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Los Angeles Times Interview / Christopher Darden : Shouldering the Burden of Being a Prosecutor

June 04, 1995|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times. She interviewed Christopher A. Darden in his office at the Criminal Courts Building

Racial controversy is unavoidable in the O.J. Simpson case. The defendant is black. The victims were white. The judge is Asian American. The jury, depending on the day, has been black, white, Latino and Native American. The lawyers, for the defense and prosecution, are white and black.

Black prosecutors have their own special burdens. They work on the side of the criminal-justice system that oppressed African Americans for centuries. Unlike numerous black defense attorneys and civil-rights lawyers, who are generally admired by African Americans, black prosecutors are both rare and suspect. Because they may be perceived as giving comfort to the enemy, many endure racially charged insults: "traitor," "lackey" and "Uncle Tom."

A current target is Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden, a veteran lawyer on the prosecution team in the Simpson murder trial. The high-profile case has made him a reluctant celebrity.

Darden, 39, became famous just by joining the team. He made headlines when he challenged whether Simpson's defense attorneys should be allowed to use the hateful racial epithet "nigger" when questioning an allegedly racist police officer. "It'll issue a test," the prosecutor said in the courtroom, "and the test will be: 'Whose side are you on, the side of the white prosecutors and the white policemen, or are you on the side of the black defendant and his very prominent and capable black lawyer?' That's what it's going to do. Either you're with the man or you're with the brothers."

Darden joined the district attorney's office 15 years ago. He took the job strictly for the money: the $24,000 annual salary was considerably higher than the $17,000 he was earning as a government attorney for the National Labor Relations Board.

Intensely private, he refused to talk about his family other than to indicate that he was one of eight children, grew up in Richmond, Calif., attended San Jose State and Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Also off-limits were the facts, as he sees them, in the Simpson case.

*

Question: Do black prosecutors face any special burdens either inside or outside the courtroom?

Answer: On more than one occasion, I've walked into court and the judge has mistaken me for the public defender.

Q: Has the judge ever mistaken you for the defendant?

A: Yes, as a matter of fact, now that you mention it.

Q: Does that come with the territory?

A: Being black always means that you're going to be mistaken for somebody, someone or something you aren't.

Q: Does race still matter in 1995?

A: It has mattered since 1619. It will matter into the next century, probably beyond that.

Q: Did the Rodney King-beating verdicts affect relationships between whites and blacks in Los Angeles?

A: I would think so. The image of 20 white police officers surrounding an unarmed black man [being beaten] with a stick certainly is the kind of image that is likely to strain relations between blacks and whites.

Q: Did it make your job in the criminal courts harder?

A: Not my job, because I was prosecuting police officers at the time of the Rodney King case.

Q: Did it make your job easier?

A: It didn't make it easier. . . . It seemed to place police officer defendants and suspects on a level playing field, the same field that every defendant and suspect has to play on.

Q: Did the verdict in the Damian Williams case, in which he was convicted of lesser charges, say anything to you as a prosecutor ?

A: No . . . I wasn't surprised by the verdicts in the Damian Williams case.

Q: Did the verdicts in either of those highly charge cases encourage racial solidarity either among blacks or whites?

A: I'm not white, so it would be difficult for me to take a position on how whites reacted to those two verdicts, but I believe that it helped to solidify the black community.

Q: Does that play itself out on juries?

A: Black jurors, like most jurors, have always been extremely conscientious when it comes to addressing the issue of guilt or innocence. So I doubt there has been a significant change in the way black jurors look at evidence in criminal courts.

Q: Do you like or dislike cameras in the courtroom?

A: I dislike having cameras in the courtroom. The lawyers cater to the cameras. That's been proven time and time again. . . . The cameras have the effect of dragging out the proceedings. Arguments are lengthy and detailed and vicious, when they otherwise might not be. . . .

Q: Is this your dream job?

A: It was at one time, but it hasn't been lately.

Q: When was this your dream job?

A: Probably in 1985. I was investigating gang shootings and gang members and prosecuting gang homicides, which was very dangerous and stressful work but very meaningful.

Q: Were there gangs in the neighborhood in which you grew up?

A: Keep in mind, I grew up 25 years ago. I did not grow up in L.A. We did not have street gangs in Richmond the way L.A. has street gangs now.

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