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Even O.J. Told Him to Simmer Down : NONFICTION : IN CONTEMPT, By Christopher A. Darden with Jess Walter (ReganBooks/HarperCollins: $26; 387 pp.)

March 31, 1996|Bill Boyarsky | Bill Boyarsky commented on the O.J. Simpson trial in his Times column, "The Spin."

Of all the characters in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Christopher Darden was by far the most interesting, complex and difficult.

Difficult certainly describes my acquaintance with him when I was writing about that long, long ordeal. Sometimes, when we ran into each other outside the courtroom, he'd tell me my commentaries were just plain ignorant. On another occasion, he asked my opinion about an interview he'd given to a journalist and listened to me as if he thought I was intelligent.

He demonstrated a quietly wicked sense of humor and obviously was racked by deep emotions. But throughout the trial, Darden remained an enigma, holding the world at bay with a facade of perpetual anger at Simpson and his lawyers, at the media, at Judge Lance A. Ito and even at himself.

Darden's temper is a major subject in his revealing and compelling book, "In Contempt." Early in Darden's career, he writes, Beverly Hills Municipal Court Judge Andy Weiss told him, "Sometimes you look like you have a chip on your shoulder or some personal animosity toward the defendant. Calm down and make sure never to appear angry or confrontational." Even Simpson spotted Darden's explosiveness. After Darden blew up during a session early in the proceedings, Simpson whispered to him, "Man, you need to learn to control your temper."

We learn that he got into a bumping match with Simpson during the jury's tour of Simpson's mansion. His nickname for the defendant, used frequently in the book, was anal specific. He frequently fought with Ito, whom he dismisses with contempt. "Ito was drunk with media attention," he writes.

During the trial, I wondered why he was so angry. And why couldn't he hide it, as other lawyers do. This man wore his heart on his sleeve like few others I've met. Now, with the help of journalist Jess Walter, Darden has explained himself. In the course of doing so, he has given us new insights into a trial that has become a defining part of American legal and racial history.

Law and race relations, however, don't sell books or get the author on the "Today" show or "Larry King Live" for the television appearances that kick-start sales. Darden's relationship with co-prosecutor Marcia Clark was the hook that sold the book to the TV interview circuit. And although Darden decries "the hypocrisy of '90s America," he buys into its prurient curiosity by offering several pages of details of his relationship with his co-worker and friend--while still insisting it was their own business, not the world's.

As Darden describes the friendship, it was a relationship of unconsummated potential. One weekend they slipped away to San Francisco and booked rooms at the Fairmont. "Much later," he writes, "we paused at our separate doors, 10 feet of papered walls between us. She faced her hotel room door in a trademark Marcia dress, short and black. She looked down toward her shoes.

" 'I'll see you in the morning,' I said.

" 'Good night, Chris.' "

It was sort of a Hepburn-Tracy relationship, with wisecracks and note-passing in court, drinks after work and nights spent together, Darden snoozing on the couch. With Clark, Darden was able to drop the anger that dominated him since he was a boy in the ghetto of Richmond, Calif., a working-class city east of San Francisco. Richmond was a small city until World War II, when the late Henry J. Kaiser began building Liberty and Victory cargo ships there. His innovative production line methods required thousands of workers, and they included African Americans leaving the South to take wartime jobs. Darden's family was from Texas.

His father, Eddie Darden, was a Korean War vet who ran the family as if it were the Army he loved. "He was the C.O., the commanding officer," Darden writes. And a tough one. "We were spanked, slapped, hit, belted, whatever it took to make sure we got the message." Darden writes of the beltings with a certain sentimentality he didn't feel at the time.

A psychiatrist--not Darden's favorite sort of professional--might trace part of his brooding anger to the childhood discipline. Some might be due to the family's impoverishment, which prevented, among other things, proper care of decayed teeth. And much no doubt stemmed from racism in Richmond, a segregated city where whites treated blacks with contempt and hatred. Darden writes that he was first called the N-word on the streets of Richmond.

Darden chose a profession that fueled his anger: law. Anger is a helpful quality in the courts, a weapon to be developed and channeled against opponents. Perhaps if Darden had been a musician, a composer or a writer, he could have turned his fury into something more creative. But in the daily combat of the criminal courts, it was an asset that brought him promotions, beginning as a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles and moving up through a series of increasingly important jobs to the unit in charge of prosecuting police abuse and eventually to the Simpson prosecution team.

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