What’s the single biggest difference between those all-white Mississippi juries that used to acquit smirking Klansmen charged with racist murders and the mostly black Los Angeles jury that found O.J. Simpson not guilty? About 30 years, in Christopher Darden’s opinion. To be sure, the African-American prosecutor, who worked his heart out to convict Simpson, never makes the comparison explicit in his book, In Contempt. But he does compare himself favorably to Atticus Finch, the heroic white Southern lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird who defends a black man falsely accused of rape.
As in that fictitious case, Darden has had to endure taunts from his peers that he was a traitor to his race. When Simpson defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran, himself a former prosecutor with whom Darden had worked amicably in the past, publicly questioned why Darden had been assigned to the case, it cut him to the bone. ”Blacks could hear what he was saying between the lines: ‘This brother is being used by the Man. This brother is an Uncle Tom.’ It was the most offensive thing a black could be called by another black, and hearing it repeated on television and in the newspapers was the equivalent of publicly being called a nigger by a white lawyer.”
If that kind of home truth makes you uneasy, In Contempt, cowritten with Jess Walter, is a book you should avoid. Few titles have ever been more apt. Still seething from his year-plus-long ordeal, Darden lashes out in all directions: at defense attorneys Cochran and F. Lee Bailey (”a foulmouthed, arrogant SOB”); at LAPD crime-scene technician Dennis Fung (”the face of incompetence”); at Det. Mark Fuhrman, whose bigotry and lies doomed any chance the prosecution had; at himself, for having Simpson try on the infamous gloves; and at Judge Lance Ito. ”This was L.A., and Ito was drunk with media attention,” he writes. Faced with a jury that was seeking any excuse to acquit the legendary sports star, Darden charges, Ito turned ”a three-month trial…into a year-long joke,” allowing the defense to indulge in shameless stalling tactics: endless sidebars and repetitive cross-examinations.
Darden lavishes his deepest anger, however, upon the celebrity defendant himself — a boyhood hero whom he came to see as a murdering coward unworthy of the trust and adulation of millions of Americans. ”I could see right through him,” Darden writes. ”Right through to the evil, and he didn’t like it.”
Darden speaks guardedly about the passionate friendship that developed between him and fellow prosecutor Marcia Clark. As for what he calls ”locker-room talk” about their relationship, Darden will not discuss it. ”I will say this. As spring melted into summer, I began to wonder what might happen away from the flash of tabloid photographers and television cameras. The glare from the people who wanted to know if we were together may have been one of the things that ultimately kept us apart.”
For all his forthrightness, there are aspects of the trial one does wish Darden had dealt with more persuasively — specifically, his oft-repeated assertion that an LAPD frame-up was an impossibility. How crazy was it for the jury to imagine that detectives tampered with evidence? And if, as many suspect, they had the right man all along, then what?
But the real importance of In Contempt lies not in the Simpson trial, but in its powerful self-portrait of a proud, complex individual confronting racial groupthink and refusing to bow down. Chris Darden is indeed a genuine American hero.