From the moment the curtain went up, race has been the usually unspoken but seldom forgotten subtext in the unfolding drama of O.J. Simpson’s double murder trial. Wednesday, however, it took center stage, when a racially charged exchange between lead defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and prosecutor Christopher A. Darden led Judge Lance A. Ito to threaten both men with contempt before angrily leaving the bench for 15 minutes in an effort to regain his own composure.
The incident began when Darden sought to confront defense witness Robert Heidstra with a statement Heidstra purportedly made to an acquaintance, Patricia Baret. Baret told police that Heidstra said one of the voices he allegedly heard in the alley behind Nicole Brown Simpson’s condominium on the night of the murders was that of an older black man.
As Darden attempted to explore the issue, Ito--angry because no groundwork had been laid for the introduction of the conversation, as required by court rules on certain subjects in the case--shouted, “Wait! Wait!” The judge ordered the jury out of the courtroom: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, please leave!” The jurors, visibly taken aback by the judge’s vehemence, were on their feet and headed for the door before he completed his order.
The prosecutor then explained how police obtained the statement, concluding: “That is the good-faith basis upon which I am asking these questions, Your Honor.”
Cochran responded angrily. “I resent that statement,” he said. “You can’t tell by somebody’s voice whether they sounded black. . . . That’s a racist statement.”
Darden responded by suggesting that Cochran was accusing him of injecting race into the case. Turning directly to the defense lawyer, he said, “That’s what has created a lot of problems for my family and myself, statements that you make about me and race.”
At that point, an agitated Ito shouted again, “Wait, wait, wait. I’m going to take a recess right now because I’m so mad at both you guys, I’m about to hold both of you in contempt.”
“I apologize, Your Honor,” Darden said as the judge stormed from the bench.
“It’ll take more than that,” Ito snapped.
At one level, the exchange was simply another example of rancor-as-usual in the bare-knuckle match the Simpson trial has become. But it also sheds further light on the human story of how the friendship between the dean of Los Angeles’ African American bar, Cochran, and one of its most promising younger members, Darden, has soured.
They have been at each other’s throat since the trial’s outset, when Cochran suggested that Darden had been added to the prosecution team to create a favorable impression on African American jurors. They subsequently clashed in a bitter dispute over whether a racial epithet commonly directed at African Americans could be used in court. Since then, they have used the trial’s frequent sidebars to snipe at one another.
During the run-up to the trial, a defense source said, Cochran and Darden, who had cooperated on a number of police abuse cases prosecuted by the younger lawyer, spoke almost nightly on the phone. “Johnnie was personally concerned about Chris, who is a young man in whom he’s taken a personal interest,” the source said. “He feels that [Dist. Atty. Gil] Garcetti is using Chris, and he warned him that was going to hurt him in the community. And it has.”
“Chris is a sensitive guy,” said Oakland attorney John Burris, a former prosecutor in Chicago and Alameda County, who also knows Cochran. “Johnnie Cochran is a beacon of social responsibility to young lawyers, particularly young blacks.” So, when Cochran suggested that Darden had allowed himself to be used, “Chris was hurt and resentful.
“After all, he had done a lot of work on police abuse cases, demonstrating that he was an able prosecutor and a defender of good causes. And here he was being put down and maligned unfairly,” said Burris, who also is an African American. “I don’t believe Johnnie meant it personally, but as a political point to be applied to any African American who joined the prosecution.
“But Chris took it personally. As a consequence, Chris has responded to every one of Johnnie’s jabs and innuendoes. Partly that’s because he has suffered in public stature in the black community, when he should be receiving accolades as an able professional prosecutor. He wears his resentment over that on his sleeve. What he doesn’t understand is that you can’t win a public relations battle with Johnnie Cochran.”