It is difficult to put into words, the polarizing effect of the trial of O.J. Simpson had on America. The ugly history of racism took center stage as lead attorney Johnnie Cochran (1937-2005) formed a defense based on it and the prosecution under the guidance of lead attorney Marcia Clark, sought to exclude it. The crime was beyond brutal and contained a level of savagery that caused a twitch even in the most hardened of stomachs. Photos of the crime scene are available on the internet in all of their shocking and gory details. I vividly recall the car chase that played out on the television screen as the Los Angeles Police Department followed Simpson’s white Ford Bronco. The truck later became fodder for parody but at the time, caused bewilderment as everyone wondered where on earth Simpson could be going. When he was acquitted of murder, loud cheers could be heard throughout the school. To many of us, it seemed unfathomable that Simpson, the gridiron great could have committed such a heinous crime. Further, the L.A. Riots remained fresh on our minds and the video footage of the beating of Rodney King, a reminder of the fragile co-existence between the police and Black communities across the country. To some, the justice system had worked and we knew O.J. was innocent. Or did we? Were we assuming his innocence based on his skin color and our need for a hero? Or was it, as some believed, a chance to “get even” with the system? The trial was many things but above all it was surreal.
The moment when Simpson was asked to try on the gloves found at the scene, is among the most intense in television history. Cochran’s famous line “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”, has become a classic catch phrase that instantly recalls memories of the trial. For prosecutor Christopher Darden, it was a pivotal moment in the case that changed the course of the trial. Legal experts thought it was a mistake. Even Darden’s own team had wanted to stay clear of it, but the seasoned prosecutor held to his belief that it would happen at some point and there was only one way to be sure. After the trial, he slowly faded out the public light but has continued to serve the county of Los Angeles as a dedicated prosecutor. Initially, he had resisted writing a book but slowly came to terms with the fact that he did have a story to tell, one that is just as important as co-counsel Marcia Clark’s “Without a Doubt” . And this is Darden’s show, he is here not only to talk about O.J. Simpson, but about his private life which many people had very little knowledge of.
The book begins as an autobiography as Darden goes back to his childhood in the town of Richmond, California as the fourth child out of a total of eight children. From an early age, he forms a tight bond with his late brother Michael and the two quickly become known as trouble. In fact, some of Darden’s revelations regarding his youth might cause the reader to wonder how he became a star prosecutor. The answer is here and Darden minces no words about his many mishaps and errors in judgment as a youth and even as an adult. Bu throughout the book, he remains focused on the story at hand, never letting the pace slow down and bore the reader. His story picks up pace from the moment it begins and keeps building momentum. Darden finds his calling in law, working his way through law school while becoming a father and learning about life in ways he could have never expected. And his career as a prosecutor might have remained the way it was if not for the grisly murders of Nicole Brown Simpson (1959-1994) and Ronald Goldman (1968-1994).
As Darden explains, he had a feeling he would become part of the O.J. trial and he was right, except he could not have foreseen just how involved he would be. From the moment jury selection begins, it is clear that this trial will be one for the ages but Darden is not one to back down and as we follow him back in time to revisit the past, we are able to see the case from another angle, that of the man known as the “African-American prosecutor”. Cochran would throw the race card into every angle the case and the introduction of notorious detective Mark Fuhrman would ultimately prove to be one of the nails in the prosecution’s coffin. In fact, the battle of race, would pit Cochran and Darden against each other with both receiving death threats. Like a master narrator, Darden goes over what went right in the trial and what went horribly wrong. Further, he explains how and why many decisions were made even in the face of clear adversity. But he is a dedicated prosecutor who believes in the wheels of justice. However, in a trial inflamed by race, the L.A. Riots, fame, domestic violence and distrust of the California legal system, those wheels would turn in much different ways. For Darden, it was the time in his life where he was always in contempt. This is a cold hard look at one of the most notorious and important trials in American history.
On October 3, 1995, I was in my sophomore year at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn, New York. Not long after the lunch periods had ended, our classes were interrupted as the teachers informed us that the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial was scheduled to be read. We stopped class and turned on the television to witness what we all knew was a historic event. When the verdict was read and Simpson was found not guilty, the school erupted in cheers and howls. None of us wanted to see Simpson convicted of murder and to many African-Americans, he was proof that you could in fact make it to be someone in America if you were a person of color. After the acquittal of the police officers involved in the beating of motorist Rodney King, racial tensions had peaked across the nation and the Simpson trial would showcase the issue of race to the fullest. The images of Marcia Clark, Robert Shapiro, Christopher Darden, Johnnie Cochran and Det. Mark Fuhrman have permanently been burned into the memory of nearly every American who watched the gripping trial from start to finish.
Today, the trial is long forgotten and Simpson sits in jail having been convicted of armed robbery on October 3, 2008. Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden are no longer at their old posts. Robert Shapiro still practices law today at 73 years of age. Tragically, Johnnie Cochran died on March 29, 2005 after a long fight with a brain tumor. Lance Ito is still in the legal system trying cases but no longer as a judge. And Det. Mark Fuhrman is now retired from the force. The trial captivated the world and caused a deep divide between Americans of all colors. Like every major trial, the Simpson case was full of interesting characters, questionable rulings and ended in a most shocking manner. Marcia Clark, the former lead prosecutor, has penned her thoughts and recollections on the case in this phenomenal account of the effort to win a murder conviction against Simpson. Partly an autobiography, Clark takes us back in time to her early life and her path to becoming a litigator. And by chance, she lands the prosecution of O.J. Simpson, the case that changed her life and career. The evidence is revisited, the statements analyzed and the games played by the litigants explored leaving no stone is left untouched with Clark even revealing some of her own private secrets that serve to put her passion and energy into a new light to be absorbed by the reader. I’m quite sure that even today, most of the American public is probably still completely unaware of many of these things. Her approach is no-nonsense and straight to the heart of the case infused with her reasons for why she believed Simpson was guilty without a doubt. And contrary to what many believed at the time, there was never an ax to grind, but only her job as lead prosecutor to see justice done regardless of the defendant’s status in society.
After reading this book, I was forced to ask myself many questions, some of which have an unfavorable answer. Clark, as she recalls the trial of the century, forces us to examine how easy it is to be blinded by race and perceptions of both injustice and equality. In Simpson, millions of African-Americans saw a man they considered to be one of their own as someone who “made it”. But as we follow Clark through the case, we have to ask, is that really the case? Or was Simpson completely detached from the African-American community? Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman are long gone, remembered by their loved ones of their short tenures on earth. The murders, gory and brutal, showed the worst of what human beings are capable to doing to each other. The beauty in this memoir is that we are able to see how and why bias can exist in a court of law and the unfortunate results that arise as a result. And even today, as murder trials are conducted across the country, each defendant is forced to wonder if they too will get a jury of their peers. And if they don’t, just how much will race be a factor? And if jurors are intent of serving with racial bias in their hearts, then what does that say for democracy and the concept that justice is blind?
The Marcia Clark of today is a woman wise beyond her years, a veteran of the American judicial system. Hindsight is her best ally as it allows her to take us back and re-examine the entire case from start to finish. Some of us will read this book and think that O.J. is still innocent while others, will be read the book and have their belief in his guilt reconfirmed. No matter which side of the fence you find yourself on, this book stands as an invaluable look into the trial of the century. She originally finished the book in 1997 but added a new foreword in the wake of the deadly police shootings that have taken place over the past couple of years. Her comments about the state of America, race relations and criminal procedure serve to educate the reader about what really happens inside of the courtroom and behind the scenes.