Chris Darden on Race and Prosecution

Race is a controversial topic, especially today, but those of us in criminal prosecution cannot ignore it. I began reading Christopher Darden’s In Contempt, to get a look at how he conducted the OJ Simpson trial. Although I haven’t finished it yet, or even got to the portion of the book discussing the trial, I was struck by Darden’s thoughts about race and prosecution.

Darden’s Early Radicalism

As a young man, Darden admired Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. He described himself as a “baby panther,” a “young militant.”

Sadly, by the time Dr. King was killed, I – like many other young blacks – had already given up on nonviolence as a solution to the problems of race and poverty. If we needed another indication that nonviolence wasn’t working, Martin’s murder was it. I’d watched the news coverage of protests that quickly dissolved into fire hoses, dogs, and cracker police officers with nightsticks. Nonviolence was an admirable, right-minded idea, but it didn’t work fast enough for young people like me, people excited by the word “revolution.”

He says, “my stands then were simple. The white man was a racist oppressor. The government conspired to jail and kill the brothers who stood up to it.”

Darden Joins the DA’s Office

As Darden grew up, he fell in love, had a child, and went to law school. Given his youthful views, his next step is jarring. He was working as a lawyer at the National Labor Relations Board. “I didn’t enjoy the work and still wasn’t making enough money to help Pathenia very much with our daughter. So I applied for a job with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and got it.”

Several things jump out at me about this statement. First, Darden does not explain why he applied to the DA. Indeed, he previously described prosecutors as conspiring to jail and kill black people. After becoming a DA, he writes, “It was my job to add to the list of prison inmates.” At some point, his views must have changed radically. But he does not describe how his views changed, even though it must have been an interesting transitional period. He would even go so far as to write, “I believed I had a calling and that here, there was work I could do that would actually help people.”

Second, Darden could have just as easily applied to the public defender’s office, which is the sister office to the district attorney. Or the County Counsel, the Attorney General, the US Attorney, or any one of a dozen other government jobs that involve trial work. Did he apply to these places and not get offers? Or did he pick the DA for a reason? All of this is glossed over in one lonely sentence.

Third, Darden couches the decision as a financial one. The DA does not pay that well. And all the other jobs mentioned above have similar pay. It makes the reader wonder whether it was really about money. And if it was about something else, what was it?

Maybe his description of Los Angeles gives us a clue about how his views changed:

But the young brothers who were terrorizing Los Angeles in the 1980s and their younger brothers who are terrorizing the country today felt no kinship, no solidarity with anyone. They saw a young black man, they pulled a Glock 9-mm pistol from their sagging waistband and they shot him for the unforgivable offense of standing on the wrong corner. If they had eve heard of a time when black people stood together and tried to raise not just themselves, but everyone around them, these gangsters had long since forgotten it. More likely, no one had ever taught them.

An abandoned building in Los Angeles at the intersection of La Brea and Romaine

Darden as Prosecutor

Once Darden settled into his role as a deputy district attorney, his views seemed to mirror those of many prosecutors. “I was determined to stop as much of the violence as I could, one asshole at a time if necessary.” But race still hung over him.

Even then, people sometimes asked me how I could work so hard to put other brothers in jail. I was always amazed and sometimes angered by that question. This wasn’t an issue of solidarity or brotherhood! This was the murder of the weakest in our society by bullies, the terrorizing of entire neighborhoods and communities. The victims in these cases were usually black, and they were often old people or children. How could I put other brothers in jail? How could I not? As long as they were victimizing old people and making orphans of black children, how could I not?

Even though these views are typical of many prosecutors, Darden still had an insight into the effect of criminal justice on people of color.

You can’t just toss out the kind of anti-crime rhetoric that was fashionable in the 1980s (“This is a war on crime!”) without expecting some casualties. In this case, the casualty was Africa Americans’ trust in the police and the judicial system, which was frail enough anyway. […] In some small way, the police were to blame for that irrationality. There were simply too few black people in L.A. who didn’t have a story about being hassled, or a story about their son or husband or nephew being hassled. There were few African Americans who didn’t know someone arrested in Operation Hammer or pulled over for a phantom blinker. In some parts of L.A., people smiled and were relieved to see a police car. In others, they tensed up and were afraid.

Darden was deeply frustrated by the riots.

Korean businesses were looted and black-owned businesses were torched. For days after the riots, black people couldn’t buy a bag of groceries because they’d burned down the ten supermarkets that would do business in the ‘hood.

Darden and OJ

Darden spoke to his father after getting assigned to the prosecution of OJ Simpson. Sitting on the porch of his house, his father told him, “Black folks want to kinds of justice, like everyone else […] one for them and one for the other guy.”

I disagreed, silently. This was a strong case and black people are fair. We are repulsed at injustice. Historically, what segment of the American population is more fair than blacks? Fairness is a fundamental part of our nature. A black jury would convict if the evidence was there. I was on the outside, and just the evidence I’d heard about appeared to be more than in any of the murder cases I’d ever prosecuted. It was more than in any case I’d ever seen.

We all know how the story ends. Even though I haven’t finished the book, I’m fascinated to find out how Darden sees the outcome.

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