I’ve waited more than two decades to interview Chris Darden. As the main anchor for CNN’s gavel to gavel coverage of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, I followed every moment of testimony and more. Yet, I never had the opportunity to sit and talk candidly and openly with the former prosecutor. It has been 22 years since his team lost the “Trial of the Century” and Chris Darden says he is still paying the price, especially with the renewed interest generated by the FX miniseries and multi-part ESPN documentary.
His 1996 book In Contempt was recently re-released but much of this man remained a mystery to me. This week, I finally interviewed Darden at his sprawling house north of Los Angeles for the syndicated news magazine Inside Edition where he set the record straight. Darden told me the case continues to haunt him professionally and personally.
I think I’m still in the middle of it again. I don’t think I’ve reached the end of it. I lost friends to the point where I hardly have any friends, I could count my friends on four fingers to this day.
The former LA prosecutor is now a defense attorney, in part because he says he was unceremoniously terminated from the DA’s office following the Simpson trial. That slap in the face still seems raw for Darden.
Someone called me and said, ‘Darden you got fired from the DA’s office,’ and I went, what? No I didn’t no way not my friends, not my colleagues, not my people, not my team. After all the blood I’ve shed, hell no. At the time I think Gil (District Attorney Gil Garcetti) was in Italy and the Chief Deputy DA said, ‘When he calls in, I’ll tell him.’ That very same day they penned a letter and put it in the mail. I received that letter a few days later that said, ‘I spoke to Gil about it. The decision is final. You’re terminated.’ And then in handwriting it read, ‘Have a good life.’
Darden readily admits the racial tensions in the city following the acquittal of the LAPD officers in the Rodney King case set the stage for payback in the Simpson trial.
I understand why black folks in the city of LA in 1994 felt the way they felt because we as a community were treated, not poorly, but badly. Badly by the LAPD in the 1990s and the late ‘80s and after seeing what they did to Rodney King and for those officers to walk, I could understand why people were upset.
Darden says jury consultants for both sides in the Simpson case knew that middle-aged African American females would be most sympathetic to O.J. but claims that information was disregarded by prosecutors before he joined the team. He says he knew the case was lost his first day before the jury.
The first time I walked into the courtroom which was after the first twelve permanent jurors were selected I didn’t understand. I defy anybody to come and tell me, ‘Hey I had a jury with nine African Americans on it out of twelve here in the county of Los Angeles.’ In thirty-six years, that was the first time I saw that, I hadn’t seen it before and haven’t seen it since.
Despite the drama portrayed in the mini-series, Darden maintains he harbors no ill will toward lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, Jr. In fact, he says he misses his former adversary and believes Cochran’s voice is just as needed today as it was two decades ago.
It became a race case because of what good lawyers can do with a case. They crafted their defense using race as the case of that defense. They were able to create a race case out of a case that was really simply a double murder.
But Darden still bristles over his belief that Simpson was the unlikely beneficiary of the jurors’ frustration and emotion over the racial divide in Los Angeles.
Home boy (O.J. Simpson) don’t even come to the hood. They don’t know him in the hood. He doesn’t know where he hood is. He doesn’t live there. He doesn’t go there. He doesn’t support it. He’s not a part of it. And that he should benefit just goes to show you how far some folks were willing to go to make a point. There’s no brother on the planet luckier than O.J. Simpson. He’s lucky he had me.
Darden feels strongly that there is plenty of blame to go around for losing the trial but he defends his controversial decision to have OJ Simpson try on the gloves. That move was widely panned by observers as a key mistake.
I don’t mind being responsible for the gloves. I think I created some of the best courtroom drama in the history of American jurisprudence.
But it’s not about drama it’s about winning a case.
You know what? Sometimes it is about drama. Sometimes it is all about that Perry Mason moment and sometimes in a case where one side is desperate to win - desperate situations call for desperate moves. I could see that ship sailing. That ship sailed out of the harbor. It was in open sea.
So the gloves were a Hail Mary for you?
For me, the gloves were a Hail Mary.
Darden is resigned to the fact that he will forever be judged, first and foremost, by the OJ Simpson case, but he maintains he is a survivor.
If people could walk in my shoes for a year, most people by the end of the day, you’d be on your knees, unable to stand, but crawling. I’ve been through hell and back because of that trial. I’m still standing.
So was it worth it? All of this pain, all of this loss was it worth it?
No. It was not worth it.