Race Wars

From "In Contempt" by Christopher A. Darden with Jess Walter, published by ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 1996 by Christopher A. Darden

THE CLERK, DEIRDRE ROBERTSON, stumbled over his name, and for just a moment, a last bit of hope hung there on her voice.

But I knew. I'd known from the beginning, from the moment I walked into that courtroom a year earlier and saw that jury. I could see in their eyes the need to settle some score. And I was the only prosecutor who knew what the score was. Still, to hear it announced like that was like a swift baseball bat to the stomach.

"We the jury in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder . . . upon Nicole Brown Simpson, a human being . . ."

A human being.

"My God," I muttered. "My God, my God, my God." Next to me, the other lead members of the prosecution team, Marcia Clark and Bill Hodgman, whispered after me, "My God." I watched Simpson and his lawyer Johnnie Cochran pump their fists and smile fiercely and I wanted to scream.

I turned to face the jury, to show them my disgust. My eyes caught those of Juror 247, reportedly a former Black Panther. As he left the courtroom, he raised his fist in a black power salute, and I was saddened that one of the symbols of my idealistic youth was being used to celebrate a killer's release. As the jury filed out of the box, my head swung around the courtroom until I settled on O. J. Simpson. He'd won. He had told Nicole that he could kill her anytime, anyplace, and that he could get away with it. Well, he'd done it. And now it was over.

I never got a chance, of course, to cross-examine him. And as I stood in the hallway, waiting for an elevator, I didn't want to anymore. I just wanted to talk to him, make sure he knew that he hadn't fooled all of us and that his "Dream Team" hadn't fooled most Americans.

I wanted to tell him that there was another court that would hear his case one day, where there will be no need for DNA, gloves, or Akitas, and the only witnesses will be the eyewitnesses, Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown.

As I stepped on the elevator, I thought about Ron and Nicole and was filled with images that continue to haunt me. I could see exactly how it happened, in fact I see it still, much more vividly than I'd like, much more often than I want to. And every time I see it, I want to confront him, to tell him that I can see inside his heart and that I know what happened:

Through the window, you watched Nicole put away the dishes, didn't you? She finished and then she lit some candles and you watched her, the way you had watched her so many times before, on so many dry runs. She stopped suddenly and looked out the window, but she couldn't see you, because it was dark outside and well-lit inside. All she could see was her own reflection and, for just a moment, you both stood staring at the same thing: her frightened face. She reached into a drawer and grabbed a long kitchen knife, her knuckles white around the handle. You were impressed. You knew how afraid she must be to grab a knife. Nicole had told you how frightened she was of knives, that it was her worst fear that one day she would be killed with a knife. And she went back to lighting candles.

Candles! That really got you, didn't it? That was your ritual, something that let you know she was ready to be taken. It infuriated you that she might be lighting candles for someone else. You moved along the bushes outside the window, watching her, the way you had watched her before. Was there a voice pulling you? Pushing you? Or was it just matter-of-fact, slow and measured? . . .

How long were you planning to do it? When did it stop being a daydream and become a challenge--"Can I get away with this?" Maybe you didn't even know when you got there that night. Maybe it was like other missions, and just watching her like this made you feel better. Maybe it felt like a dream to you, standing out there, all in black, in quiet, rubber-soled shoes, with dark gloves over your hands and a cap on.

You watched her walk out of the kitchen and you shadowed her outside, onto the walkway, past the windows, to the front steps. There, you rang the bell and you knew she had to come outside because the intercom was broken. But she didn't come out, did she? Instead, she took the knife again and peered out the window.

The Akita came over and sniffed you. He cocked his head in recognition. You watched her set the knife back on the counter, blade out (strange with the children home). And then she came running out to the gate and you were filled with rage.

Whomever she was expecting, she knew him well enough to answer the door barefooted, in the skimpy black dress she'd worn at the recital. You were furious. Your wife, the mother of your children, was wearing that dress and expecting a man to come over while the kids were asleep. Was it more than you could take?

You came out of the shadows so quickly, so smoothly, you must've surprised yourself a little. You hit her with your fist and with the knife handle, right on the crown of her head. Then you grabbed her by the arm and drove the knife deep into her neck, four times. You were an actor. You had played this part before. You had learned the correct way to kill with a knife: not stab, but draw the knife all the way through.

Were you shocked when the gate opened and that white boy walked in on you? That was just the kind of guy Nicole had been seeing. You must've been furious. In fact, you'd seen this one before, driving Nicole's car. Ron Something. He didn't know what was going on at first, did he?

"Hey," he said, "Hey."

You yelled back, but it wasn't really words, just pure, vocalized anger. And then you pulled him inside the gate and lifted him to the left, where he was cornered by the fence and by the shrubs. Ron put his hands up to protect himself, but he had no chance against you. You were in a pure fighting rage, operating without control.

Then you turned back to Nicole, that little black dress pulled up around her thighs. This was all her fault. You grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head back, put the knife to her throat, and drew it back toward yourself with even more force, cutting all the way to her spine. You damned near cut her head off. It was freeing and painful at the same time, wasn't it?

But it wasn't quite like your dreams. At night--when your lawyers aren't around to convince the world that you didn't do it -- I'll bet you ache a little bit. But not that night. That night, you turned and walked back toward the Bronco, a bit faster; after all, you had a plane to catch.

THE CONFERENCE room next to Gil Garcetti's office--like everything in this case--was smaller than it looked on television. I stood behind Gil as he praised our efforts to the dozens of cameras fanned out before us and the reporters wedged in next to one another-- waiting to see how we would respond to the verdict, gawkers at the scene of an accident. I hadn't wanted to be there, so soon after the verdict, but Suzanne Childs, the director of communications for the D.A.'s office, had insisted.

Should I admit that I was angry, furious with the jury, the judge, the media, the defense, the whole damned country? Should I confess that I was haunted by my mistakes, errors that might have contributed to losing this case, that might have allowed a double murderer to go free? Should I say that, above all, I was ashamed of a jury that needed just four hours to dismiss the lives of two people and a year's work, a jury that picked a dreadful time to seek an empty retribution for Rodney King and a meaningless payback for a system of bigotry, segregation, and slavery?

What could I say to Nicole and Ron? That I was sorry their murderer went free because of the deep chasm that racism and slavery have carved in this country? That I was sorry Johnnie Cochran had dragged them into that dark pit? That I was sorry about the gloves and the other mistakes I had made?

"I'm not bitter," I said, hoping to convince myself. "I'm not angry." And then I broke down. I gave in to the hollowness inside me. My law career was over. I couldn't go back into another courtroom expecting justice when there had been none in the strongest murder case I ever prosecuted. While Judge Ito moved the trial at glacial speed, my brother was dying of AIDS four hundred miles away, near the city where my daughter, Jenee, was growing up without me.

I had taken this case because I believed that my duty was to seek justice, no matter how famous, rich, and black the defendant. I had naively believed my presence would, in some way, embolden my black brothers and sisters, show them that this was their system as well, that we were making progress. I had believed that African Americans were the most just people on the planet and that they would convict a black icon when they saw the butchery, the pattern of abuse, and the overwhelming evidence.

Instead, I was branded an Uncle Tom, a traitor used by The Man. I received death threats and racist letters from blacks and whites alike. As the case became more and more about race, I watched helplessly as it ripped the scabs off America's wounds, which will now take even longer to heal, assuming they ever do.

THE CASE HAD ALREADY BEEN MOVING ALONG slowly, toward trial, without me, and by the time I joined the prosecution, the first twelve jurors had already been selected. While I was assessing the strength of the case, I also decided to take a look at the jury. We were still choosing the alternates, but as soon as I saw the first-teamers, I could tell it was one of the worst juries--from a prosecutor's standpoint--that I'd ever seen. And I'm not talking about race. These were simply not happy-looking, motivated, or successful people. From the first day, I sensed that many of them were angry at the system for various insults and injuries--twelve people lined up at the grinder with big axes.

"They were the best of the lot," Bill said, rubbing his close-cropped beard. "If you think they're bad, you ought to see the ones who were coming up."

I have heard pundits and others say that the Simpson case was lost as soon as we allowed it to be tried downtown, that we should have tried the Simpson case at the Santa Monica courthouse.

I strongly disagree. According to policy and practice, such huge cases would always be tried in the downtown courts building because no other courthouse was big enough or even remotely prepared for such a behemoth. The case belonged downtown. To move it would have been unethical and manipulative.

It is hard to stomach the hypocrisy of those people who criticize Johnnie Cochran for "playing the race card," yet would have had us move the trial to the suburbs to avoid black jurors. That is just another version of the same card game Cochran played. I understand the frustration about the verdict, yet I feel sorry for people who are so cynical about our criminal justice system.

A few days after I formally entered the case, Cochran dealt the race card to me--suggesting I was put on the case only because I was black. "All of a sudden, he shows up here," Cochran said of me. "Now why is that, after we have eight African Americans [on the jury]? We're concerned about it. Why now?"

I watched in disbelief.

This was a man I considered a colleague. We had worked separately on many of the same cases--him from the civil side, me from the criminal--battles against racist cops and unnecessary police violence. Now he was accusing me of being a sellout. It was the equivalent of publicly being called a nigger by a white lawyer.

The fallout was immediate. I waited for prominent blacks to come to my defense, to say that Cochran was wrong to question my ethics and my reasons for being on the case. I waited for prominent blacks to say they were proud that we had black prosecutors as well as black defense attorneys, that it was bigoted and small-minded to expect only one philosophy and one position from African Americans. I waited. But they were silent.

MARK FUHRMAN." I READ THE NAME on the file aloud as I reached for the bottle of Sauza Commemorative tequila I stowed in my top drawer. One bottle a year in the office, one swig now and then, that's all I allowed myself. It is pure throat-constricting, sinus-clearing, brain-killing poison, the kind of booze your mama warned you about. Or should have warned you about. Mark Fuhrman, the cop who found the bloody glove at O. J. Simpson's, was supposed to be my witness. The file just felt bad. I was going to the wall for this guy? The tequila went down the way tequila always goes down. Unrepentant.

I didn't like him from the first time I saw him--at a pre-trial interview. I looked at him sitting in Assistant D.A. Scott Gordon's office, waiting for me, and I had the urge to run. But I didn't screw around. "What will you tell the jury if the defense asks if you used the N-word?" Mark Fuhrman was huge, over six feet, two inches, and 200 pounds, with shoulders that easily covered the back of his chair. "I'm not gonna say that I never used a racial slur," he said.

"Under what circumstances have you used them?"

"I don't know," he said. "I guess when I'm incensed about something . . . Like traffic, I guess. Never on the job."

"Any skeletons that we don't know about? Anything that's going to bite us in the ass?" He talked about the things we knew, which were bad enough, but assured us that was it.

Afterward, Scott was pleased. See, he said, the guy wasn't so bad. I disagreed. I felt completely uncomfortable with him. There was something eerie about the guy. It was as if he'd been playing with me, coy on some answers, evasive on others. I watched all the other deputy D.A.'s smile and agree that he would make a very good witness. But I was sick. There was something about this guy . . .

I still planned to go right at him in direct examination, to almost treat him as a hostile witness. But first, I had to deal with the issues of admissibility of his racist slurs. I had to deal with the N-word.

"It is a dirty, filthy word," I said when the issue came to court. "No one, no African American, can hear that word without getting upset . . . That's what Mr. Cochran wants the jury to do, to skip the evidence . . . to find this case on the basis of race."

"I have a funeral to attend today," Cochran said in response, his lips rigid and tight, his voice growing louder as he went on. "But I would be remiss were I not at this time to take this opportunity to respond to my good friend, Mr. Chris Darden. His remarks . . . are demeaning to African Americans as a group . . ."

And then we broke for the noon recess. In my cubicle, the telephone rang.

"You f-----g sellout motherf----r!" I slammed the phone down and it rang again.

"How could you allow yourself to be used like that?"

Some of the voices sounded like white people. "You and your family are all apes."

Somewhere in there, Marcia called to say that court was back in session and that Judge Ito wanted me back in there. I told her to go on without me. But Ito joked that it wouldn't be as interesting until I returned.

After that, Marcia and I were allowed to park in the basement because of the regular death threats and constant media attention.

When the jury was taken to see the O.J. house on Rockingham Avenue, I even had to take abuse from Simpson. His house had four television sets, a bar, and a game room. I watched my group of jurors closely. Were they getting it? Were they seeing how easy it would've been for Simpson to drop that glove on the walkway? Were they seeing how easy it would have been for the limousine driver, Allan Park, to see Simpson moving mysteriously outside his house?

All afternoon, he had been standing on the grounds, proudly pointing out features of his house to polite cops. I sat down on a bench just outside his front door, and Simpson pointed at me. "Get off my bench!" he began yelling. "I don't want you on my bench or in my house!" I turned to Cochran, who stood nearby. "Johnnie, you better restrain your client before I have him muzzled."

As evening approached and the viewing ended, all the lawyers gathered in a circle outside. Marcia was trying to lodge objections on the record. I leaned forward, into the circle, to hear what she was saying.

And then I felt a nudge. I looked up. Simpson was standing next to me, his hands in his pants pockets. He bumped me again.

A--hole! I nudged him back. Then we sort of locked shoulders and bumped each other back and forth, leaning on each other like horned sheep. No one else seemed to notice. I got the message. I could see right through him, right to the evil, and he didn't like it. The battle was just beginning.

Still, Cochran may have tried to give me a break--on Fuhrman. Back in court one day, from behind, Cochran embraced me and put his mouth near my ear.

"We can't ever do that kind of thing again," he said about the way we'd argued the N-word. "This shouldn't be your issue. Let these white people get up there and argue about Fuhrman. OK?"

"I can't do that," I said, staring forward.

"Why not?"

I wasn't going to be limited by my race and I told him so.

"Just don't put him on," Cochran said.

Since then, I've thought a lot about what he said, looked at it from all sides. I've wondered if he was setting me up or perhaps taunting me, or if he was trying to limit Fuhrman's effectiveness and impact. While I don't put any of those things past him, I think it was something else. I think Cochran knew from the beginning about the racist tapes Fuhrman made with a North Carolina screenwriter, and I think he was honestly trying to warn me away. Perhaps he felt badly over what he'd done to my reputation during the N-word argument; I don't know. But I believe Cochran was serious about his warning.

I was just as serious; I wasn't going to be limited by my race. In fact, Hodgman later asked me to assume a larger role in the trial. He was tired and pale, lagging where he was once energetic. "This case . . ." He hesitated. "We both know how it's going to be. And I'm not talking about race. I'm just talking about the strategy. I think you're better suited for this than me right now."

IT WAS PRESIDENTS' DAY WEEKEND, 1995, AND THE eighteenth floor of the Criminal Courts Building was empty except for the staff working on Simpson and a small group of people I had called together: my friend Elka Woerner; Deputy D.A.'s Alan Yochelson, Scott Gordon, and Cheri Lewis; my clerks, Melissa Decker and Michael Runyon; and Mark Fuhrman.

We assembled about one o'clock in the afternoon, my team and Fuhrman with two huge Metro Division police bodyguards who accompanied him everywhere because of the death threats he'd received. Another deputy D.A. opened the grand jury room and we all went inside and got comfortable.

I asked Fuhrman what he was going to do if he was asked whether he had ever used the N-word. "Have you ever used it in the last ten years?"

He hesitated for just a brief moment.

"No."

I asked about interracial couples, and he assured me that he has friends who have interracial marriages and that they went to one another's houses.

"What are your hobbies?" I asked.

"I like to collect World War II memorabilia." "What kind of memorabilia?" I asked.

"Well, medals."

"Any particular kind?"

He shifted in his chair.

"Well, don't take this the wrong way, but I collect German medals."

And that was it. After forty minutes or so, perhaps ten or fifteen actual questions, I broke up the meeting that the defense would later claim was a "mock cross-examination." It was mock, all right. Mark Fuhrman was mocking our intelligence.

I'd seen enough. I knew all I needed to know and more, actually.

Maybe we shouldn't put this guy on. I couldn't put this guy on. I couldn't accept his answer that he hadn't used the N-word in the last ten years. A cop like Fuhrman--who showed in his 1980 and 1981 shrink reports that he was well versed in racial epithets -- couldn't know with such precision that he hadn't used that word in ten years. It made no sense. Who would keep count of something like that? Who would date it?

If only he had said, "I don't recall the last time I used the word."

Once I even suggested to him that most people would have trouble remembering every word they'd used in the last ten years, but Fuhrman wouldn't take the hint. And ethically, a lawyer can't advise a witness to change his testimony.

I walked into Marcia's office. She was puffing away on a long, filtered cigarette, reading a stack of loose pages. When she wasn't in court, Marcia wore black leggings, black sweat socks, black sneakers, and a sweatshirt or T-shirt. I sat down, but she barely looked up at me.

"I'm not going to say that we shouldn't call Fuhrman"-- that caused her to look up--"because if we don't, they will, and it will look like we were trying to hide him."

I took my glasses off and rubbed the bridge of my nose.

"But I'm going to ask you a favor. One that I've given a lot of thought. I know you're busy. But I need you to take Fuhrman. I'll take any of your witnesses, but I just can't put this guy on. Have Hank or Cheri do it, but I can't."

Marcia blew up. "Why?"

"It would be bad for our case for me to put this guy on," I said.

"It will be clear that I don't believe in him, that I don't like him." And there was something else. "Putting this guy on will get me killed. I can't. I won't."

When the time came, of course, Marcia did as I had asked and set off on one of her detailed, structured direct examinations. Later, as Fuhrman sat leaning against the jury box during a recess, I whispered to Marcia, "Follow my lead." I put my arm around her shoulder and pulled her head to rest on my chest, and we walked in Fuhrman's direction. His face turned bright red and he stared at us.

"What are you doing having that guy hanging all over you like a cheap suit?" Fuhrman asked Marcia after I'd left. I took it very seriously; perhaps Mark Fuhrman hadn't changed after all.

F. Lee Bailey--we called him "Flea"--made a big deal over our "mock cross-examination," alleging that we'd prepared Fuhrman for his testimony about the word. A vivid description of that meeting had been published in Newsweek magazine, and I'd gone in search of the leaks, finding them in the D.A.'s office.

Everything else Bailey had done failed, and so he went after Fuhrman indirectly, by throwing out racial epithets all over the courtroom, hoping the jury would later connect them to Fuhrman's testimony, hoping some of it stuck. "Did you tell the lawyers in that room that you never used the word "nigger'?" "It was never asked," Fuhrman said. Each time we objected, but Judge Lance Ito let the ridiculous questioning continue.

"Do you use the word "nigger' in describing people?" Bailey asked.

"No, sir." I clenched my teeth, wondering what this could possibly have to do with the deaths of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown.

And then Bailey asked the question that I'd posed to Fuhrman, the one that had convinced me I couldn't put him on the stand. "Have you used that word in the past ten years?" I leaned toward Marcia and whispered, "Object. Object. Object. Object!"

This was the trap they'd been waiting to spring for nine months. How hard would it be to find some witness to come in and corroborate the defense claim that Fuhrman had used the word in the past ten years? "Object," I said. But Marcia didn't object.

"Have you used that word in the past ten years?" I wanted to scream: No! If he answered with that same arrogance, our case was, in essence, over.

"Not that I recall, no."

"I want you to assume that perhaps at some time since 1985 or '86, you addressed a member of the African-American race as a nigger," Bailey said. "Is it possible that you have forgotten that act on your part?" Yes! Yes! I hoped he would take the escape route.

"No. It is not possible."

It was just as I had argued months earlier, when I tried to exclude the word that Bailey now threw around with such glee. I had argued that this would be nothing but a race case, that this word would be used to bludgeon justice right out of this courtroom.

After the cross-examination was over, the other prosecutors would believe that Fuhrman had withstood the defense's hardest hits, but I knew better. With each answer, our hope for a conviction slipped away.

THE SCIENCE WAS OVERWHELMING. EXPERIENCED lawyers were amazed at the amount and the level of scientific evidence we had against Simpson.

One in 6.8 billion! That blood in Simpson's socks was Nicole's blood; there was no other explanation. One in 170 million! That blood at the scene was Simpson's; no other explanation.

And yet, all along, we had a feeling that the science was coming up short with these jurors. We needed something concrete and visual, something to give life and meaning to these astronomical numbers.

I remembered earlier, in the fall, soon after Marcia asked me to be on the case, sitting in her office: Marcia, her assistant Dana Escobar, and me, flipping through the crime scene photos and mar- veling at all the evidence. I turned to a photograph of a knit hat, stretched to the point of unraveling from a big head like the defendant's. The gloves fit, the shoes fit, the blood fit.

"This is our man," I said.

"And at some point," Marcia said to me, "I'm going to put that hat on his head and I'm going to put those damned gloves on his hands." It sounded like such a good idea to me. "Bet your a--!" I said. And then we high-fived.

By the morning of June 15 we were going to be moving on to what I guess could be called our accessory offense: the proof that the hat, gloves, and shoes belonged to Simpson.

I watched Cochran try to set the stage for jurors to believe the gloves were too small. While it seemed clear they were up to something, I felt a strong urge to act. Simply, I thought we had to put the gloves on Simpson ourselves.

I turned to Marcia. Skipping our usual legal pad communication, I said, "Let's put them on him now." She shook her head.

"If we don't, they will," I said. Cochran knew we were going to put the gloves on Simpson, but he would rather do it himself, I told her, to give him a chance to practice and to make it appear as if the defense had brought to the jury's attention the fact that these gloves were tight. That morning, Shapiro had asked to borrow the gloves, probably to have Simpson practice with them.

We should put them on before they had a chance to practice, I argued. No matter what happened we had to be the ones to put those gloves on him--symbolically at least.

She looked grim. "I don't need this s--t right now, Chris." We talked some more and she said she would only consider it if someone with hands as big as Simpson's--someone like detective Phil Vannatter -- tried one of the gloves on first. So Vannatter came up and easily slid his sausage fingers into a similar glove.

"OK," Marcia relented.

"Your Honor, at this time, the people would ask that Mr. Simpson step forward and try on the glove recovered at Bundy as well as the glove recovered at Rockingham." Marcia wouldn't meet my eyes. The tension was thick in the courtroom. You could see it like the heat on a desert highway. My heart was pounding and my mouth was dry, but someone had to do this. Someone had to stop the games these defense lawyers were playing and just put the damned gloves on his hands.

I gave him the left glove, the leather stiff and cold in my hand. "A--hole," as we called Simpson, was shaking. I watched his hands closely. His finger seemed cocked and it was apparent he wasn't really trying to pull it on.

"Your Honor," I said sarcastically, "apparently Mr. Simpson seems to be having a problem putting on his glove." He was bulls---ting, and I hoped everyone could see that, hoped the jury could see it. But as I glanced quickly around the courtroom, I saw that everyone else was staring at his hands and not his face.

At first, his eyebrows were arched and his mouth set, nervous, like someone about to dive off a bridge. Then he broke into a weird, relieved smile, unlike any I'd seen in any of the old football footage or any of his movies, a smile that I think was as close to the real O. J. Simpson as I'd ever seen, as if he'd surprised even himself.

My God, I'm getting away with it.

I did everything I could think of to lessen the damage. I had Simpson make a fist and hold a pen before he took the gloves off, to show that he could've wielded a knife in the tight gloves.

Sixty-one percent of people polled said they thought the gloves had actually fit.But I knew what the damage truly was. People ask me now would I do it again. No. Of course not. I should have taken into account shrinkage and the defense team's trickery. But, while I wouldn't do it again, I know those are his gloves. I look at the photograph in the newspaper of him smiling in front of the jury and I see Marcia in the background, a look of disgust on her face. Not for him. For me.

That afternoon, I went upstairs and passed a clerk; he did not look at me. No one did. No one said a word. I passed my colleagues in the hallway and they were silent. They had nothing to say to me.

As I sat at my desk, staring at the ceiling, the senior lawyers convened a meeting to talk about the gloves. I wasn't invited, or even told about the meeting. Marcia didn't talk to me for a few days. For weeks after that, I was left out of major decisions in- volving the case. I rode the elevator alone to the basement, got in my car, and drove home, some light still left in the sky. It was gone by the time I reached my house.

I ached with regret for what I might have done to the case, what I had done to the victims' families. I didn't have Juditha and Lou Brown's telephone number at home with me, so I called the Goldmans. The answering machine came on.

"About court today, I just want to say how sorry I am. I know they're saying a lot of stuff on TV and I just want you to know: We can still win. It isn't over." I could hear how flat my own voice sounded. "I'm sorry."

Over the weekend, I called Marcia, who hadn't talked to me since Thursday. "I'm sorry that I screwed up your case," I said.

"Hey," she said quietly, "if this is all it takes to lose the case then we never really had a chance of winning it anyway."

I HAD NEVER HAD MUCH confidence in expert witnesses, especially shrinks. It seemed as if you could find a psychologist to say anything. But Donald Dutton and Angela Brown were OK and their knowledge of domestic violence was impressive. When Marcia and I had gone over their advice, over drinks at the Intercontinental Hotel one evening before the trial began, I asked what they had been whispering about on the floor of my office earlier in the day.

They laughed. "There's some electricity between the two of you," Dutton said.

We both laughed uncomfortably.

"There's some sexual tension here."

He was out of his mind.

"Before this thing is over, you two are going to end up sleeping together."

I almost swallowed my beer bottle. Marcia and I both laughed it off and then stared at each other, probably for too long. "So much for our experts," I said quietly.

It was a relationship by Post-it note, two overworked lawyers exchanging strategy, support, and sarcasm on legal pads that we slid back and forth across the prosecution table. Pressed into an impossible case with unbearable scrutiny, Marcia Clark and I quickly moved from professional respect to deep friendship. After a few months on the Simpson case, I began to see something few people ever saw: the vulnerable side of Marcia. After she left court one day crying, I stood in the hallway, looking at a tabloid that had published fifteen-year-old topless photographs of Marcia with her first husband on a nude beach in France.

"Hey." I stuck my head in her office.

"I can't believe it," Marcia sniffed. She naturally thought that photographs like that would remain private. Marcia wiped at her eyes. "So, what did you think of the photos?" she asked.

I paused.

"Just be honest," she said.

"Personally, I thought they looked pretty good." She looked up from the tissue, smiled for a second, and then burst into laughter. "Some therapist you'd make, Darden."

Each time the media connected Marcia and me in any way, of course, the idea was wildly unpopular with the many black women whom I knew. And I was aware that some people would call me a hypocrite if I dated a white woman, because of my remark about Simpson's fetish for blond, white women. The case was fraught with these issues-- race and sex--so that people were, at once, keenly aware of it and bitterly afraid to talk about it.

Still, why not have a relationship with Marcia? She was attractive and I was impressed by her intelligence and toughness, intrigued by her vulnerability. We were working together fifteen or sixteen hours a day, watching each other's backs in court and commiserating over the media and other things no one else understood.

Usually, our evenings together didn't start until 10 p.m. or so and consisted of a few drinks after long days in court and in our offices. We'd stay up late, drinking wine, and a couple of times, I pitched off to sleep on her couch, my suit coat bunched up in my arms.

One weekend, I just decided to get away. For me, the Bay Area had always been my refuge from the strain of Los Angeles, the place where I tapped my strength--my daughter, Jenee, and my family. Now I made a clandestine trip to San Francisco, bailing out one day after court, driving north in my Toyota Camry. I didn't tell anyone where I was going. In the passenger seat, thumbing through my CD collection, was Marcia Clark, wearing a bulky coat with a hood.

We walked along Fisherman's Wharf, ate and drank and laughed. In the progressive city of San Francisco, no one stared at a black man walking with a white woman, and for a while we moved undetected through restaurants, clothing stores, and clubs. It was great.

Back at the hotel, we dressed up and went out, walking into a packed, wide-open club, where people were drinking and dancing and laughing until we walked in.

"Hey, that's Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden." The bar went silent and people turned to see us. But it wasn't the reaction I often saw in L.A. on the rare occasions I went out; there were no glares or angry comments, no second-guessing, no resentment for a black man out with a white woman. People told us how well we were doing, how proud they were of us.

Much later, we paused at our separate doors, ten feet of papered wall between us. She faced her hotel room door in a trademark Marcia dress, short and black. She looked down toward her shoes.

"I'll see you in the morn-ing," I said.

"Good night, Chris."

I am amazed and troubled by the media's fascination over whether Marcia Clark and I had a romantic relationship. After the trial, with the injustice still bitter in my mouth, the question most often put to me was about Marcia. I have spent far too much time walking through airports, denying that we're getting married.

She and I were two passionate people thrown together in a trial that left us exhausted and lonely. She was willing to take off her jewelry and go to jail with me over a ridiculous contempt ruling. I was willing to be at her side during her child custody deposition. We sat up listening to hip-hop and R&B. We danced a few times and drank a few bottles of wine. In my mind, that is a relationship.

Of course, the question the media ask is more base, a locker-room question, weighted with social and racial implications. You know the question. But I refuse to surrender the last posts of privacy that we have left, simply because the media in this country have lost their shame and their sense of propriety and dignity. I will say this. As spring melted into summer, I began to wonder what might happen away from the flash of tabloid photographers and television cameras. The glare from the people who wanted to know if we were together may have been one of the things that ultimately kept us apart.

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