The threatening phone calls to Chris Darden’s law office began almost immediately. The messages on Instagram and Facebook trickled in soon after, some from anonymous accounts.
One caller left a voicemail, Darden recalled, saying he hoped someone would walk up behind the attorney and shoot him in the head.
“And I’m a shooter,” the voice said.
The drama was triggered by something Darden has done quietly for years: appear in court to defend someone charged with murder.
This time, though, the defendant was Eric Holder, the man accused of gunning down the influential rapper and civic hero Nipsey Hussle in an attack that reverberated far beyond his South Los Angeles neighborhood. The nasty messages, which appeared to come from as far away as Alabama and Idaho, continued for a month, until Darden withdrew from the case earlier this month, he said.
“When I face criticism, I usually dig in,” Darden told The Times. “If I thought that digging in was the best thing for Eric Holder, I would. But I don’t think it is.”
The hostility is not uncommon for criminal defense attorneys handling high-profile cases that have generated widespread community anger and a sense of loss. Experts say Darden — a black attorney best known for prosecuting O.J. Simpson in a double murder case during which he also received death threats and was labeled a “race traitor” — is a particularly accessible target. It’s unlikely that a more anonymous public defender would have faced the same criticism.
“It’s not like he’s hard to reach .… People already know him,” said Lou Shapiro, an L.A. criminal defense attorney and former public defender. “You add all that together, it makes him an easy target.”
Stephen Kelson, a Utah attorney who has studied threats and violence against attorneys in 29 states, said lawyers who usually bear the brunt of the animosity are those who specialize in criminal defense and family law.
“People in those circumstances, they react, they get very emotionally involved and want someone to blame,” he said.
In Utah, he said, a fake disembodied head surrounded in Christmas lights once appeared on an attorney’s front porch. In Wisconsin, a man charged with violent crimes mailed a Valentine’s Day card to his prosecutor’s children. Attorneys in a contentious real estate case there once received dead fish in the mail before a key deposition.
In recent years, the U.S. Marshals Service has logged a growing number of threats and inappropriate communications to federal court members, including Supreme Court justices, federal judges, prosecutors and public defenders.
The number of incidents jumped from 2,847 in fiscal year 2017 to 4,542 in fiscal year 2018, an increase the agency attributes to internal policy changes and better reporting by district offices nationwide.
The vast majority of threats don’t result in actual violence, and most attorneys brush them off as a reality of the job, Kelson said. It’s rare that an attorney would drop a case over them.
“I think they need to be more careful about where it’s coming from and make sure that they’re evaluating the threat,” he said.
Celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos said the only time he was genuinely concerned for his safety was when someone left a pipe bomb in a portable toilet outside his home, which was under construction.
It was late in 2003, when he was representing two of the highest-profile criminal defendants in the country at the time: Michael Jackson, who had recently been charged with child molestation, and Scott Peterson, who was accused of killing his wife and unborn son.
Around the same time, the FBI showed up at his office saying a credible threat had been lodged against him.
“I said, ‘That’s great, what do I do now?’” he recalled. “They said, ‘Nothing, we thought we’d let you know.’”
More recently, Geragos said his role in “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett’s case “sent people through the roof, like nothing I have seen in 15 years.”
Strangers sent racist messages in the mail and through his website. Some contained threats.
“There were people who said they were going to take him out, take me out,” Geragos said.
It’s hard to know when a threat is credible versus when someone is just venting their anger, said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.
Levenson, who over the years has offered commentary on noteworthy criminal cases, has a filing cabinet full of nasty letters and threatening messages she’s saved throughout her career. She reports all of them to authorities.
There’s a note on the drawer advising that if something bad happens, look here.
In a case in Alabama years ago, defense attorney Charles Salvagio opted for a more aggressive response.
He and L.A. attorney Thomas Mesereau said they won an acquittal of a homeless black man in the killing of a white woman after a racially charged trial in 2001. During a radio interview about the case, someone called in “and said I was going to get mine,” Salvagio said.
The lawyer called up a local TV news reporter for a segment that showed him loading his pistol.
“I said, ‘I’m home right now, you know where I’m at, come on,’” Salvagio said, with a laugh. “That was the only way I knew how to deal with it.”
More recently, he and Mesereau worked on a death penalty case in Alabama in which a black man was acquitted in the slaying of an Iraq war veteran and father. Soon afterward, leaflets from what appeared to be a hate group affiliated with the KKK were distributed in the area referring to the acquittal.
“You better wake up whitey!” the fliers said.
Closer to home, Mesereau said that after winning an acquittal in a murder case in Torrance more than 20 years ago, deputies didn’t let him leave the courthouse for three hours because gangs linked to the victim were circling the building.
“Police were stopping cars and checking trunks to see if people had guns,” he said.
Mesereau said he received nasty messages while representing Jackson and actor Robert Blake, who was acquitted of killing his wife, but no one actually threatened him harm.
In Hussle’s case, the rapper was a role model for young people in South L.A., where he built up the community as the owner of many small businesses, making his violent death especially unbearable. That could explain the hostility toward Darden.
“All they see is, this person took away someone who I looked up to, idolized,” Shapiro said. “And how dare anyone else try to get in the way of this person being held accountable for it.”
Hussle was outside his Hyde Park shop when a young man approached and opened fire at close range, killing Hussle and wounding two others. Police said Holder had gotten into a dispute with Hussle earlier in the day.
Holder, an aspiring rapper who went by the moniker Fly Mac, has sung of body bags, “.38 gun blasts” and bloody homicides.
He was charged with one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder and one count of possession of a firearm by a felon. He has pleaded not guilty and is due back in court next month. If convicted, he faces life in state prison.
A judge granted Darden’s request earlier this month to withdraw from Holder’s case. It was then assigned to a public defender, Mearl Lottman, though it’s unclear if he will be involved for the long haul.
Levenson said the anger and intimidation toward Darden is misdirected — and troubling. The attorney “is doing exactly what we as a society … want him to do,” she said. “The system will not work without lawyers doing their jobs on both sides.”
Darden said he did not report the threats to him and his family to law enforcement, but beefed up security around his home.
“We already know you’re not safe at school, you’re not safe in the office, you’re not safe at the university — you’re not safe in front of the courthouse either,” Darden said. “It’s something that’s always in the back of your mind, sort of nagging you a little bit.”
He felt the outrage over him taking on the case is an assault on Holder’s 6th Amendment right to counsel.
“Manson gets a lawyer, Ted Bundy gets a lawyer. But Eric Holder, he don’t get a lawyer,” Darden said. “Thousands of people are advocating the denial of this guy’s 6th Amendment right, with mob mentality deciding who gets a lawyer and who doesn’t.”
He’s not convinced his decision to withdraw was the right one, but said the focus in Holder’s case shouldn’t be on his attorney.
“If anything, threats make me want to stay more,” he said. “As a lawyer, when you are defending someone, you have to look and see and know whether or not defending them is best thing for them.”
Even though he would have been on the other side of the courtroom in this case, Darden drew parallels between defending Holder and prosecuting Simpson.
“It’s the same old thing,” he said. “The only difference is you can be threatened over the phone, over the internet, on social media — people can wire right into you.”