With OJ Simpson beginning the Obama era in a Nevada prison, it seemed like a good moment to revisit what was one of the many 'trials of the century' in America. One of the low moments of the millennium past for me had to be being asked to review Christopher Darden's memoir of the trial. Darden has gone on to 'write' other books, including at least one with the LA crime writer and critic Dick Lochte. Without prejudging those, here, with a few updates, is what I wrote then.....
The morning after OJ Simpson's police "chase" mesmerized America, DA Christopher Darden says his regular aerobics class was empty. Watching the white Bronco on TV had left the would-be exercisers "too drained to come to class." Darden sees no irony in this, but then, Darden is a lawyer in Los Angeles.
The failure of British viewers to succumb to the hypnotic allure of the Simpson trial may be the result of perceiving it as an exercise in jurisprudence, when in American reality it was a daily soap opera called LOS ANGELES, directed by Judge Lance Ito. If it were not as successful as DALLAS, it may be because OJ is no JR, while Darden and Marcia Clark will never be mistaken for Bobby and Pammie. The Simpson trial was a portrait of lifestyle as culture so far removed from ours as to be unrecognisable, images from a satellite probe to another galaxy where creatures like Kato Kaelin exist in almost-human form.
This book was Darden's last and only chance to win the case. OJ's "Dream Team" may have made Chris and Marcia look like Richard and Judy, but as an author Chris, like OJ the defendant, cannot be cross-examined. Darden provides few new revelations, just a lot of the hearsay which fuelled the tabloids and talk shows. But the simplicity of the factual presentation here makes one wonder why the same approach wouldn't have worked on the jury. The bottom line is, it might've (though Vincent Bugliosi made the convincing case the that the trial was already lost in jury selection) except Darden and Clark failed totally as prosecutors. Instead of examining that failure, Darden blames sloppy police work, hints that OJ's cop friends may have deliberately helped him, and cites bungling testimony by police forensics experts. He dumps considerable and deserved blame on Ito, who turned the role of judge into game-show host. But Darden sees nothing wrong in that; he blames Itoh only for letting the other side be the featured contestants.
Despite his years in LA, at heart Darden remains a product of San Jose State, and he still misses the point of LaLa Land. He not only accepted, but revelled, in the Hollywood ground rules Itoh set, then somehow expected the case should be decided as if Itoh and his jury had just found the way to San Jose after all. "I didn't screw around," says Darden as he prepares to deal with the issue of Mark Fuhrman and the "N-word". If euphemism isn't screwing around (and "screwing around" not euphemism) then what is? Johnnie Cochrane played the race card, and it was the Ace of Spades. He got away with it because Darden didn't trust his own case enough to see beyond appearances. By trying to bleep out the word "nigger", he accepted Cochrane's exegesis,and helped give the word the power, and Fuhrman’s use of it the overtones, which Cochrane needed it to have. Johnnie understood instinctively this would cement race as the case's only issue. Darden, mired in Hollywood fantasies, thought like a network VP of standards and practices, trying to decide how many times you can say ’crap’ in prime time.
When the Fuhrman tapes revealed Ito's wife,an LA police captain, to be a liar, Darden could have pressed for Ito's recusal, but he chickened out. Instead, he satisfied justice by accepting Ito's statement that his feelings were "hurt". When Darden received an award from a local black leaders, he could have used the platform to denounce Cochrane face to face. He didn't. He wouldn’t risk tarnishing his award, as you'd expect from any self-absorbed Angelino, picking up his self-congratulatory version of the Oscar, and flushing justice into the Pacific.
Darden wants to have it all ways. Mixing autobiography into the Simpson trial merely leaves us wondering how this hot-headed and short-sided guy could win any argument. "Asshole" is his and Marcia's private name for Simpson. Bet that bothered OJ as he walked free. Darden talks about wanting to beat Simpson up. Wimp to the end, he settled for hurting his feelings. Oddly, every time Darden tries to point out the differences between himself and OJ, he makes the two of them seem more similar. Chris doesn't beat women, but he did abandon the mother of his child. He abhors celebrity but wants you to know he thinks he looks like the actor Louis Gosset. OJ "dated" (another LA euphemism Darden revels in) only white women, and lucky for Darden he did, since, until Paula Barbieri's The Other Woman came out, Darden's was by far the dumbest of OJ 'literature'. Elevating himself over Simpson, Darden takes pain to explain he will "date" anyone. And best of all, he doesn't "date" and tell. He may have the gracelessness to compare Marcia Clark metaphorically to a hamster on a treadmill, but he's too much of a gentleman to "compromise" her any further, nudge nudge, wink wink.
The closing acknowledgements are the strangest part of this strange book. "The last thing I wanted to do is write a book," Chris tells his ghostwriter to write, after thanking his agents at William Morris; agents he hired, presumably, to stop him from ‘writing‘. Think about it: he didn’t want to write the book he hired someone else to write for him—so in that sense I suppose he was telling the truth about not wanting to write. Now all he needs to do is stop reading and he could become a movie producer.
"We did it our way--with dignity and class," he says, posing for a photo beside his Mercedes, while pointing out it was bought second-hand. A used Mercedes is what passes for asceticism in LA. Then come the thank-yous. 'He' writes: "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia! Keep running. You deserve the best life has to offer." (Keep running? Remember the hamster in the cage?) Others get similar bon mots: "You are the best". "We were meant to be together.""You've given me a wonderful gift". These bulletins, sentiments stolen from heart-shaped Valentine sweets, bear an eerie resemblance in tone and content to the bleatings in the "suicide" note written by OJ Simpson, before he began his famous "chase". Call it Chris's career-suicide note, and wait for the car chase in his second-hand Merc.
IN CONTEMPT, Christopher Darden with Jess Walter,
Regan Books/HarperCollins, £16.99