Grover had by then also accused another priest. I could not fathom then how or why these brothers would concoct such a scheme, but the rest of this story – at least, the parts we know, for there are still mysteries yet to be uncovered here – has since been published by writers like Dorothy Rabinowitz and Ryan MacDonald whose summary you may read for yourself at “Part II: The Trial” under “Case History” at These Stone Walls.
It took a full 18 months, and the refusal of numerous lenient plea deal offers, before the case was scheduled for trial. At one point, in a highly unusual development, the prosecution requested a six-month delay because the principal accuser, Thomas Grover, had become uncooperative. It was later learned that he rebelled because he was told that I refused a one-year plea deal. He had apparently been assured that there would be no trial and he could just move on to the money.
It was an irony that I had not fully considered at the time, but I had been living in New Mexico for the previous five years because I was working in ministry as Director of Admissions for the Servants of the Paraclete center for priests. Over the previous two years, the center had become notorious in both local and national news media – including “60 Minutes” which did a shameless, one-sided “gotcha” segment over the treatment of Father James Porter some twenty-five years previously, a case that was ever in the background of my trial.
Thomas and Jonathan Grover’s older brother, David, was actually the first to accuse. A police report documented that he heard on his truck radio about eighty blanket settlements in the notorious “Father Porter” case by the Diocese of Fall River in neighboring Massachusetts in 1993, and had to pull over as a flood of repressed memories of abuse suddenly emerged.
David Grover was the first to attempt the scam, claiming that he was molested by me at my parish at age twelve. It somehow became known that I was never there until two weeks before he turned 18 and joined the U.S. Army, so the process of charging me with even a semblance of possibility fell to his two younger brothers. Blatant lies are no obstacle to settlement, however. My diocese still settled with David Grover for $185,000.
THE WHITE BRONCO
I had to take a leave from my ministry with the Servants of the Paraclete center as I awaited trial, but the superiors of the Order in New Mexico asked me to remain with them throughout my ordeal. It was a courageous gesture of mercy and support for which I have only gratitude, even after all these years.
It was while living with that community that I walked into our common room on June 17, 1994, to see the now famous televised spectacle of a white Ford Bronco being pursued at low speed on a Los Angeles freeway by a dozen police vehicles and TV news helicopters. Ever since then, the case of O.J. Simpson seems in my memory to be the backdrop against which my own nightmare played out.
As I prepared for trial, however, there was no evidence to review beyond Thomas Grover’s own wild claims. So my trial, from jury selection to conviction, was over in two weeks. I was pronounced guilty and sent to prison on September 23, 1994.
The O.J. Simpson trial, by contrast, stretched on for a year, dominating the background of my entire first year in prison. It was all other, prisoners ever talked about. Because the trial was televised, it seemed the only thing every prisoner watched. I did not have a television then, but I was crammed into a cell with seven other men, and had a daily diet of the O.J. trial whether I wanted it or not.
“IF THE GLOVES DON’T FIT, YOU MUST ACQUIT.”
Thanks to television, the entire nation had a front row seat to the rare drama of “The O.J. Trial.” The spectacle included the opening statements of L.A. prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden on January 24, 1995; the theatrical opening statement of defense attorney Johnny Cochran the next day, and some famous names among lawyers as F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck, and Robert Shapiro joined him in O.J.’s million dollar defense.
In the year-long spectacle, we heard L.A. Detective Mark Fuhrman grilled by defense attorney F. Lee Bailey for his suspected history of racist remarks only to later assert his Fifth Amendment right to refuse questions after tapes were played in open court. Then Attorney Robert Shapiro cross-examined Detective Vanatter about statements he allegedly made to mob informants that shed light on why the L.A. police went to the home of O.J. Simpson in the early days of the case.
We witnessed the heavily hyped scene of O.J. trying on the gloves obtained as prosecutorial evidence resulting in Johnny Cochran’s most famous sound bite to emerge from this trial “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit.” And we saw all of this entirely eclipse a mountain of physical and scientific forensic evidence against O.J. Simpson, including DNA evidence.
But none of it mattered. None of it could defeat the theatrics. On October 2, 1995, after a trial that presented mountainous evidence over the course of an entire year, that sequestered jury reached a verdict in just four hours. It was one of the most watched moments in American television history.
On October 2, 1995, from my prison cell, having served a year in prison with just sixty-six left to go for crimes for which there was no evidence at all, I heard the O.J. verdict: “not guilty” on both counts of murder.
NOW COMES MARCIA CLARK
Perhaps the only comparable case was another that played out while I was in prison, and it was another for which I could not help but compare notes. I wrote of that one as well in “Michael Jackson and the Credible Standard” which I took on after I received a drubbing from some staunch Michael Jackson fans who defended him. I’ll receive no drubbing for this one. O.J.’s jurors seem to be his only fans left.
So why do I write of this at all? For two reasons, the second of which I’ll get to below. Three years after the O.J. Trial ended, with me still in prison, I received a letter from the studios of Mark Phillips Films and Television in Los Angeles. Here’s the entire letter dated January 15, 1998:
“Dear Father MacRae: I work for former Los Angeles prosecutor Marcia Clark. She is doing a primetime special for FOX Broadcasting Network which will air at 9:00 PM on Monday, February 16, 1998. Through the National Justice Committee I heard about your story. I talked with Mark Phillips, the Executive Producer of the show, about your case. He in turn talked with the executives at FOX about profiling your story on our special, and they want to feature your story on our show.
“Basically what we are doing in this one-hour, one-on-one interview show with Marcia Clark is to send her wherever the story is. She would do a sit-down interview with you. The interview would end with you taking a polygraph test. I understand you have taken several polygraphs in this case, and have passed them.
“We want to profile your story in a more positive light. It is obvious to us that an injustice has occurred in your case, and through profiling your story we want to get the word out that justice has not been served, and that there is an innocent man sitting in prison who should be free. By getting your story out, people will think twice about blindly accepting charges brought by one person against another person in your situation.” (Letter of January 15, 1998 from Mark Phillips Films & Television)
I accepted Marcia Clark’s invitation immediately, though I added that my accusers should also cooperate with polygraph (lie detector) tests. This had been proposed a number of times, but none of my accusers or their attorneys would even acknowledge similar invitations to take a polygraph or respond to questions. When a former FBI agent investigating the case found and approached accuser Thomas Grover at the Hualapai Tribal Reservation in Arizona where he is hiding, all he would say is “I want a lawyer.”
But to make a long story shorter, the 1998 Marcia Clark program was a dead end. Prison officials blocked the plan and would not allow FOX to conduct an on-camera interview, nor would they allow the polygraph expert to test me. Fox executives sent an appeal to then Governor Jeanne Shaheen (now U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH) who responded in a letter dated January 31, 1998:
“I understand your company’s interest in an on-camera interview with Gordon J MacRae, who is currently an inmate in the New Hampshire State Prison, however I will not intervene in the decision not to allow media access to Mr. MacRae.”
So the Constitution, the First Amendment, and Freedom of the Press all took a back seat to some hidden agenda. The interest of Marcia Clark, however, is the real reason I am writing of this today. Perhaps the overture would have been different after the fall of the priesthood in the revelations of 2002 and 2003 which managed to squash all other media courage – except that of Dorothy Rabinowitz and The Wall Street Journal – in seeing both sides of this story.
In the trial of O.J. Simpson, Marcia Clark saw justice fail in a very big way as a prosecutor trying to bring justice to two murdered victims in Los Angeles. Just three years later, for her to even attempt to bring justice to another high profile story when the rest of the media world was just spitting on it is, for me, a sign of real courage and integrity that is sorely lacking in most of the news media.
But there is a second reason I am writing this account. On Tuesday, February 2, 2016 at 10:00 PM (Eastern Standard Time), the FX cable television network will commence American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, a dramatic presentation of the Trial of O.J. Simpson that will run weekly until early April. The series is built upon a factual publication of CNN Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin entitled, The Run of His Life. It’s a serious effort with an impressive cast including Academy Award-winning actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson, Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark, and John Travolta, Nathan Lane, and Courtney B. Vance as defense attorneys Robert Shapiro, F. Lee Bailey, and Johnny Cochran respectively.
Executive Producer Nina Jacobson promises that “looking back at O.J. helps us understand the world we live in now – 20 years later.” Well, Nina, the world I live in now 20 years later makes me want to turn the channel and run for cover. Justice is not served, then or now.
So my first thought was that I’d rather have a root canal than relive the O.J. Trial! But in a saner, quieter moment, I came to the only conclusion possible. How could I NOT watch? Maybe someone else in the media will catch the example of the likes of Marcia Clark and Dorothy Rabinowitz and grow a spinal column.
So, for those who haven’t yet smashed their TV, is there any interest out there in joining me at FX on Tuesday nights at 10:00? We are, after all, safer in packs!