Getting Dragged Down in Cynicism of Simpson Case

The reporters and lawyers enveloped by the O.J. Simpson trial tend to have a sour view of life in the Criminal Courts Building.

That's not news. But a hallway conversation with Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden, one of the Simpson prosecutors, this week got me wondering if the protracted trial is making the crew even more gloomy than it was before.

I began my musing after Darden came up and asked what I thought of his downbeat interview in The Times last Sunday.

He had been asked by editorial writer Gayle Pollard Terry how the case had changed his life.

"I don't know if I want to try another case," Darden replied. "I don't know if I ever want to practice law again. It has shaken my faith in a system, a system that I never considered perfect, but . . . was as close to perfect as possible. Everything about this case and these proceedings is imperfect. Frankly, I'm ashamed to be part of this case. I'm not ashamed of the efforts of our team. We have a great team. . . . But I hope that my participation in this case is not the legacy that I leave."

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Darden is a smart, complex man with an edgy personality and a manner that is sometimes unapproachable. He's challenging, the kind of person I like to cover. But I haven't known him long so I was surprised when he asked my opinion about the interview.

He told me people seemed stirred up by his comments. That was putting it mildly, I thought. Talk about a pessimistic view of the world.

His comments were so startling that they were reported on national television news through Monday morning and, of course, were the talk of the courthouse. Lawyers and reporters speculated that the 39-year-old prosecutor was suffering from burnout or from the heat that he--an African American--was taking from some parts of the black community for prosecuting the famed black athlete.

His question to me was simple: What do you think I meant?

I didn't think he was a burnout case. I said I thought he meant he believed in the criminal justice system and was trying to make it work. But as he saw it, the process was breaking down in the Simpson trial. Some reporters, including me, feel the same way, I said. We all believe in the system. We'd like it to work. But that doesn't seem to be happening here.

Right, he said, that's what I meant.

I thought about our conversation and Wednesday discussed it with a press corps colleague, Shirley E. Perlman, who is covering the Simpson trial for Newsday, published on Long Island, and New York Newsday, which circulates mostly in Manhattan. She sits next to me in the pressroom and we often exchange views on the drama that unfolds--and ensnares us--every day.

Like many of the reporters assigned to the trial, Perlman is a veteran of covering big trials. America's best trial reporters are in the Simpson courtroom, watching the action through the prism of their experiences in courtrooms around the nation.

She has the ability to take a calm view of the daily turmoil, due, perhaps, as much to her experience as a mother of three as to her years in the courtroom. So she did not share the apocalyptic view expressed by Darden and me.

"I understand what Darden was saying," Perlman said. "But this case has not shaken my view that the system is as good as the people who are in it. It is the people who are responsible."

If people are disillusioned, she said, it may be because "the system is designed to be a search for truth." But in the reality of a criminal trial, "it is an adversarial system" with both prosecution and defense struggling for advantage through every phase of the case, from jury selection through final argument.

"Both sides were looking for jurors who were sympathetic to their point of view," she said. "Each side tries to keep out evidence they feel damages their case. That always happens.

"I see the same problems in this case that I see in other cases," she said, "except this case is tremendously exaggerated. There's nothing here that would make me change my opinion. The system is made up of people, and it is their responsibility to make it work."

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I agree. The trouble is that even the best-intentioned person doesn't seem to make a difference in this case. There's something about the Simpson trial that drags people down. You fancy yourself a serious journalist and everyone asks you about Kato Kaelin.

But don't get me wrong. I wouldn't miss it. I bet Chris Darden feels the same way.

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