book review

Review: “In Contempt” by Christopher Darden

Darden, Christopher, with Jess Walter. In Contempt 
HarperCollins, 1996
Hardcover, 387 pages 
ISBN 0-06-039183-9

Other than the victims’ families, few people were as visibly shaken by the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial as prosecutor Christopher Darden. For him, that trial was a true trial by fire, not merely his job but an undertaking that forced him to examine and re-examine his own heart and soul. His book In Contempt is the story of both of those trials.

The story begins with Darden’s youth in a family of eight children in Richmond, California, north of Oakland. There is an uneasy, understated edge of ambivalence in Darden’s discussion of his childhood, particularly of his mother, who made note of bad behavior and warned, “Wait until your father gets home,” and of his father, who came home, took off his belt, and made good on Mrs. Darden’s threats. Darden seems to harbor unalloyed feelings toward only two members of his family: his grandmother Nanny and his older brother, Michael, a drug addict who died of AIDS contracted from a contaminated needle.

The feeling of ambiguity continues in Darden’s narrative of his own stealing, which began in his childhood and continued until he was in college, long after he had decided to become a lawyer. His decision to stop stealing (“As a criminal-justice major, I would have been expelled for an arrest”) seems more an intellectual exercise than a moral conviction.

But all sense of ambiguity falls away when Darden discusses the Simpson trial. Judge Lance Ito (known as Judge Ego, Darden reveals) relished his starring role in the televised trial of the century and, Darden contends, continually favored the defense while dealing harshly with the prosecution, sometimes chiding prosecutors in front of the jury. And it’s hard to disagree with Darden’s evaluation when he cites incidents such as Judge Ito’s asking defense attorney Johnnie Cochran to get tickets for a juror who wanted to attend a USC football game.

Darden believes that the long months of hard work and intense preparation were wasted on a jury that had made up its mind before the trial began. He thinks the jury saw the Simpson trial as an opportunity for payback: payback for hundreds of years of slavery, degradation, and maltreatment in general and for the Rodney King verdict in particular.

The heart of the narrative, though, is Darden’s struggle with his position as an African American prosecuting O.J. Simpson, an icon of success to the African American community. Darden blames defense attorney Johnnie Cochran for turning the trial into a racial issue and Judge Ito for allowing Cochran to do so. For his efforts in seeking justice Darden was spat upon, cursed at, and threatened.

In Contempt is the powerful story of an intelligent and sensitive man who says he will probably never enter a courtroom again. The Simpson trial—and his own—has forever changed his life:

As a young man, racism seemed to me a single-edged knife, one that whites used to hold blacks down. Now I see that our own racism can be as dangerous and insidious as that which we have battled for centuries. I see racism in people who purport to represent all African Americans. I see racism in a community that refuses to hold one of its own responsible. I see racism in myself. It is wrong. It has always been wrong. We cannot defeat their racism with our own; we cannot defeat bigotry by cheating justice. 

(p. 382)

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

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