The issue of race has followed Chris Darden through two of the most high-profile cases of his career.
In 1995, some called the black lawyer a traitor for prosecuting the murder case against O.J. Simpson. Now, he said, his brief stint defending a black man accused of gunning down the beloved rapper and community activist Nipsey Hussle has brought threats to him and his family.
He cited those threats Friday when he announced his decision to step down from the case.
“After centuries of a history of black men hung from trees without trial, or after the thousands of cases of black men tried, convicted and executed without counsel ... I cannot understand why in 2019 some people would deny a black man his 6th Amendment right to counsel of his choice,” Darden wrote in a Facebook post. “Or why defending such a man should invite threats not only against me but against my children too.”
Darden filed his motion to withdraw and left the downtown Los Angeles courtroom before Eric Holder appeared, wearing a yellow jail shirt and blue pants, his wrists shackled to a chain around his waist.
A judge granted Darden’s request and assigned a public defender, Mearl Lottman, to the case. It’s unclear whether Lottman will continue to represent Holder, because he must first determine whether the public defender’s office has any conflicts.
The prosecutor, John McKinney, said he would provide Lottman with a list of potential witnesses so the public defender can make that determination.
Darden told The Times outside the courtroom that he has been defending accused criminals, including gang members, for two decades.
When asked why he took on Holder’s case, he said it was personal. He went on to add: “I defend poor people — that’s all I do. And he’s definitely poor.”
Darden became an international name during Simpson’s so-called trial of the century in 1995, in which the former football star was acquitted of the murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman.
During the trial, Darden and defense attorney Johnnie Cochran clashed often in vitriolic and sometimes personal exchanges, particularly on issues of race, The Times reported that year.
Cochran and others criticized Darden for being part of a prosecution team that, for a time, defended the reputation of Mark Fuhrman, a white L.A. police detective key to the case who was later denounced as a racist for his repeated use of the N-word. Prosecutors ultimately repudiated Fuhrman, and Darden maintained that the former detective’s views on race did not erase all the evidence against Simpson.
Darden wrote a book after the trial, “In Contempt,” in which he criticized Cochran for inflaming racial passions in the trial. Cochran died in 2005.
In Friday’s Facebook post, Darden alluded to that experience.
“Just as they were in 1995-Cowards never change,” he wrote. “These days these cowards don’t send letters instead they sit anonymously behind keyboards threatening a man’s mother and children.”
In the years since, Darden has worked as a defense attorney in murder cases.
When Darden first took on Holder’s case, his daughter Jeneé Darden tweeted that she’d received “vile comments and messages” and had “no say” in her father’s cases.
“Like many of you, I found out about my father’s involvement in the case while scrolling through social media,” she wrote. “I was not prepared for this backlash that has triggered bad memories from the O.J. Simpson trial.”
Her father questioned why the public has fixated on his role in the Nipsey Hussle case.
“Twenty-five years I’ve been defending criminal cases. Why is that so interesting?” he said. People, he said, want to know “how much I got paid” and “what my contract says.”
He said that he has been “quietly” practicing criminal defense. “I represent regular people,” he said. “He’s a regular guy, you know, Holder. He has the same rights as everybody else.”
Hussle, a celebrated rapper and community activist, was outside his shop on Slauson Avenue on March 31 when a man approached and opened fire.
Hussle was fatally wounded, and two others were also shot.
Holder 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. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in state prison. He is due back in court next month.
Police alleged Holder had gotten into a dispute with Hussle earlier in the day and returned to the Hyde Park storefront with a gun and started shooting.
He fled in a waiting car, police said. Graphic video from a surveillance camera shows a gunman walking up to Hussle and two other men in front of the shop. The gunman opens fire, and Hussle falls to the ground as the other men run from the gunfire.
Holder went by the moniker Fly Mac. His Instagram handle was “ima_god_in_da_streetz.” He sang of body bags, “38 gun blasts” and bloody homicides. Holder is believed to be a gang member, L.A. Police Chief Michel Moore has said, but police do not believe the shooting had anything to do with gang rivalries.
Holder was convicted in 2012 of carrying a loaded firearm and was sentenced to 180 days in jail and three years of probation, court records show.