Darden, Christopher 1957–
Christopher Darden 1957–
Attorney and author
Aggressive, passionate—and at times, tormented—prosecutor Christopher Darden was one of the most riveting figures in the media drama surrounding the murder trial of former football star O. J. Simpson. Like Simpson, Darden had risen from an impoverished childhood to a prominent, respected position. His achievements were frequently disregarded, however, in a case that exposed the depth of the ongoing racial tensions in the United States. For many black Americans who believed that Simpson was innocent, Darden was something of a villain. As Thomas Fields-Meyer explained in People,“Darden—an African American lawyer prosecuting an African American sports hero—became a sort of lightning rod in a trial that racially polarized the nation, perceived by some of his race as a traitor and subjected to occasional death threats.”
Darden was devastated by the jury’s “not guilty” verdict and by the lack of understanding he felt from so many fellow black Americans. Haunted by thoughts of how he might better have handled the case and by the release of a man he was convinced was a vicious killer, he abandoned his legal career following the trial. In his memoir, In Contempt, he related that he had taken on the case “because I believed that my duty was to seek justice, no matter how famous, rich, and black the defendant. I had naively believed mypresence would, in some way, embolden my black brothers and sisters, show them that this was their system as well, that we were making progress. I had believed that African Americans were the most just people on the planet and that they would convict a black icon when they saw the butchery, the pattern of abuse, and the overwhelming evidence.” He concluded bitterly: “Instead, I was branded an Uncle Tom [a black considered by other blacks to be concerned with winning white approval], a traitor used by The Man [white society].”
Becoming O. J. Simpson’s courtroom nemesis was a strange twist of fate for Darden. Like so many of his generation, he had idolized Simpson during his youth and had longed to wear the star’s number 32 on his football jersey. Sports were one bright spot in a childhood that was otherwise somewhat bleak. Describing
At a Glance…
Born c. 1957, in Richmond, CA; son of Eddie (a shipyard welder) and Jean (a school cafeteria worker) Darden; children: Jenee (daughter). Education: Degree from San Jose State University; Hastings College of Law, University of California, LL.D., 1980.
Worked at the National Labor Relations Board, Los Angeles, CA, for six months, c. 1980; prosecutor for Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, 1981-95, member of Special Investigations Division, beginning 1988; instructor at Southwestern University School of Law and at California State University—Los Angeles, 1995—. Lecturer.
Addresses: Home—Carson, CA. Agent— William Morris Agency.
his family’s home in Richmond, California—a low-income community near San Francisco—Darden wrote in his autobiography: “It was noisy and crowded, and we fought over crackers and over space, and we peed in each other’s beds.” He went on to say that he spent much of his youth “criming and conniving. It was how I existed. Cynics might say my lawyer character developed early… I stole in elementary, junior high, and high school.”
Yet there were more positive aspects to Darden’s youth as well. Attending integrated schools during the days of mandatory busing, his grades were generally good, if inconsistent. He had other idols besides Simpson, including civil rights leader Martin Luther King and Black Panther Huey Newton. He found relief from the chaos of his home by escaping to his grandmother’s house. She had such faith in her grandson that she frequently introduced him to friends with the declaration that he would some day be a lawyer. In his memoir, Darden described her place as “quiet, a place to think and talk about things no one else seemed to understand. Like becoming a lawyer.”
Darden reached a turning point at the end of the ninth grade, having brought home a report card with three As —and three Fs. In his school system, four Fs were grounds for dismissal. “I sat outside at the beginning of that summer knowing that I was letting my chance slip away,” he remembered in In Contempt. “One more F and I’d be just another high school dropout… I can’t say it was an epiphany… I only knew that I had to get out of there. I wanted to see San Francisco every day, to pick out my own clothes, drive my own car, and be whatever a man could hope to be.”
Fueled in equal parts by a desire for justice and one for personal economic success, Darden buckled down to his studies and began seriously pursuing a career in law. After high school graduation, he was accepted to San Jose State University, where he was active in campus politics and was also a top member of the track team. Despite his increased motivation, at times he still had difficulty envisioning his future. In some way it seemed safer to focus his energies on track than on his studies.
Darden’s old custom of stealing also continued. As a criminal-justice major, he would have been expelled immediately for any arrest, yet he was for a time unable to break his long-ingrained habit of shoplifting food and clothing. He credits a history professor, Gloria Alibaru-ho, with bolstering his self-esteem and convincing him to concentrate on classwork rather than sports. As for his illegal activities, he abandoned them for good one day when he found himself “lying in a muddy field, cold and miserable, eluding police after shoplifting at Sears, and marveling at how stupid I was,” as he recalled in In Contempt.
During his second year in law school, Darden shouldered the responsibility of fatherhood. Although he proposed marriage to his daughter Jenee’s mother, she turned him down. He was determined to be actively involved with Jenee’s upbringing, however. That task was made more difficult shortly after his graduation, when he was offered a position hundreds of miles away in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. He took the job, traveling to see Jenee whenever he could in the ensuing years.
Over the next decade in the D.A.’s office, Darden progressed from working on routine felony cases, to gang crime, to special investigations of police corruption. Prior to his involvement with the Simpson case, he successfully prosecuted 19 murder cases. By summer of 1994, however, he was feeling burned out. With 800 hours of accrued vacation and compensation time, he planned to take a long hiatus in Australia. He had been offered the opportunity to take charge of the District Attorney’s office in Inglewood upon his return.
Then, in June of 1994, O. J. Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were found brutally slain on the steps of her condominium in a wealthy section of Los Angeles. When suspicion fell on Simpson as the prime suspect, the former sports star attempted to escape arrest in his Ford Bronco, driven by Al Cowlings—another ex-football player and a lifelong friend of Simpson’s. Simpson was eventually taken into custody and charged with double homicide.
The stage was set for what would be called “the trial of the century,” and Christopher Darden was put in charge of investigating Al Cowlings. He worked behind the scenes until early in the trial proceedings, when prosecutor Bill Hodgman suffered a stress-induced collapse. As Hodgman left the case, Darden was tapped to become second in command to lead prosecutor Marcia Clark.
Darden hesitated before accepting the assignment. “For the past six and a half years he had prosecuted rogue policemen, tough cases with no constituency, and he had grown weary. ‘I had no intention of trying another case, ever,”’ New York Times contributor David Mar-golick quoted Darden as saying. Yet once Darden joined the prosecution team, he gave himself wholeheartedly to the task at hand. The evidence had convinced him that Simpson was guilty of the murders, and he was determined to see justice served.
Darden’s entry into the case was immediately greeted by derogatory remarks from another black lawyer—Johnnie Cochran, the star of Simpson’s defense team. Cochran publicly suggested that the only reason Darden had been put on the case was so the prosecution could present a “black face” to the mostly African American jury. Feeling betrayed by Cochran’s allegation, Darden was quoted by Margolick as responding: “If there’s any strong point I bring to this case, it’s that I don’t back down, and I won’t be intimidated, no matter how much money the lawyers on the other side have.”
In his book, Darden recorded his private reaction to Cochran’s insult: “He was accusing me of being a sellout. It was the equivalent of publicly being called a nigger by a white lawyer… I waited for prominent blacks to come to my defense, to say that Cochran was wrong to question my ethics and my reasons for being
on the case. I waited for prominent blacks to say they were proud that we had black prosecutors as well as black defense attorneys, that it was bigoted and small-minded to expect only one philosophy and one position from African Americans. I waited. But they were silent.”
The incident was the first of many times that inflammatory issues of race were stirred up during the trial. Darden saw this as part of a defense strategy—to distract from the evidence and create sympathy for the defendant by presenting him as the victim of a corrupt, racist system. He worked hard to block such tactics; Margolick stated that early in the trial, Darden “gave an electrifying, unflinching but ultimately unavailing disquisition on the word nigger,’ and why, he said, the Simpson jury should never hear it uttered in Judge Lance A. Ito’s courtroom.” Darden’s request was dismissed, however, and the word came to figure prominently in the trial.
Darden was afraid that the defense team’s tactics would work all too well on the jury. In his book, he described the misgivings he felt about the 12 people who would ultimately decide Simpson’s fate: “As soon as I saw the first-teamers, I could tell it was one of the worst juries—from a prosecutor’s standpoint—that I’d ever seen. And I’m not talking about race. These were simply not happy-looking, motivated, or successful people. From the first day, I sensed that many of them were angry at the system for various insults and injuries—12 people lined up at the grinder with big axes.”
In a Newsweek interview, Darden stated, “My sense was that they just had their minds made up already… They didn’t want proof beyond a reasonable doubt. They wanted proof beyond some degree that mortal men can’t provide.” The lawyer also found fault with Judge Lance Ito. “As far as I am concerned,” he remarked in the Newsweek interview, “he surrendered his gavel to the defense and gave them the key to the courthouse.”
But while Darden criticized the judge and the jury, he certainly did not downplay his own contribution to the eventual acquittal of O. J. Simpson. By his own admission, he is haunted by his decision to have the defendant try on a key piece of evidence—a pair of blood-soaked gloves. The prosecution team had experimented earlier by having a man with very large hands try on the gloves; they had fit easily, but Marcia Clark still resisted the idea of asking Simpson to put them on in court. Ultimately, though, she yielded to Darden’s wishes in the matter.
In his book, Darden described that tense moment in the trial after the gloves were handed to Simpson: “I watched his hands closely. His finger seemed cocked, and it was apparent he wasn’t really trying to pull it on… I did everything I could think of to lessen the damage. I had Simpson make a fist and hold a pen before he took the gloves off, to show that he could’ve wielded a knife in the tight gloves.” But the damage was done, and the incident provided defense attorney Johnnie Cochran with the slogan, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” According to Fields-Meyer, that night Darden “curled up in bed alone with a bottle of tequila.” Marcia Clark did not speak to him for days, and he was excluded from key meetings and decisions of the prosecution team for weeks.
“I ached with regret for what I might have done to the case, what I had done to the victims’ families,” Darden confessed in In Contempt. Still, he clung to the hope that the rest of the evidence would convince the jury that a guilty verdict was due. That hope faded when the jury concluded its deliberations only a few hours after beginning them. Darden wrote in his book that although he had dreaded this moment from the start of the trial, “to hear it announced like that was like a swift baseball bat to the stomach… ‘I’m not bitter,’ I said, hoping to convince myself. ‘I’m not angry. ‘ And then I broke down. I gave in to the hollowness inside me. My law career was over. I couldn’t go back into another courtroom expecting justice when there had been none in the strongest murder case I ever prosecuted.” At a news conference held shortly after the verdict announcement, Darden dissolved in tears.
The case brought celebrity to everyone involved with it. Darden and Clark found themselves pursued by paparazzi, menaced with death threats, and repeatedly questioned as to whether or not they shared a romantic relationship. Nearly everyone with any significant involvement in the case signed a book contract; Darden was reportedly paid $1.3 million for his story, written in collaboration with Jess Walter. In Contempt drew mixed reviews.
Writing in the New Yorker, John Gregory Dunne severely criticized Darden’s memoir, calling it “a bad, posturing, and sometimes distasteful book.” He added that “what makes this failure particularly depressing is that In Contempt had the potential of being the best book in the literature of the Simpson case. Of all the players, Darden seemed the only one capable of approaching it with detachment, nuance, and reflection.” Other commentators were at odds with Dunne’s negative assessment. Larry Reibstein, a reviewer for Newsweek, declared that Darden’s book was “much like his appearance in court: over-the-edge with emotion and anguish, other times precise and businesslike.” And Ellis Cose, another Newsweek contributor, found that In Contempt “resonates with anger, sorrow, defiance and pain.” Darden followed the publication of his book with a speaking tour, donating a portion of his profits from that endeavor to a shelter for battered women. He also began teaching at Southwestern University School of Law and California State University—Los Angeles.
Darden was certainly not the first black lawyer to be criticized for prosecuting a black defendant, but thanks to his fame, that situation is now commonly referred to as the “Darden dilemma.” He is deeply troubled by the idea that many blacks view him as a traitor to his race because he was willing to take on O. J. Simpson. “Before people condemn you, they ought to try to get to know you and know what you’ve accomplished,” Margolick quoted Darden as saying. “I have never forgotten my roots. I’m black, and have never had an opportunity to forget it, and wouldn’t want that opportunity. It’s the strongest asset I have, the only thing I have to fall back on, what has made me the man I am today.”
Darden, Christopher A., with Jess Walter,In Contempt, HarperCollins, 1996.
Jet, March 17, 1995, p. 16; June 26, 1995, p. 56;
January 8, 1996, p. 23; April 1, 1996, p. 8.
Newsweek, January 23,1995, p. 48; March 25,1996, pp. 46-60.
New Yorker, April 15, 1996, pp. 40-44.
New York Times, January 22, 1995, sec. 1, p. 16;
November 20, 1995, p. B3.
New York Times Book Review, April 28,1996, p. 14.
People, November 6,1995, pp. 52-53; April 1,1996, pp. 50-55.
USA Weekend, June 14, 1996, pp. 4-6.
"Darden, Christopher 1957–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/darden-christopher-1957
"Darden, Christopher 1957–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved April 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/darden-christopher-1957
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