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Delicate Case Ends on Up Note for Darden : Trial: Racial issues often put prosecutor in tough spot. He is applauded for closing arguments.

TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

For Christopher A. Darden, the past two days have been a personal triumph after a year of wrenching adversity as the only African American on the team prosecuting O.J. Simpson.

Darden’s tightly focused and compelling closing argument won praise from attorneys and community leaders, who said Darden had erased at least some of the scars he has acquired while trying to prove that Simpson is a double murderer.

“As an African American lawyer, I would say that the buttons on my shirt were popping with pride--he did a magnificent job,” said Reginald Holmes, former president of the Langston Bar Assn., the largest black lawyers organization in Southern California.

By all accounts, the case has been a nightmare for the moody 39-year-old Darden who has been a prosecutor for more than 14 years and is scheduled to head the district attorney’s Inglewood office after the Simpson trial.

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Darden has said in court that the racially charged Simpson trial has “created a lot of problems for my family and myself.” He has been accused of carrying water for a white district attorney unfairly prosecuting a black football hero. And he endured stinging critiques of his professional skills for his decision to ask Simpson to try on the infamous bloody gloves.

Darden’s problems in the case erupted in January during a dramatic courtroom clash when he was the prosecution’s point man in efforts to keep jurors from hearing about racist remarks made by former Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman.

Since then, Darden “has become an unfortunate scapegoat for some of the hostility and anger that is justifiably felt by African Americans about Mark Fuhrman, the LAPD and the historic double standard of justice for African Americans in the criminal justice system,” said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Urban League.

Another black community leader, Joe Hicks, said that while some African Americans view Darden as a positive role model, others felt he was part of a prosecution team that has “winked at racism in their attempt to get a conviction.”

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Hicks, director of the Los Angeles Multicultural Collaboration, said Darden also has suffered by being compared to Simpson’s lead lawyer, the charismatic Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who gained a stature of “near mythical proportions in the African American community.”

But even Darden’s detractors praised him Wednesday after his phase of the closing argument.

“He was passionate, riveting and compelling,” said former Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, who has been highly critical of the way the case has been prosecuted.

Most significantly, Reiner said, Darden has “provided what has been missing from the prosecution case from the very beginning--an overall theme which he wove through his argument. And that theme is, ‘Not Even O.J. Simpson should be allowed to get away with murder.’ ”

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For whatever anguish Darden has experienced throughout the case, Reiner said, in the end he “sucked it up and became a superstar.”

During his two-day summation, the prosecutor effectively assumed an air of solemnity and adopted a conversational tone as he portrayed Simpson as a man who exploded with rage after years of deep, simmering anger with his wife.

One of the most memorable passages in Darden’s presentation came Tuesday evening when he recounted what a battered Nicole Simpson told a police officer who had responded to a domestic call at her and O.J. Simpson’s home in 1989: “He’s going to kill me,” the officer testified. “He’s going to kill me.” Darden repeated those words for the jury again and again.

On Wednesday, with great flare and imagery, Darden offered an analogy of a burning home in need of an emergency response by the jury. The structure, he said, is filled with smoke--the blinding “smoke screen” created by the defense.”

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“Inside the burning house you can hear the wail of a baby, a baby’s crying, a baby in fear, a baby about to lose its life,” Darden said. “And you can hear that baby screaming. And you can hear that wail. Now, that baby, that baby is justice. . . . And you have a sense of what the law requires. And you have a strong commitment to justice and to the law, and you want to do the right thing for justice is about to perish.”

Such oratory led Holmes of the black lawyers association to proclaim: “Everyone who has watched this man and seen his painful moments and his low moments should stand up and give Chris a standing ovation.

“This is the side of Chris Darden that he’s been trying to get out, dying to show the world--the alternative to the dapper, heroic figure of Johnnie Cochran,” said Holmes, who has been dismayed by the rancor between the two lawyers in the long, bitter trial.

Indeed, Darden has been on the defensive, virtually from the moment he was put on the case by Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti last November shortly after the jury was picked.

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First, his onetime mentor, Cochran, suggested that Darden was added to the government team because he is black and a predominantly black jury had been selected to hear the case.

In January, Darden’s problems escalated when he was chastised in the black community for trying to prevent O.J. Simpson’s lawyers from asking Fuhrman if he had ever used the word “nigger.”

“It is the dirtiest, filthiest, nastiest word in the English language,” Darden said in a searing courtroom speech.

“It’ll upset the black jurors. It’ll issue a test, and the test will be: ‘Whose side are you on, the side of the white prosecutors and the white policemen, or are you on the side of the black defendant and his very prominent and capable black lawyer?’ That’s what it’s going to do. Either you’re with the man, or you’re with the brothers.”

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Cochran lashed back, saying it was “demeaning to our jurors” to suggest that African Americans who “live with offensive words and offensive treatment every day of their lives” could not be fair. “All across America today, black people are offended at this very moment.”

Darden also raised eyebrows in a June interview with The Times, saying his experiences in the Simpson trial had “shaken my faith” in the criminal justice system and made him question whether he wanted ever to try another case.

“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, a wonderful team. . . . But I hope that my participation in this case is not the legacy that I leave.”

Perhaps Darden’s lowest moment came two weeks later, when he asked Simpson to try on gloves prosecutors believe he wore to murder Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. In a dramatic demonstration Simpson worked his hands into the frayed, bloodied gloves and pronounced them “too tight.”

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Veteran defense lawyer Albert De Blanc Jr. said, however, that Darden had done much good work in the case, including his skillful cross-examination of car detailer Robert Heidstra, and that the last two days were a culmination of months of hard work. “Chris Darden gave an A+ performance in his closing argument. The motive evidence could not have more graphically presented to this jury.”

De Blanc also lauded Darden for bearing up under the intense burden of being a black prosecutor prosecuting a black celebrity.

“Chris Darden has held himself above the accusations of not being a ‘brother,’ De Blanc said. “His color should not matter one bit in his pursuit of justice as a professional prosecutor in this case.”

But for some people it clearly does matter. “From the beginning he’s been in the hot seat--an almost impossible position,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, veteran black activist and writer who is the author of the forthcoming book, “Beyond O.J.: Race, Sex and Class, Lessons for America.”

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“He’s feeling the pressure. He’s got to be mindful of the negative comments. I think it has caused him a lot of personal discomfort and cognitive dissonance. He’s in no-win situation.”

Darden’s longtime colleague, Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Yochelson, also said the case had been a burden on Darden. “This case weighs very heavily on him,” Yochelson said Wednesday.

Yochelson said it was particularly ironic that Darden had been criticized for trying to restrict questions about Fuhrman’s racist remarks because Darden spent seven years investigating and prosecuting police brutality cases and certainly was no friend of rogue law enforcement officers.

“I know that Chris cares deeply about those issues,” Yochelson said, “but he feels that the evidence in this case points strongly toward one conclusion--Simpson’s guilt--and he regrets that the case got off on a sidetrack on Fuhrman.”

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“What you saw this week was Chris at his best,” Yochelson added. “He spoke from the heart. This domestic violence material affected him deeply and he attempted to communicate that to the jury.”


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