Of all the characters in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Christopher Darden was by far the most interesting, complex and difficult.
Difficult certainly describes my acquaintance with him when I was writing about that long, long ordeal. Sometimes, when we ran into each other outside the courtroom, he'd tell me my commentaries were just plain ignorant. On another occasion, he asked my opinion about an interview he'd given to a journalist and listened to me as if he thought I was intelligent.
He demonstrated a quietly wicked sense of humor and obviously was racked by deep emotions. But throughout the trial, Darden remained an enigma, holding the world at bay with a facade of perpetual anger at Simpson and his lawyers, at the media, at Judge Lance A. Ito and even at himself.
Darden's temper is a major subject in his revealing and compelling book, "In Contempt." Early in Darden's career, he writes, Beverly Hills Municipal Court Judge Andy Weiss told him, "Sometimes you look like you have a chip on your shoulder or some personal animosity toward the defendant. Calm down and make sure never to appear angry or confrontational." Even Simpson spotted Darden's explosiveness. After Darden blew up during a session early in the proceedings, Simpson whispered to him, "Man, you need to learn to control your temper."
We learn that he got into a bumping match with Simpson during the jury's tour of Simpson's mansion. His nickname for the defendant, used frequently in the book, was anal specific. He frequently fought with Ito, whom he dismisses with contempt. "Ito was drunk with media attention," he writes.
During the trial, I wondered why he was so angry. And why couldn't he hide it, as other lawyers do. This man wore his heart on his sleeve like few others I've met. Now, with the help of journalist Jess Walter, Darden has explained himself. In the course of doing so, he has given us new insights into a trial that has become a defining part of American legal and racial history.
Law and race relations, however, don't sell books or get the author on the "Today" show or "Larry King Live" for the television appearances that kick-start sales. Darden's relationship with co-prosecutor Marcia Clark was the hook that sold the book to the TV interview circuit. And although Darden decries "the hypocrisy of '90s America," he buys into its prurient curiosity by offering several pages of details of his relationship with his co-worker and friend--while still insisting it was their own business, not the world's.
As Darden describes the friendship, it was a relationship of unconsummated potential. One weekend they slipped away to San Francisco and booked rooms at the Fairmont. "Much later," he writes, "we paused at our separate doors, 10 feet of papered walls between us. She faced her hotel room door in a trademark Marcia dress, short and black. She looked down toward her shoes.
" 'I'll see you in the morning,' I said.
" 'Good night, Chris.' "
It was sort of a Hepburn-Tracy relationship, with wisecracks and note-passing in court, drinks after work and nights spent together, Darden snoozing on the couch. With Clark, Darden was able to drop the anger that dominated him since he was a boy in the ghetto of Richmond, Calif., a working-class city east of San Francisco. Richmond was a small city until World War II, when the late Henry J. Kaiser began building Liberty and Victory cargo ships there. His innovative production line methods required thousands of workers, and they included African Americans leaving the South to take wartime jobs. Darden's family was from Texas.
His father, Eddie Darden, was a Korean War vet who ran the family as if it were the Army he loved. "He was the C.O., the commanding officer," Darden writes. And a tough one. "We were spanked, slapped, hit, belted, whatever it took to make sure we got the message." Darden writes of the beltings with a certain sentimentality he didn't feel at the time.
A psychiatrist--not Darden's favorite sort of professional--might trace part of his brooding anger to the childhood discipline. Some might be due to the family's impoverishment, which prevented, among other things, proper care of decayed teeth. And much no doubt stemmed from racism in Richmond, a segregated city where whites treated blacks with contempt and hatred. Darden writes that he was first called the N-word on the streets of Richmond.
Darden chose a profession that fueled his anger: law. Anger is a helpful quality in the courts, a weapon to be developed and channeled against opponents. Perhaps if Darden had been a musician, a composer or a writer, he could have turned his fury into something more creative. But in the daily combat of the criminal courts, it was an asset that brought him promotions, beginning as a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles and moving up through a series of increasingly important jobs to the unit in charge of prosecuting police abuse and eventually to the Simpson prosecution team.
He fit in well with the workaholic pace set by Clark and the other prosecutors. They worked 16-hour days, Darden keeping himself going with swigs of tequila from a bottle in his desk drawer. Clark drank Scotch and smoked filtered Dunhill Red cigarettes. Health nuts need not apply for a job in that office.
Anger and workaholism mixed with a prosecutorial certainty and self-righteousness that is an affliction of the breed. And self-absorption. All through the book, we hear the whine that became familiar during the trial about long hours, terrible pressure and the unbearable toll on personal lives.
Welcome to the National Football League, as they say in sports. Criminal trials, especially ones of this magnitude, are a rough game, and if you can't stand the pain, don't play. Nobody knew this better than Darden's adversary, Johnny L. Cochran Jr., the chief defense attorney.
While Darden and the other prosecutors looked increasingly tortured, Cochran radiated cool. If he worked hard, he felt it was bad form to show it. Inevitably, the confident Cochran dominated the courtroom.
He also understood how to play mind games on Darden, sensing that his younger foe was susceptible to an assault on sensitive emotions.
Cochran began early in the trial when he told reporters that Darden was put on the team because he was black. The words infuriated Darden, coming as they did from a fellow African American. Cochran was playing games, but Darden took it personally, just as he did when he was a young lawyer practicing in the Beverly Hills court. Cochran, writes Darden, made "it painfully clear there were going to be two sides in this case, not prosecution and defense but black and white. And I was welcome on neither."
As angry as he was, Darden often saw things in a clearer light than his colleagues. That was true in the case of Mark Fuhrman.
We learn of sharp disagreement in the district attorney's office over the dangers of putting on the witness stand a detective with a history of racist comments and, perhaps, actions.
Darden reports that one colleague, Deputy Dist. Atty. Cheri Lewis, "had grown fond of [Fuhrman], saying he was an intelligent, careful cop. It was the opinion most people seemed to have of him." Black cops who worked with Fuhrman said that they saw no sign he was a racist. When Darden and Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Gordon interviewed Fuhrman, Gordon said the detective wasn't so bad. Other deputy district attorneys said he would be a good witness. "But I was sick," Darden said. "There was something about this guy."
In one of the most interesting portions of the book, Darden reveals that Cochran warned him three or four times against putting Fuhrman on the witness stand. Cochran's motives were unclear. Maybe Cochran, by then in possession of the infamous Fuhrman tapes, wanted to spare Darden the embarrassment of questioning him.
Darden told Clark he didn't believe in Fuhrman. "I couldn't accept his answer that he hadn't used the N-word in the last 10 years," he said. Too bad nobody listened.
But as Darden admits, he was wrong about the glove. In a moment of impulse, he decided to insist that Simpson try on the glove found at his mansion. Clark disagreed. "If we don't, they will," he replied. Afterward, he "knew what the damage truly was." (One of his sisters told him, "We know one of those white people had you do the glove demonstration." Darden sighed. "No," he said, "it was all my idea.")
Still, he doesn't think the glove lost the case. It was doomed, he writes, by selection of a predominantly African American jury that was a repository of resentment against the Los Angeles Police Department and the criminal justice system. His reaction was the same as mine and many others' to that unforgettable moment when the jury unexpectedly announced it had reached a verdict: "Twelve people could not make an honest assessment of nine months of testimony in just four hours."
Darden went home to brood and to write "In Contempt." He remains bitter over Cochran's use of race to appeal to the jurors. "As a young man, racism seemed to me a single-edged knife, one that whites used to hold blacks down," he writes. "Now I see that our own racism can be as dangerous and insidious as that which we have battled for centuries."
"In Contempt," however, is not a bitter book. Rather, it is one man's account of the experience of his lifetime. Other O.J. Simpson books are on the way; I doubt they'll be more honest or personally insightful than this one. Darden finishes on a note of affirmation, rather than despair. At the very end, he describes the death of his older brother, Michael, a drug addict, from AIDS in November 1995. When they were growing up, Michael would never permit Darden to accompany him on his drug-using and drug-selling expeditions. "Michael told me that I had to stay behind, that I had things to do that he could never even imagine," Darden writes.
Perhaps this book is one of the tasks Michael Darden had in mind for his thoughtful and articulate little brother.