By Thomas Fields-Meyer
April 01, 1996 12:00 PM

EDDIE DARDEN HAS NEVER BEEN SHY ABOUT giving advice to his children. So when his son Christopher, the fourth of his eight kids, paid a visit in the summer of 1994 to the Darden house in Richmond, Calif., and raised the subject of O.J. Simpson’s pending murder trial, the retired welder didn’t mince words. “You’ll catch hell if you work on that one,” he told his son, then a low-profile Los Angeles deputy district attorney. Four months later, when the younger Darden called to say he had, in fact, joined the prosecution team, Eddie Darden, 63, advised him, “Just keep your head down.”

It was good advice, though unheeded. For Christopher Darden, the case’s No. 2 prosecutor, the Simpson trial was a minefield from the beginning, placing the reserved, low-key attorney in the uncomfortable glare of the media, subjecting his family to tabloid exposés and making him the target of constant criticism. Worse, Darden—an African-American lawyer prosecuting an African-American sports hero—became a sort of lightning rod in a trial that racially polarized the nation, perceived by some of his race as a traitor and subjected to occasional death threats. Then came the verdict. It felt, he writes in In Contempt, his new autobiography-cum-trial-memoir, “like a swift baseball bat to the stomach.”

“I’m not ashamed of anything I did,” says Darden, who reportedly received $1.3 million to write the book. “But I wouldn’t put myself or my family through that again.”

More than five months after it ended, the trial still haunts him—the bloody glove, the Fuhrman tapes, the sobs of Ron Goldman’s sister Kim as the verdict was read. “Every day I think about it,” he says. In the book he says Judge Lance Ito was “drunk with media attention,” rails at Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. for baiting him in and out of court and calls F. Lee Bailey “a foul-mouthed, arrogant S.O.B.” The trial’s circuslike atmosphere and shattering outcome so soured him on the judicial system that he has taken a leave from the DA’s office, where he worked for 14 years, and doesn’t expect to return. And Darden is still trying to regain a foothold in the black community, where he has experienced both blatant criticism and more subtle shunning.

His ostracism by so many African-Americans has been the toughest blow of all for the prosecutor, who grew up idolizing Martin Luther King Jr. and, later, Stokely Carmichael and Black Panther leader Huey Newton. Darden, 39, was born in Richmond, a working-class city north of Oakland. Even as a child, he was so set in his goals that his grandmother would introduce him by saying, “He’s going to be a lawyer someday.” He attended junior high school early in the days of mandatory busing, paying 15 cents to ride a bus to the top of a hill above his black neighborhood. Later, he took classes at a mostly white high school. His grades, though inconsistent, were good enough to get him into San Jose State University. There he excelled at track and got involved in campus politics, once taking part in a demonstration against the elimination of the Afro-American studies program.

He also excelled at theft. In his book he recalls—with chagrin—regularly stealing clothing and food, a habit he had picked up as a kid. “As a criminal-justice major, I would have been expelled for an arrest,” he says. “I decided I was not going to do something so stupid.” With the help of a mentor on the faculty, he refocused and eventually was admitted to Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. After graduating he headed south looking for work and landed a job in 1981 with the Los Angeles DA’s office, where he prevailed in all 19 of his murder prosecutions before Simpson. By the summer of 1994, Darden felt burned out and was considering leaving the DA’s office. That was when he was asked to investigate Al Cowlings, Simpson’s friend, who had driven the white Bronco carrying Simpson on the famous low-speed chase. He worked behind the scenes on the Simpson case until prosecutor Bill Hodgman collapsed from stress early in the trial, when Darden jumped into the No. 2 slot.

Though he anticipated pressure and criticism, “I thought, ‘Well, I can handle that,’ ” Darden recalls. “But to hear and experience so much of it surprised me.” The sharpest attacks came after he had the idea—reluctantly approved by Clark—to ask Simpson to try on the famous, blood-stained leather gloves, one of which had been found at the murder scene. Darden writes that he could tell Simpson was putting on an act, but “as I glanced around the courtroom, I saw that everyone else was looking at his hands and not his face.” That night he curled up in bed alone with a bottle of tequila. Clark didn’t speak to him for days, and he was cut out of several prosecution strategy sessions. After the glove incident the case never really got back on track. “All I heard,” he says, “was the deafening sound” of his critics.

Darden was also troubled by a drama playing itself out away from the courtroom. Back in Northern California, his older brother Michael, 42, was dying of AIDS, which he had contracted using drugs intravenously. Tabloid stories about Michael distressed Darden, who “wondered how much time he and I had lost while the trial was allowed to drag on,” he writes. Michael died on Nov. 29.

Also deeply disturbing, Darden says, was the way the trial was diverting the attention of his fellow African-Americans from more pressing social issues. “While we were focusing all of our attention and energy on what might happen to this convicted batterer and rich African-American who has done nothing but turn his back on his community, we lost affirmative action—probably forever,” he says. He was particularly angry at how Cochran had made race an issue in the case—and attacked Darden directly on racial lines. (“I like Chris,” Cochran has said. “I just think he should put the case behind him and get on with his life.”)

By the time he sat down last November with coauthor Jess Walter, 30—a Spokane journalist—he was so full of anger and emotion that he was ready to burst. “He wanted to get through this,” says Walter, who moved into Darden’s small, three-bedroom home in Carson, south of L.A., during the three-month collaboration. “I was full of contempt for some people,” says Darden, “and it was easy to purge myself of all of this.”

Despite the serious legal and social issues raised in the book, Darden concedes that one matter has piqued more curiosity than any other. “All anyone wants to know is did I sleep with Marcia,” he says. In print he treads carefully around the issue of whether he had an affair with Clark during the trial, writing, for example, that “I will always remember the times we made each other feel less alone.” But he does admit to spending more than one night at Clark’s home, drinking wine, listening to rhythm-and-blues and nodding off on her couch. He also recounts a weekend drive they took up to San Francisco, reveals contents of notes the two passed in the courtroom (their shorthand for Simpson was “A—h—e”; Bailey was “Flea”) and mentions one occasion when Clark quietly cried in court after a tabloid published 15-year-old topless photographs of her. Later, when Clark asked Darden what he thought of the incident, he responded, “Personally I thought they looked pretty good”—which made her laugh.

If they ever were romantically involved, the moment has passed. Darden says he dates but has no steady girlfriend. The most important woman in his life is Jenee, his 16-year-old daughter, who lives in the Bay Area with her mother, a college girlfriend of Darden’s whom he never married. “Not being there for Jenee is something I’ll always regret,” says Darden, who visits his daughter, a high school junior, at least twice a month.

Still, he has no plans to leave the Los Angeles area, where he is teaching at Southwestern University School of Law and enjoying a less pressured life. Though he’s considering moving to a new home, he has only one definite plan for the money he makes from the book: to pay for Jenee’s college education. “One of the greatest honors I’m ever going to have,” he says, “is writing that tuition check.”